At 38, after years of odd New York jobs, Dixon enrolled in the two-year Culinary Institute of America program with no motivation besides his love of cooking. He put life on hold and immersed himself in classes in math and gastronomy, and labs in food identification and fabrication. Dixon manages an honorable and straightforward narrative out of the constant evaluation, testing, and various personality conflicts, even when the details swing between slaughterhouse excitement and onion-chopping tedium. He’s subtle on the competitive effects of foodieism and celebrity, and fair on his own shortcomings during an externship in New York City, where he earned real compliments but was told that he lacked the makings for a culinary career. Though stress and tension regularly took their toll, Dixon stuck with the program, and during the finals for the Bocuse d’Or he experienced an epiphany that paved the way for satisfactory completion of the program. In the end, this book serves as a nice supplement, that of a novice cook, to Mark Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef. (May)
Dixon, a career seeker who has worn many hats in search of the one that fits him the best, chronicles life at the Culinary Institute of America. He holds nothing back in describing his experiences as a 38-year-old student in a profession that, because of necessary physicality, favors youth and obedience over age and autonomy. During the span of 19 months, Dixon learns not only how to cook but how to think like a chef in courses that range from practical (Food Safety) to performance based (Baking and Pastry) to philosophical (Gastronomy). He survives an externship at a demanding New York restaurant and scrapes by with a passing grade in Wines and Beverages, where a lifetime of learning is crammed into three weeks. With an original and refreshing voice, Dixon excels at capturing the mixed emotions of promises delivered and denied as he challenges convention and conquers the odds. VERDICT Rock star chefs have added to the allure of culinary education, and Dixon's vivid and honest portrayal should provide a reality check for fans of TV cooking competitions. Shelve this next to Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef for a well-rounded collection.—Rosemarie Lewis, Georgetown Cty. Libs., SC
A former odd-jobber and Martha Stewart Living staff writer records the highs and lows of studying at the Culinary Institute of America.
Just before turning 38, Dixon decided to veer from his aimless career path and pursue cooking, the passion of his youth, as a vocation. So he and his girlfriend boxed their urban life and moved to scenic Rhinebeck, N.Y., where he embarked on the two-year Associate of Occupational Studies program at the nearby Culinary Institute of America (CIA)—a place "like Disneyland for cooks." Knowing at the outset that he never wanted to own his own restaurant, Dixon's fears that his latest desire to become a chef was yet another form of vocational "escapism" and "indulgence" were only heightened upon meeting his classmates, many barely out of high school—as one notes, "my parents wanted me to come here instead of juvie"—others possessed of the same focus and drive as famous CIA alumni Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz. "The Muslims may have ninety-nine names for God," writes Dixon, "but at the CIA, there was pretty much just one: Keller." Filled with engaging journalistic details as his studies move from theory to practice, Dixon's acerbic account makes the CIA program sound like two years of protracted fraternity hazing, with 16-hour days and boot camp–like ego annihilation for weeks on end, coupled with an emphasis on collective success or failure in the kitchen. Throughout, the author waffles between self-doubt and confidence, gaining as much culinary knowledge—"For every end result, there are a dozen different ways to get there"—as personal introspection: "I knew I was too pigheaded to flourish in a situation where ceding control to others was required to truly learn and succeed."
Cheeky and informative, but may leave readers wondering whether this writer will ever know what he wants to be when he grows up.
From the Publisher
“How lucky for those of us who are fascinated by food and the people who make it that Jonathan Dixon chose to go to the CIA and to write about it. All about it. With wit and insight and a hefty dose of humor. You could probably learn just a smidgen more if you went to the CIA yourself, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as sitting in your favorite chair, sipping your favorite drink, and reading Jonathan’s story."
--Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table
“Jonathan Dixon's talents are such that I simultaneously envied and pitied him while reading his book. He brings the trials of joining the rigorous Culinary Institute of America to terrifying life. I enjoyed the journey so much that I never wanted him to graduate.”
--Joe Garden, features editor of The Onion
“If you think culinary school is just about slicing and dicing, think again. Jonathan Dixon’s compelling, deeply personal account of his trial by fire at the Culinary Institute of America lays bare the physicality, politics, and soul-searching that are part and parcel of a cook’s education. Third-degree burns, public humiliation, and a bubble-bursting externship at a beloved New York City restaurant are just a few highlights of this coming-of-age journey that the author—insanely? commendably?—embarked on when he was nearly forty. He’s a better man than I.”
--Andrew Friedman, author of Knives at Dawn
“There are certain experiences in our lives that we never forget and help define who we are and what we become. The CIA is one of those life-changing experiences. I never thought it could be put into words until I read these pages. Congratulations, Jonathan, for both surviving and your ability to share this with the world.”
--Johnny Iuzzini, James Beard Award winner and author of Dessert FourPlay
“With an original and refreshing voice, Dixon excels at capturing the mixed emotions of promises delivered and denied as he challenges convention and conquers the odds. VERDICT Rock star chefs have added to the allure of culinary education, and Dixon’s vivid and honest portrayal should provide a reality check for fans of TV cooking competitions. Shelve this next to Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef for a well-rounded collection.”
“A companion of sorts to Michael Ruhlman’s more clinical The Making of a Chef (1997), Dixon’s candid course-by-course account charts his education as he gets whipped into shape by intimidating instructors (whose default temperaments seem to be near apoplectic) alongside classmates often half his age. …[A]s a writer he has the steady-tempoed, clarified ability to make his pages-long descriptions of crafting a test menu rival the drama of anything you’ll see on a competition cooking show.”
“Beaten, Seared, and Sauced, Jonathan Dixon's account of his chef-training at the CIA, is funny, gripping and immensely enjoyable. It reads like a picaresque novel.”
--The Wall Street Journal
From the Hardcover edition.