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Following a culinary passion

(article, Hank Sawtelle)

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Did you ever read a memoir about yourself that you didn’t write? It’s a strange sensation. 

Like me, Jonathan Dixon ditched his perfectly acceptable professional career a few years ago in his late 30s to attend culinary school. We both endured geriatric teasing from classmates half our age. We both sweated and ached as externs at high-end New York restaurants. And we both made it through the process with a strong sense of humor and support from understanding women in our lives. 

So naturally, reading Beaten, Seared, and Sauced, Dixon’s account of his time at the Culinary Institute of America, brought back a lot of memories for me.

Fans of Michael Ruhlman’s definitive CIA play-by-play, [%amazonProductLink asin=080508939X "The Making of a Chef"], will recognize Dixon covering some of the same ground, but with a much more personal point of view. While Ruhlman attended the CIA primarily to write about it, Dixon moved with his girlfriend to the Hudson Valley and enrolled, fully intending to embark on a culinary career. He had only a few weeks of professional experience as a prep cook, but his passion for cooking — combined with a sense of frustration over a seemingly dead-end writing career — pushed him to take the plunge.

I understood Dixon’s anxiety about walking away from a nice income in a writing career he’d put years into building in order to follow his culinary passion. The central tension of the book — that maybe he’s made a big mistake — resonated uncomfortably with me. 

Even without that extra frisson of the familiar, however, Dixon's memoir is a satisfying read, weaving together the challenge of a midlife career change with the experience of learning to cook at the school. 

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="A cooking-school kitchen."]He brings the culinary-school classroom to life in ironic detail. During a practical-cooking final, Dixon forgets to add butter to finish a sauce — a glaring error that leaves the sauce intolerably acidic — and the instructor’s palate is so fatigued from grading that the error goes unnoticed. He debates telling the instructor, “Hey, man — come on. Bust me on that sauce. It’s really sour.” But instead, he walks away, the student more savvy than the instructor.

In another scene, Dixon and his classmates erupt into laughter after an instructor throws a tantrum — including tossing food on the floor and stomping on it repeatedly — before storming out of the classroom. Culinary school is a pressure cooker, and the steam escapes at unpredictable seams.

One of Dixon’s biggest hurdles, as a career changer, is resentment at being bossed around. The issue comes to a head during his externship as a prep cook in New York City, where his chef and several sous-chefs deliver conflicting instructions in demeaning ways. Dixon ultimately comes to understand the impulse toward excellence that drives the bullying, but he clearly appreciates the chef-instructors who make their points with more respectful methods. As one instructor puts it, “Fear is in no way equivalent to loyalty.”

Dixon portrays himself as someone who lets life come at him, rather than a “go-getter” who takes control. I found myself wishing he'd stick up for himself more — when his chef tells him to sear meat in smaller batches, for example, after a sous-chef had just yelled at him to cook it all at once. But the sense of frustration makes the memoir authentic. When he’s sinking, we sink with him. When he rises, we’re lifted.

I know from personal experience that anyone who gets out of culinary school and decides not to pursue restaurant cooking has a difficult task in putting together a viable career. Having concluded (as I did) that the pressure and caprice of restaurant work is not for him, Dixon is nonetheless still drawn to the "physicality of cooking," and takes particular delight in feeding others at elaborate dinner parties. The book ends somewhat abruptly with Dixon graduating from the CIA and making mental preparations for a career as a caterer. Unfortunately, we don't know how well that worked out, or what he's up to today. The upbeat conclusion suggests that culinary school was a positive experience that Dixon would do again, although it's less clear how successful he's been in changing careers.

Anyone curious about attending culinary school will find Dixon's fair and accurate portrayal to be a real eye-opener. Some readers will be enthused, while others may be put off, depending on their sensibilities. Professional cooking school isn't for everyone, but it's undeniably exciting, and occasionally scary. The rewards depend on what the student makes of the experience. Dixon surrendered himself completely to the process, extracting valuable lessons about his strengths and weaknesses as a cook. 

p(bio). Until recently, Hank Sawtelle wrote the Ask Hank column for Culinate. He is an instructor at the Art Institute of Portland.

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