These days, it’s rare that I get to read a book that will keep me up at night because I just can’t put it down, not because I need to finish it to construct an argument around it for a presentation or my dissertation. Jonathan Dixon’s Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America initially caught my attention because its topic relates to my research on the role that education plays in the professionalization of the chef—I was obligated to read it, of course. I was also wondering how it could differ from Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef, other than reflecting an America even more interested in the culinary world than it was when Ruhlman’s book came out in 1997. So it was a wonderful surprise to find Beaten, Seared, and Sauced so engrossing that it became a pure treat rather than something to add to my bibliography.
Dixon is 38 when he enrolls and knows that he wants to do something with his hands but is not sure where that’ll leave him once he graduates. He’s dabbled in a number of careers, including writing for Martha Stewart Living, but he’s not going to school to become a food writer. He’s rarely sure of why he is putting himself through a training that has more grueling than rewarding days, at least at first. The chef of his externship site finds him useless in the kitchen. He’s broke. There is no Hollywood ending, with our hero getting a job offer at Per Se or the likes because his talent is suddenly revealed. But the book is not pessimistic—to the contrary. He shares his shortcomings as a student with a refreshing and reflective attitude. Dixon doesn’t attempt to send out a larger message through it, I think; it’s his experience, that’s it. But because he paints such a clear picture of what he did and how he felt during his two-year program, his book will be useful to aspiring cooks. The tone and rhythm are dynamic and upbeat: Dixon can talk about his hesitations without being hesitant on the page.
In the end, it’s not a matter of choosing to read Ruhlman or Dixon. Ruhlman was a participant-observant; Dixon is decidedly a participant. Their books are complementary; they show an evolution in our collective interest for all things food, but also perhaps an evolution in the genre to which they both belong. The Making of a Chef is more contextualized than Beaten, Seared, and Sauced, and more sociological; it was one of the first books of its kind, launching Ruhlman’s very successful food writing career. Dixon arrives when our hunger for behind-the-scene material on chefs could not be higher, as evidenced by TV shows such as Top Chef, and when we already feel like we know a lot about that world, which might give him more narrative freedom. Ruhlman’s books have often kept me up because I just had to read one more page, because the story was so good that I couldn’t go to sleep without knowing just a bit more of it. Dixon’s has done the same thing.
Dixon will talk about his book at the Museum of the City of New York on May 19. See below for details and a special discount (I bought a ticket before receiving this notice and bought the book too, so this is not a sponsored post or one resulting from perks received!).
Thursday, May 19 at 6:30 pm
Beaten, Seared and Sauced: A New York Culinary Education
With a grueling combination of in-class training and externships at some of the city’s most famous restaurants, the Culinary Institute of America has graduated some of the most influential chefs and culinary celebrities on the New York City food scene. Jonathan Dixon, CIA graduate and author of Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America (Clarkson Potter, 2011), and Andrew Friedman, author of Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d’Or Competition (Free Press, 2009), offer a behind-the-scenes look at the cutthroat world of Michelin stars, maniacal chefs, and the chaotic kitchens of New York from the perspective of chefs in training.
Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Moveable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Carts Program.
$6 museum members; $8 seniors and students; $12 non-members
$6 when you mention when you mention Pots and Plumes
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street
New York, NY 10029