I should have known that I published my year-end post too early! I just finished another book during the final days of 2011, a Christmas gift my aunt and uncle picked off of my wish list: Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America by Jonathan Dixon. Jonathan is the husband of the excellent Nelly Reifler, which is how I knew of him and his book. I also saw an excerpt from the book performed at SWEET: Actors Reading Writers and knew I wanted to read it.
The excerpt found Jonathan, a student at the CIA, attending and participating in a chicken-slaughter. The actor performed the passage as poignant, but also funny, particularly a line about Jerry Garcia. It was terrific. Afterwards, when I briefly spoke to Jonathan about it, he said that he didn’t think the passage was funny at all! Reading it for myself, within the context of the rest of the book, I can see his point–it did come off as much more serious.
Because, in this book, the business of learning food and cooking, of learning to be a chef, is serious. Jonathan lays out the stakes: he starts at the CIA at the “advanced” age of 38, far older than most of the other students, after working his way through many other careers, and at the potential peril of Nelly, who bore the brunt of the couple’s financial burdens during the course of the program. He had a lot of stressors to balance, on top of the innate stressfulness of the program. Two things really struck me about Jonathan’s description of the CIA: how different the instructors’ teaching styles were than anything I’ve experienced and how damn early the classes started. Jonathan described routinely waking up between 3:30 and 5:30am to get to class, to be lectured and berated and yelled at once he got there. He makes big distinctions in the book between instructors who yell and those who don’t, although he doesn’t always think that the yelling is ineffective. He also described lectures lasting four hours at a time, where the students were expected to take notes and absorb and regurgitate for tests. As a practitioner of VTS, guided-inquiry, etc., this was so foreign to me. And, obviously!, I would never yell at a student. What a different world; it was so interesting to read about it and to discover, in this environment, what worked and what didn’t.
I went to college very close to the CIA but actually only ate there once, my freshman year, in the fancy French restaurant. There was a fire drill in the middle of dinner, which basically obliterated any other memory of that evening–I don’t remember the food, only evacuating the place! Every now and then a CIA student would show up at one of our parties, and I remember meeting one who also worked at a huge highway liquor emporium; he told me about these exciting desserts he was developing using Lambic fruit beers.
Where I have been more than once is the restaurant Tabla, Floyd Cardoz’s former high-end Indian restaurant in Manhattan. I had two excellent birthday dinners there and thought Cardoz was super charming on Top Chef Masters. But, Jonathan did his externship at Tabla and wow, the poor thing, everyone was super cruel and cold to him, especially Cardoz! Shocking. I’m sort of glad that the restaurant is closed now because I loved it but I would have been torn about going back after reading this insider information.
This book was a really fun read, put a major taste for roasted chicken in my mouth (although I haven’t eaten chicken in more than ten years!) and made me super, super glad that I never have to take any of the classes, tests or trauma that Jonathan did–his book is perfect for living the CIA experience vicariously, and safely, from afar.