by Megan Labrise - Jonathan Dixon dishes on life at Hyde Park’s formidable culinary school in new book Beaten, Seared and Sauced
Nanny, apartment-cleaner, inspector of nurses’ shoes, coffin-factory janitor, staff writer at Martha Stewart Living, newspaper book and music critic, Creative Writing professor: Jonathan Dixon tried them all. While the path may have zigzagged, Dixon winds up – literally and literarily – putting his life on the line.
Beaten, Seared and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America (Clarkson Potter, 2011) is Dixon’s just-out account of the rigorous two-year culinary arts program at the titular temple of epicurean education in Hyde Park. Reflecting on his lack of direction, Dixon has an epiphany and decides to enroll at the CIA just weeks before his 38th birthday: “I knew I wanted to cook for the rest of my life and I wanted to do it for other people. By definition, I wanted to be a chef. I did not know how I’d bend the definition of that word to suit me. But I wanted to be a chef and I was here in the parking lot of the school that taught you how to become one.” (p. 3)
What Dixon did not know was that he wanted to write a book, he says over coconut water at Dominick’s Café in Uptown Kingston. “I never intended to write a book. I just wanted to be a chef, but that graphomaniac urge kept hitting me when I was in school so I started keeping a blog,” he said. Hosted by Blogspot, “19 Months: Jonathan Dixon Narrates the Cooking School Experience” was discovered and linked to by both Serious Eats and Grub Street, bumping Dixon’s hits from 38 to 4,000 in one night.
A few days later, he was contacted by an agent and encouraged to write a book proposal. Clarkson Potter, a subsidiary of Random House, purchased the rights and, for the last six months of his education, Dixon was an author in chef’s clothing. “All of a sudden I was at school, being a student and writing a book, and I didn’t tell anyone at school. No one knew until graduation day. It was kind of a schizophrenic existence: getting up early in the morning and writing for hours, then going to school until nine at night,” he said.
Regardless of deadlines, Dixon was 100 percent accountable to maintaining his scholarship by making the grade. That meant early mornings, late nights, mountains of mirepoix and yes, those famous, brilliant bellowing instructors, who receive no anonymity. (There are nice ones, too, including Hans Sebald and Rudy Spiess.)
No spring chicken, Dixon is derided as “Grandpa” by the pimply post-pubescent classmates who comprise most of the student body. He learns that, in a world of high heat, high stress and hours on one’s feet, youth is a substantial asset. It can also throw the shortcomings of an older student into high relief.
“I remember one day I was getting really bent out of shape about my vegetable cuts in class, standing there cursing. One of my classmates came by and said, ‘Those onions just suck.’ I was getting really upset. Then this voice in my head said, ‘Just get a little perspective: You’re in school. This is food. The economy is in crisis. Sarah Palin exists. Get a grip. It’s just some onions. No one’s saving lives here,” he said.
Maybe so, but there can be stitches involved. Dixon experienced the gamut of kitchen injuries, from burns that scarred his two forearms to a slash so magnificent that it made a fellow student retch. Slicing a starch on a mandoline, Dixon cut right into the heart of his palm. He got six stitches and a valuable lesson: “If you’re ever cutting a potato on mandoline and it sticks, don’t force it. Just let it go.”
Lessons abounded during a mandatory culinary externship at Tabla, Danny Meyer’s recently closed fine-dining Indian restaurant in New York City, under the direction of executive chef Floyd Cardoz. Dixon scored the competitive position by keeping mum on his future plans, which did not and do not involve working in a restaurant full-time. “I wanted the experience. I wanted to work under that sort of pressure. I wanted to hone my skills. I wanted to develop the speed, and I love Indian food,” he said. “But [Tabla] was a hard experience. I don’t know why I was singled out but, for some reason – something about my face, maybe – I rubbed them the wrong way. But I got through it. You wind up taking comfort where you can.”
By the end of his tenure, Dixon had acquired his coveted skills, as well as the friendship of former adversary Dwayne Motley, sous-chef and director of the Tabla Bread Bar. (The two still keep in touch.) The management was not won over, evidently directing the staff not to dunk Dixon in an ice bath on his last day of work: a hard-won symbol of respect. “‘I can’t believe I didn’t get dunked,’” Dixon tells his girlfriend in the book. “‘My feelings are really hurt.’”
Nevertheless, he perseveres – through the CIA’s information-overloaded wine course; cooking for classmates in the Mediterranean kitchen; and two sections of front- and back-of-the-house duties at the CIA’s St. Andrew’s Café and Escoffier Restaurant. With an evolved skill set and a more adventurous palate, Dixon graduated in July 2010. “On graduation day, I came home, I had dinner with my parents, took the next day off, said goodbye to them early the next morning and sat down and finished the book, and turned it in that Monday. I was writing about stuff as it was happening, which was a very strange experience,” he said.
Since graduation, Dixon has been employed as a private chef for several Manhattan clients. Off days were for editing, and now are for promoting the new book. Between jobs, Dixon pores over the cookbooks that inspired his culinary pursuits, and no longer finds them intimidating. “I used to think [of Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook], ‘This is so impossible, so far beyond the range of anything anyone could do at home.’ But I realized that it’s actually not all that complicated. There are a lot of steps, but it’s a lot of simple steps. It takes patience and organization. If you put the time into it, that type of cooking is really just a string of fundamentals. That was a revelation.”