I have never been to culinary school. I've thought about it, but to be honest, I'm not sure I could cut it (bad pun intended). I have some clumsiness. I get stressed easily. I am not competitive (not a requirement, but it seems like it would help). Unless I am feeling competitive, and then it would probably be a bad idea to let me hold a knife. But I would love to have the knowledge that comes from having gone to culinary school.
So instead of spending the money and time and anxiety of going, I just read Michael Ruhlman.
Case in point: Ruhlman's Twenty. Subtitled 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook's Manifesto, Twenty is the crib notes to cooking school for anyone like me who hopes that just watching Food Network competition shows will magically help me chop an onion quickly and easily (spoiler: not so much). So Ruhlman gives us the basics by walking us through the topics that are most important to know.
And he starts at the most basic, with chapter one, the first technique: thinking. One of the most basic aspects of cooking in a professional kitchen is being prepared, or mise en place. Think through what you're about to do. Plan out your steps. Get everything you need, get it organized, and put it in arm's reach. This is always the first technique for a successful dish.
From there, Ruhlman goes through chapters about things we all know and hear judges talk about on Chopped, like salt, acid, and fat. And about things we don't really think about, like water. He focuses some attention on onion, egg, and butter before moving on to dough, batter, sauce, soup, and viniagrette. And finally, cooking techniques such as saute, roast, braise, poach, grill, fry, and chill.
It's may not be the equivalent of a full $30,000 culinary degree, but you certainly get your money's worth with Ruhlman's Twenty. With recipes like Classic New York Cheesecake, Halibut Poached in Olive Oil, Perfect Roasted Chicken, Grill Roasted Prime Rib, Duck Leg Confit, and Grapefruit Granita, this cookbook can help you raise your game. But more importantly than just giving you a set of instructions to follow to make god food, Ruhlman offers you a new way to think of what you're cooking, the way professionals think about their craft.