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The Ruhlman Rules

Cleveland's foremost culinary voice shares his secrets to food, hair and schmaltz

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If you Google Michael Ruhlman, it's obvious this nationally recognized, "accidental" food writer's success is really no accident. Ruhlman has made few, if any, mistakes in his career or life. He even manages to pick the best week to go to Florida. It was 74 and sunny in Key West and seven frigid degrees in Cleveland for our phone interview. Whether it's luck or an uncanny ability to always make the right decision, Ruhlman was in Key West — channeling his inner Hemingway — spending his mornings writing. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

According to your Facebook page, I understand you've been cooking for sailors in Key West?

I've been cooking for sailors for a week now and I'm massively hung over, is what I am.

Were they sailors or pirates?

A little of both — they're here for the Key West Regatta. My cousin, Bob Ruhlman, is a big sailor and is competing in the race and I'm cooking for his crew. I write in the morning, in so far as I'm capable — but last night was a rather rough one. I cook in the afternoon. We have dinner in the evening and then we go out. It's been sort of a heavenly scenario for me.

Heavenly indeed, do you have any idea how cold it is here?

Yes, I know — my wife is more than a little pissed that I'm here.

I've detected a certain reluctance when you refer to yourself as a "food writer." Do you dislike being defined by this category?

I actually just published a Kindle single on this topic. I titled it,  "Accidental Food Writer." It's a 35-page essay explaining how I got to where I am. When I started writing, no one set out to be a food writer. It wasn't a category of writing anyone aspired to. My approach has been different. I'm telling people to have sex while roasting a chicken.

My favorite roasted chicken recipe.

Thank you, so much. I hope you use it often. (laughing)

What is the tally of books you've published?

Nine of my own non-fiction and food writing, ten collaborative works with other professional chefs and me as cook and author, one e-book, one kindle single and three apps.

You blog, tweet and are very active on Facebook. How do you feel about juggling all the new media?

I enjoy it but it's a mixed bag. It's very hard. Life has become more fragmented and my brain has become more fragmented. I don't know what I'm losing or gaining because of it. I don't know how it's affecting my work. What would I have produced had there not been twitter to distract me? Or the internet to educate me? Or Twitter to ask questions of people, to get a sense of the zeitgeist out there ... to be able to know what people need and what they want. It's a mixed bag that gets cleared up with a stiff whiskey at the end of the day.

Are you taking a lower tech approach to life while in Key West?

No, I'm still more connected than I would like to be. You can't get away from it, nor do I want to. It's the way I promote my work and sell my apps. I need to keep doing these things to keep money coming in. I've got to keep paying the bills. When Donna and I were a younger, we were always very poor and always frantically worried about money and that sort of fear of poverty never really goes away. Alas. Something self-employed people can identify with — especially writers, and reporters also.

Let's talk about your latest venture, The Book of Schmaltz: A Love Song to a Forgotten Fat. What led you to shine such a glaring spotlight on such a humble ingredient?

Well, I've always been interested in the importance of fat in cooking. And it coincides with America's panic and unfounded fear of fat and their ignorance about what it is and how it can be used. I wrote a book called Charcuterie, which is basically a love song to animal fat and salt — two main buzzwords of American nutrition and cultural fear. It became a bestseller because it was based on truth and people were glad to finally know. I've always had a love of fat. I came to write this book because I always enjoyed poaching duck legs in duck fat. I had known about schmaltz and had been curious about it. So, when my neighbor, Lois Baron, announced at a party she had to leave to make schmaltz because the Jewish high holy days are coming. I turned to her and asked if she would teach me about schmaltz. She laughed at me and said, "Are you kidding me?" I told her that I want to write a book about it. She laughed so hard she started coughing. I finally convinced her I was serious. She was my introduction and guide to schmaltz.

The e-book for iPad is a work of art — the photos, fonts and layout are quite appealing. Can you talk a bit about how that all came together?

Well, I have nothing to do with photography. The pictures are all the work of my wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman. We found a terrific graphic designer, Phong Nguyen, who did a fabulous job. We used all Cleveland people. April Clark in Westlake digitized it. It wasn't just me. It's how these books get done, with a lot of people coming together.

What made you decide to release this book as an iPad app first?

I wanted to release it as an app because, frankly, I wanted to experiment with what apps can do. Apps allow for different things to happen. They change when you tilt the tablet.  We have Lois do a lovely little audio interview that talks about schmaltz. You can listen to it on the iPad. I liked that interactivity and that was exciting to discover and experiment with. I'm always looking at new stuff — I like doing new things, not old things. What's interesting is we were going to introduce it to iBooks for Kindle and for all electronic media. But, we showed a PDF of  'Schmaltz' to (Little, Brown and Company) who was making an offer on a bigger book of mine.  They loved it so much, they said, "We want this, we're going to publish this." I said, "That's done — I've already published it," and they said, "We still want to buy it and you can still publish it electronically." We have the electronic rights and they have the hardcover rights. It's sort of a publishing first, where a publisher has bought a product that was going to be published in another format in the same country.

?How long before the book is released?

The book comes out next October.

How are sales going?

They're fine. I haven't checked lately but it's thousands, it's not 50,000 or 20,000. But I would expect to sell about 10,000 in the first year. And I would expect those numbers to change as more people buy iPads. With all of my digital products it's been sort of a long tail source of income for us.

What do you see as the future of the cookbook?

Like all media, it is going to fragment. In the same way the audience fragmented with radio when television came along. There will always be cookbooks. People love the physical object of a cookbook. I love cookbooks — to hold them, to look at them. There will always be that but there will always be more and more digital cookbooks and people will be cooking from tablets more frequently. They will probably be able to buy both the hardcopy and electronic versions as well. There will be more self-published cookbooks and those that are worthwhile will succeed because they have great personal recommendations. It's an unprecedented time for people who have good ideas.

What about the future of dining and cooking trends?

I'm hopelessly optimistic and believe that more people will cook their own food because the whole world is better when people cook their own food for their friends and family. We'll have better-produced food because more and more people are demanding it, and more and more farmers and growers and creators of food are providing it. They're employing better methods. Restaurants are getting better because they have to, to keep up with the young upstarts who have the energy to make really great food, like Jonathon Sawyer and so many others in Cleveland. Even grocery stores are sourcing locally grown produce in the summer. Heinen's does a fabulous job sourcing local produce. The independent chains are better at this. Heinen's and Zagara's both do a good job.

What do you think about Ferran Adria's cooking style and molecular gastronomy in general?

I think that it's young cooks exploring what's possible. It gets very boring cooking strip steaks and baked potatoes, very boring to do eggs Benedict at brunch. Cooks are by nature energetic and curious. They want to explore and do what hasn't been done before. I think it's a great thing. Now, do you want to eat it all the time? No, it's highly manipulated food. You want to eat it sometimes 'cause it's fun and interesting. But I wouldn't want to eat it everyday. It gets a lot of press but actually it's very rare. There are few places in America that do it because it's hard to do well and so costly to do. And if you can't do it well, it's disastrous. If you don't do it well, your restaurant is going to close. It's even difficult for those who do it well. You're still going to have a lot of people looking at it saying, "What the hell is this? We're going to McDonalds." As a trend, molecular gastronomy will keep on going as long as there are people interested in those techniques. It's a fringe movement 'cause it's so difficult to do well.

What are your thoughts about "celebrity" chefs?

We took our food and it's abundance for granted for so long in America. When it started to make us sick, we suddenly became very hyper-conscious of our food. Chefs are a symbol of our food, and therefore we made them celebrities. Is that a good thing? I don't think it's a bad thing but it should be kept in perspective. The best chefs consider themselves craftsmen. The worst chefs consider themselves artists. There are some chefs that perform at that level but they are very rare. Celebrity chefs are good insofar as they help educate America about how to eat and how to cook. What is the load of crap being pawned off on us is by big agricultural giants, the Swanson chicken broths and all the Monsanto products'. We made chefs celebrities because we saw them like religious leaders of something that was important to our humanity. Where else can we look?  We're starting to look at farmers. There are now celebrity farmers. Farmers are fabulous people. They ought to be the genuine celebrities in my book. Not the chefs that cook their food. The people that produce the food are the ones that ought to be celebrities.

Where do you like to eat when you're home in Northeast Ohio?

God, do you think I'm going to tell you that (Laughing). I say go out and find cool places. Talk to other people. That's how I do it. I really don't go out that much because I'm always traveling, and when I'm not traveling I want to stay home and cook for my family. We don't go out a lot. But Cleveland has just become a fabulous place to go out for food. It's endless. I urge people to explore. If they don't like something, then the market won't support it. If they like something, I urge them to tell their friends and to support it.

Have you ever sent a dish back and if so why?

I don't think I would ever send a dish back. I would be too embarrassed. If it was really bad, I would courteously tell my server. For example, If I ordered a steak and it didn't come out as I had hoped, I would tell my server, "I ordered this rare and, as you can see, it isn't. Either don't charge me or bring me a properly cooked steak." Again, it should be done courteously and even when something is wrong or a lot wrong I rarely say anything. For me it's kind of rude. Frankly, I can't remember a time when I've sent anything back. The level of cooking is very high and people are very good at what they do. They're very knowledgeable and the caliber has been great. That really doesn't happen anymore. That used to happen at the Brown Derby circa 1970. When they cooked the baked potatoes in tinfoil. I cannot recall a single dish I've had in Cleveland or anywhere that I even remotely wanted to send back, let alone criticize.

With today's technology, you and your wife can pursue your careers in any city in the country. What keeps you in the Cleveland area?

I'm glad you asked me and not my wife. She's from New York and it's been a serious bone of contention for a long time. She asks all the time, "Why the fuck do we live in Cleveland?" What I realized after my dad died in 2008 was that I moved our family back here not just because it was my home but to be with my Dad, who was ill.

Just to fill in with a bit of background information, your father worked in the advertising business here?

Yes, he was Creative Director at Liggett-Stashower and my mother started a business here — a woman's dress store, Point of View.  She was very entrepreneurial and my dad was very writer-ly and creative. I am very much a product of my parents' upbringing. I am very lucky to have had such amazing parents. I met Donna when she was a photographer for the Palm Beach Daily News in Florida. We got tired of living in Florida, which is just hot and flat and hot.

I had asked my Facebook friends to chime in with questions for this interview and you've answered many of them already. This final question was sent to me and I wasn't going to ask, but it kept recurring and my hairdresser is also curious. To what do you attribute your gorgeous head of hair?

It is, no doubt, all the fat that I eat. Make sure you don't actually put the fat on your hair. Put it in your food. No, I don't use any hair product and why my hair is a subject of conversation I don't know. My perfect hair has been made fun of by many. I can't escape it, even my dear friends are constantly lamenting the fact that they wish their hair was more like mine. It's such a funny topic.

Could your perfect hair be due simply to genetics?

Heart disease, hypertension, diabetes... most of the modern day maladies we have today are largely genetic and the result of eating processed food. Eat healthy food. When you eat something and you feel bad afterwards, don't eat that way again. And, when you eat something and you feel good afterwards, eat that again. I eat good food and that's why I have such great hair.

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