The Author of BEATEN, SEARED AND SAUCED Reflects on Culinary School, First-Time Authorship, and the Vagaries of Age
Jonathan Dixon signed up for the Culinary Institute of America at age 38, and while toughing out his education there, managed to keep enough notes about the experience to write an insightful and revealing book, Beaten, Seared and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America (Clarkson Potter) that debuted last year. While he certainly has a reverence for good food and cooking, I especially enjoyed Jonathan’s book for its avoidance of the over-romanticized clichés that attach to a lot of memoirs about the culinary arts in general and the learning process in particular. (Case in point: his hilarious recounting of a speech about Carrot Peeling Aptitude; don’t let me spoil it for you, just get the book and enjoy.)
Jonathan and I recently sat down at the bar at Marea to catch up over lunch and talk about cooking school and the writing life.
TOQUELAND: Here we are at Marea, one of the best restaurants in the city by most people’s estimation. What’s the dining experience like for you now that you’ve been through cooking school and worked in a professional kitchen, as opposed to when you were just a normal diner?
DIXON: It’s a constant evaluation. Every dish you’re tasting you’re unconsciously giving it a grade in your head. A friend of mine who’s a musician said to me that he has lost the ability to listen to music without thinking about what he can steal. I’ve got a little bit of that mentality whenever I eat.
TOQUELAND: So if I ask your totally uncensored response to the meal we just had?
DIXON: I thought it was pretty great, especially the grilled octopus. Every time I’ve had octopus in my life, which is probably a dozen or so, it’s pretty wretched, and I keep trying it hoping it will reveal its mystery to me at some point. Today it revealed itself.
TOQUELAND: When I used to work in the film business, I felt that a really good movie was one that could make me stop wondering how they got a particular shot, or how much work went into a set up, or why the script was so weak, and I could become a moviegoer again. Are you ever able to just be a diner in a restaurant, or is that something you’ve said goodbye to?
DIXON: This is going to be the worst, clichéd answer, but when I eat my mother’s food, I don’t have any critical response.
TOQUELAND: You went to the Culinary Institute of America at age 38. What do you think was better for you than it would have been in your late teens or early twenties?
When you’re 18 and you show up there… for a lot of kids this is their college experience and they wanted to drink, get high, get laid. Studying kind of took something of a second place for a lot of them. I’ve done all that. I’ve had my college experience. When I was at the CIA I really wanted to learn and I was much more serious and single-minded about getting the education.
TOQUELAND: What was worse?
DIXON: I do wish I was 18 or 20 because I would go into a restaurant career, but when I got out I was [almost] 40-years old. There was just no way. Physically. I have to be realistic. I just can’t do it.
TOQUELAND: Do you think you could do it if you could somehow fast forward and be a chef and not have to put in the hours and years of being a line cook where—especially right out of school—you’re working 16-hour days back-to-back-to-back?
DIXON: Yeah, I think I could do that. Unfortunately, HG Wells is nowhere to be found. I would love to, because I like the idea of doing it. But even when I arrived at school I kind of knew realistically that a career in a restaurant kitchen was not really going to fly.
TOQUELAND: Something that I find fascinating personally is the adherence we still have in American kitchens, and kitchens around the world, to French terminology. You went to school with a bunch of kids who had American chefs to look up to. It used to be a rite of passage to get out of cooking school and go work in kitchens in France for a year or two for no money. You don’t have to necessarily do that today; you can work for great chefs right here in the US. Did the kids you went to school with bow to the French tradition and language and that aspect of the kitchen the way generations before them did?
DIXON: No. There was a whole different attitude. I remember during one class we had to give presentations and one kid was pronouncing chaud froid as CHOW-FREUD. He had no interest in finding out the right way. People were sort of interested in Paul Bocuse because he was such a legend at the school but for the most part these kids wanted to be Anthony Bourdain, that was to them where the genealogy really started.
TOQUELAND: You mean from a behavorial standpoint, not that they wanted to be writers?
DIXON: Right. They wanted that kind of restaurant experience, the dope-guns-fucking-in-the-walk-in experience.
TOQUELAND: The men and women you went to school with grew up with TV chefs to idolize, which is a relatively new phenomenon. What were the goals of the students you went to school with? Were they ready to go pay their dues for 10 or 15 years before calling themselves “chefs,” as would have been the case 20 years ago, or are they looking for a more fast-track career, or are they even looking to be in a kitchen 5 or 10 years from now?
DIXON: I think that there were a good number of students there who really wanted to perfect their craft. They wanted to be Thomas Keller or Bocuse or Ducasse. But a lot of them just wanted what they saw as the glamour of it and I don’t think they were as willing to put in that work. Some of them—I wouldn’t say the majority, in fact I’d say the minority—were just like anybody esle. If you pick up a guitar you want to be Hendrix as soon as possible; if you write, you want to be Faulkner. And the apprenticeship process is dull and painful. Most people, most sane people, would like to skip that. But you can’t. And a lot of people dropped out along the way when they had to get up at 4am and scale fish.
TOQUELAND: This might be an awkward question, but in your book, you’re pretty unsparing in describing what you saw as some of the kitchen downfalls of the late restaurant, Tabla, where you did your externship.
DIXON: You should see what I left out. Or what got removed for legal reasons.
TOQUELAND: Were there any hard feelings or repercussions from doing that? Do you regret doing that?
DIXON: I was just honestly telling my story. There were some things I did leave out because I thought maybe they were colored by my personal view of people and individuals. There haven’t really been repercussions other than I’m pretty sure Floyd Cardoz would not buy me a drink any time soon. Ty [Tabla’s chef de cuisine in the book] might have a hit out on me at the moment; I haven’t been able to ascertain. I don’t know if Danny Meyer is gunning for me or not. Other than that, through the grapevine, I’ve heard they would have preferred a different depiction, there haven’t really been any repercussions.
TOQUELAND: People talk about “career changing.” A lot of people think, “Oh, I’ll be a chef.” What do you say to people out there who think this is a viable thing to shift into mid-life?
DIXON: If you’re 20, it’s a perfectly viable thing. If you’re my age, you’re not going to end up with a career in a restaurant. But the food industry in America is billions upon billions upon billions of dollars and there’s so much you can do. Food writing, catering, personal chef-ing (which is incredibly lucrative), research, consulting. There are 10,000 things you can do that don’t involve being in a kitchen that a culinary education would be really useful for.
TOQUELAND: How have you been plying what you learned since you graduated the CIA?
DIXON: I have been doing some personal chef stuff. I’ve been doing food writing. Despite everything I just said, I have been working a little in a restaurant; over the summer, I was working pretty much full time at a barbecue restaurant in Saugerties. The guy who owns the barbecue place also owns a restaurant called Miss Lucy’s, and I’m the fill-in line cook when people get sick or take time off.
TOQUELAND: Do you enjoy the glimpse of the alternate life you might have had if you’d discovered cooking sooner?
DIXON: Yeah, it’s great. Because I’m only there for 8 hours and then I get to have a couple of staff drinks. I don’t have to be there for 70 hours during the course of a week; it’s really fun.
TOQUELAND: And on the literary front?
DIXON: I’m finishing my novel, I had the back page essay in the Christmas issue of Martha Stewart Living, and I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do for [non-fiction] Book Number Two.
TOQUELAND: You’re one of the first interviews for Toqueland (version 2.0). The site will also examine the writer’s life a bit. What was the author experience like for you?
DIXON: There are two moments I think of when I think of the writing experience. The day the book came out, walking into Barnes and Noble, and seeing a stack of them and having my wife take lots of pictures of me holding it up in front of them. The slightly negative thing that summed it up was getting emails from people I’d never met saying, “Can you help me find an agent,” and getting really angry when I said “No, I can’t help you.”
TOQUELAND: Tony Bourdain once wrote that if his car broke down in the middle of the night, he’d call a cook, not a writer, to come to the rescue. Who do you feel a greater kinship with, cooks or writers?
DIXON: I think cooks. I know a lot of writers and I know a lot of cooks and I kind of appreciate the physicality that cooks have. Writers are not usually Hemingwayesque. They’re usually pretty dull and boring and pale and pasty and drink too much. Cooks, even though a lot of them drink too much, are still pretty physically engaged people and that’s usually more fun to be around. My writer friends will hate me now.