America's CIA is of overwhelming significance to a select, small but significant number of Americans, even though many outside that country's borders have never heard of it. In The Soul of a Chef - The Journey Toward Perfection, food writer Ruhlman continues the exploration begun in his 1997 work The Making of a Chef by chronicling a group of contestants vying for the awarding of the title Certified Master Chef. The Culinary Institute of America had only (at the time of publication) awarded the title 53 times, with 170 professional chefs undertaking the gruelling ten day process. As Ruhlman observes the seven candidates, posing as a member of the fictitious National Council of Accreditation (the CIA knew his real role), he combines a genuinely thrilling account of these competitors high pressure, expensive and precarious journeys, with a discussion about what it's all for. The CMC title is little prized outside the CIA, doesn't necessarily lead to greater success or job opportunity, and is heavily weighted toward some cuisines (particularly classic French) over others (like fusion).
The Certified Master Chef Exam comprises one part of this text; the other two sections follow two quite different chefs - Cleveland-based Michael Symon, head chef of Lola, and Napa Valley's Thomas Keller, owner and chef of French Laundry. The three components are unified by the dominant theme of the pursuit of perfection, with quite different paths followed by each group. I quite enjoyed The Soul of a Chef while I was reading it, particularly the Master-Chef-on-speed first section. But now the only trace flavours remaining in my memory are that the CIA is pretentious and wouldn't really fly in Australia, that Symon's kitchen sounds like a fun place to work if you're interested in hard work and strong training, and that the French Laundry might be worth a trip to the US. - Alex