Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Discussion and Review of Jonathan Dixon's memoir Beaten, Seared and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at The Culinary Institute of America

Thanks to Kitchen Arts & Letters I found out about a great event on May 19th at the Museum of the City of New York to promote their current exhibit Movable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program. Jonathan Dixon discussed his first book Beaten, Seared, and Sauced with food writer Andrew Friedman. I'd heard a little bit about the book, mostly in the same breath as Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef; this comparison seems to be drawn mostly from the idea that both have written about attending the Culinary Institute of America, not based on style (I have yet to read Ruhlman's book). The day of the discussion I read the first few pages of the book online. When I hit the words "Grateful Dead" on the very first page and "Bob Weir" on the second, I had an inkling I'd really enjoy both the book and hearing Dixon speak later that evening (I was destined to be a Deadhead before I was even conceived). 

The Museum of the City of New York is an impressive building sitting across from Central Park on upper 5th Avenue (my brief walk through SpaHa from the subway stop over 3 city blocks was only slightly intimidating). The event was held in a small auditorium just within the side entrance. Friedman and Dixon spoke to the audience from a small raised platform in grandfather's-study style arm chairs. 

Friedman did a wonderful job posing questions to Dixon, who is apparently his neighbor in Brooklyn as well. Friedman has done a lot of writing with chefs and for restaurant's cookbooks so he has a superb grasp on how chefs and restaurants function behind the scenes. Friedman said both he and Dixon were "late bloomers as writers." Dixon started at the CIA a few weeks before his 38th birthday. He had worked a number of odd jobs (literally, like janitor for a coffin factory) but never devoted himself to a career. He worked as a staff writer for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia "for a really really long time" and a creative writing teacher at Pratt. Writing, books and food has always  been part of Dixon's life. As a child his neighborhood didn't have many other children for him to play with, so characters in the books he read became his friends. His family ate a traditional dinner around the table and most of his best memories came from supper time. The two fused together, as a child he would cook the food from his stories, he writes: "Mrs. Ingalls [from Little House on the Prairie] made corncakes with molasses for her family so I tried that, too (the corncakes were okay; with the molasses they tasted awful)" [page 19]. The journey to writing Beaten Seared and Sauced seem to come about organically, if not without frustration.

Friedman (L) and Dixon (R)
Food became an obsession for Dixon. He writes "Cookbooks, I decided, made false promises" [page 24]. He tried self-teaching himself by cooking from The Professional Chef and taking recreational classes at the Institute of Culinary Education and the New School, but says he was "slower than cold molasses." Finally deciding to attend the CIA, Dixon applied, was accepted and relocated north of the city with his girlfriend, Nelly Reifler, to attend culinary school. In the book and in his discussion with Friedman, Dixon examines the differences between himself and his classmates at the CIA. Many of them were  straight out of high school and going to culinary school to fulfill a lifelong passion or because, as one student put it, "I was getting into too much trouble and my parents wanted me to come here instead of juvie" [page 9].

When you read about Dixon's journey through his first academic classes to his meat and fish courses and through Skills I and II you see his progress, feel his struggles and enjoy tagging along as he gains culinary "fluency." He deals with chef-instructors who are screamers, others who are stern but don't yell often and then chefs like his baking instructor, Chef Rudy Speiss, who nurtured his students' creativity and saw them all excel. His externship at the now closed Tabla restaurant is at times challenging to read, but influences the latter half of his time as a student. 

After a few months of school, Dixon took to writing about his experiences in a blog. The site started out with few visitors a day, Dixon says most of the first views were his mother checking it over and over again. When a managing editor at Serious Eats wrote up a quick summary of the original blog, 19 Months, that got picked up by Grub Street (New York magazines food site) his number of viewers a day skyrocketed into the thousands. Having no intention of writing a book about his experiences (unlike Ruhlman), Dixon was quickly given the opportunity to work on a book based on the blog. Once he had a book contract he began writing consistently in the morning for his last couple months of school. Dixon said "it's really weird narrating your life as you're living it." A few days after graduation he finished up writing and passed it along to his editor and Beaten Seared and Sauced was done. Dixon said hardly anyone at the CIA knew he was writing a book, let alone the blog in the beginning. A few caught on, especially teachers, once he started asking more questions. 

When the book was close to being published Dixon received a "nervous letter" from the CIA with "a lot of exclamation points." Sort of like: 'So! You've written a book! About the CIA! ...Can we see it?' The reception from the school has been very good and they have helped him promote; they tweeted the week before his book released. Reviews have been coming in over the past few weeks and you will find a collection of links on Dixon's Twitter page, @MrJonathanDixon. Dixon's angle of entering culinary school at 38 and his well-written conversational style are winning him praises from many sources. Reading the book you feel like a friend is updating you on his life and you are intrigued with open ears, waiting to hear more.

I read Beaten Seared and Sauced in 5 days, up til 2am most of those nights, because I couldn't put it down. The book is an opportunity for readers to experience culinary escapism with a likable, wryly humorous narrator. Many will never go to culinary school, but others will be CIA graduates or students to-be (a great graduation gift for anyone off to culinary school!). Some other books I love fall into this genre as well: Kat Flinn's The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry (Flinn goes to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris), Melanie Rehak's Eating for Beginners  (Rehak works in a Brooklyn restaurant, on a farm, and out on the ocean in search of what to eat) and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (a year spent eating properly local). For me, one of the major differences between these books and Dixon's is that he opts out of peppering the memoir with recipes, and includes only one which he hides within a standard paragraph towards the end of the book (it is for roast chicken, page 228). If you love to cook, to learn, if you've ever dreamed about cooking school or went to cooking school and if you've ever felt like you wanted to do something that seemed improbably impossible, you will love Jonathan Dixon's book. Join him as he pares potatoes square, struggles to swallow salmon, learns to fix the "conziss dancy" of his sauce and starts cooking with self-assured confidence.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @MrJonathanDixon 


Culinary School: Three Semesters of Life, Learning, and Loss of Blood said...

If you want to know what really goes on behind those closed culinary school doors, here you go: "Culinary School: Three Semesters of Life, Learning, and Loss of Blood" - on Amazon kindle. Cheers.

Bob del Grosso said...

Huh, I didn't know about this one, thanks! I used to teach at CIA and appear briefly in Ruhlman's book. It'll be interesting to read of another's experience. How candid do you think it is?

The Culinary Librarian said...

Hi Bob, thanks for reading! When I was writing up this review I browsed through some of Ruhlman's book and saw your name (and said to myself, "hey! i know him!"). The book is very candid and I think you would enjoy seeing Dixon's perspective as a student with his outlook on the chef-instructors, having been one, and also what its like to go to the CIA at 38 instead of the more average age of late teens-early 20s. If you read it let me know what you think!

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