Another day, another cooking memoir, this time it's Beaten, Seared, and Sauced, the first book by Jonathan Dixon, in which he recounts his studies at the Culinary Institute of America (the other "CIA").
It's hard to read this book without comparing it to Michael Ruhlman's similar memoir of life at the CIA, The Making of a Chef. But whereas Ruhlman went into the CIA with the express intent of writing a book (it seems questionable whether he was even a matriculated student there; he was more an observer), Dixon appears to have been a true student. He was a former writer and professor who at age 39 opted for a second career as a chef, though likely with an eye toward the possibility of turning the experience into a paying gig much like Scott Turow did with Law School in One L.
Where Ruhlman's book is filled with awe and wonder at every crumb of culinary education, Dixon writes from the perspective of a real student, and a mediocre one at that. He struggles with classes and his culinary internship, he generally respects his instructors but also sees their faults, and with graduation one gets a sense of relief but also defeat. He may have won the battle of culinary school, but it seems unlikely that he's willing to enlist in the war that is regular culinary work.
The refusal to wax eloquent and instead stay grounded in the real world, including the burden of CIA tuition, provides exactly what was missing from Ruhlman's book: the feeling that, rather than observing with Ruhlman, you are standing right in class with Dixon. While reading the book, I actually dreamt that I was a culinary student, and it wasn't a pleasant experience.
While he is an engaging writer, Dixon comes up with a few groaners (in describing a class lecture: "I sat listening, burning with revolutionary fervor, like Bill Ayers in a toque.") and the occasional awkward phrasing (describing some past its prime shrimp as "beginning to throb with rot."). Overall though, he keeps you turning the pages with clear, crisp prose.
Beaten, Seared and Sauced, a title which alludes to its author as much as the food he learns to cook, would make a great summer read for anyone who's every considered dropping everything and picking up a chef's knife. Check it out!