Beaten, Seared and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America

  • Jonathan Dixon
  • Clarkson Potter
  • 272 pp.
  • June 10, 2011

In a change-of-life career, a former writer and teacher tested his chops in the professional kitchen.

Reviewed by Judith Lesser

At age 38 Jonathan Dixon dropped most of the threads of his life as a free-lance writer and college writing instructor and enrolled as a full-time student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. It was a change-of-life challenge that would use up all his financial reserves and put stress on his romantic relationship with Nelly.

Dixon was older than most other students, who took to calling him grampa. He had a superior academic background but limited restaurant experience and inferior knife skills. He’d been a staff writer for Martha Stewart Living, leading many to suspect he was taking the course to write a book about it, and he did: Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America.

Dixon gives a detailed account of the arduous training program of academic and practical classes, his externship at a Manhattan restaurant and working at the on-campus restaurant. He tells tales of the instructors and the actual meals, opening the doors of the cupboards and coolers behind the classical columns of the CIA. He dubs it Disneyland for cooks, yet his time at school was anything but carefree.

The Culinary Institute of America teaches cooking in the French tradition of Escoffier. There are no classes in the latest trends in food preparation. Despite body piercings and tattoos, the kids, and Dixon, elect to learn classic techniques and dress in clean, pressed uniforms every day. The high-jinks and diva attitudes of celebrity chefs are not endorsed, although a certain amount of improvising to cover up mistakes is tolerated if the results are good enough.

Dixon found the curriculum grueling – early mornings, long hours in hot kitchens amid the sharp elbows of youngsters who had not learned to share, hectoring instructors who toted up how much of the onion was wasted as well as how finely the rest was diced. Like every other student, Dixon made rookie mistakes – grabbing a hot pan handle and burning his hand, dropping trays of carefully crafted entrées, letting dirty utensils pile up instead of stashing them in the sinks for someone else to wash while he cooked.

Dixon did well at the initial, academic courses: Culinary Math, Gastronomy, Food Safety and Product Knowledge. He stayed up late to memorize all the different kinds of fish and regions and varietals of wine. Later, he lost sleep re-cooking foods he had attempted and failed at in class, always trying to improve his pace, precision and stamina. He repaid Nelly when he could with improved home-cooked meals.

Dixon critiques the teaching styles of the instructors, with few earning plaudits for their personalities. They never used positive reinforcement. He describes his attempts to gain their attention through personal connections, since some of the instructors were near his age, and found one who had shared his enthusiasm for the New York punk-rock scene.

The instructor for baking was old school but nurturing. The instructor for fish, about the same age as Dixon, was unforgiving and a maniac about waste. Finally, Dixon successfully filleted, cooked and sauced a piece of salmon up to standards — he earned praise from his instructor and kept to himself that the dish tasted like mud. While eager to learn the best techniques, he was frustrated by the old-fashioned protein-centric meals in the curriculum.

But could he make it as a professional? Dixon did his externship at Tabla in New York, which had a reputation for exemplary cooking with innovative combinations of foods and spices. He was assigned basic tasks like dicing ginger, cooking beans and sautéing chunks of lamb, all demanding the precision and exactitude he found hard to attain: to succeed, each food item had to be prepped and ready on time. And there were high-pressure, temperamental personalities who didn’t like his style. On his last day at Tabla, one of the owners sent word to the staff to deny Dixon the congratulatory dunking in ice water, and Dixon was devastated.

Dixon did not get the opportunity to cook for the exclusive, on-campus Escoffier restaurant in the last term. He was not one of the stronger students. Instead, he wrote a memoir of an aspiring chef who wants to be hip and conscientious about where our food comes from, and an inside look at the training of potential master chefs at the most exalted cooking academy in America.

The other students might be able to enter the currently hot careers of cooking in restaurants and on television. Jonathan Dixon never could turn off his head completely and become immersed in the kinesthetic dance of the professional kitchen. Beaten, Seared, and Sauced is a good read for those who follow the world of food, for those contemplating a change of career and for anyone planning to enroll at the CIA.

Judith Lesser writes for the online Archives of American Gardens at Smithsonian Gardens and produces Judith’s Jams for the Rockville, Md., farmers market. She has written reviews for the American Library Association’s Booklist and for Publishers’ Weekly.

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