April will mark the 10-year anniversary of when I first began attending the Culinary Institute of America, which feels difficult to believe. Has it really been that long? One decade removed, and I still lament my student debt each month, and I always try to discourage people, especially young line cooks, from attending my pricey alma mater.
I tell them to instead just keep working, and to push themselves to get into better and better kitchens while they’re young. If, at some point, they feel like they need to learn the academic and scientific side of cooking, then a junior college program can satisfy that requirement at a fraction of the cost.
The paradox to all of this sagacious wisdom is that deep down, I don’t regret my own decision to attend culinary school. I enjoyed the experience immensely, and I still have actual love for many of my CIA classmates, whom I still keep in touch with and visit from time to time.
I was lucky though. By beginning the CIA in April, I avoided having classmates who were fresh out of high school. All of those kids begin to arrive during the summer and fall. I got to observe their degeneracy from a distance, mostly anecdotally, and I couldn’t imagine having to spend six hours of class time with such knuckleheads.
Not that everyone in my class was great. Every now and then my group would be peppered with the occasional numbskull, usually some lost cause who had to retake our next block with us (and who then would be stuck in our “stream” until they failed another block, or got suspended for drinking the cooking wine during class, or whatever). But don’t get me wrong. The memories keep me entertained. I just hated dealing with some of those people at the time.
I find other people’s culinary anecdotes entertaining, so I’m always game for a CIA memoir. Jonathan Dixon’s “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” is a pretty good one. In the micro-genre of culinary school memoirs, Michael Ruhlman’s popular “The Making of a Chef” is my benchmark, not that it’s perfect by any means.
My main issue with Ruhlman’s book is that he just attended the classes at the CIA, he wasn’t a true culinary student who had to take practicals and go on externship. I don’t think he took all of the classes, either (“The Making of a Chef” is one of the books I read right before I attended the CIA, so my memory has become hazy after 10 years).
In contrast, “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” earns big points for the author’s willingness to take the first-person approach to a deeper level. Ruhlman does portray an entertaining and vivid portrait in his book, but Dixon actually becomes a student and completes the program, externship at all.
As a former culinary student, I find this entire approach much more entertaining, and having walked in those clogs, I’m also convinced that one must go “all in” to fully understand the CIA experience (you should also have to start off in the dorms, if you really want to view the entire circus — neither Ruhlman nor Dixon ever lived on campus).
With the anniversary of my own time at the CIA in mind, I purchased “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” in hope of reading some familiar names. It didn’t work out that way; I only shared one common chef with the author (and that was Chef Smythe from Cuisines of Asia). But even though Dixon encountered different instructors during his time at the CIA, his book remains rife with familiar archetypes: the arguments about doing dishes, impetuous know-it-all know-nothings, hoarding equipment and ingredients, and much of the rest.
Despite his successes, it remains a shame that Dixon couldn’t complete the entire program with the same core group whom he began with (the author must delay his externship to take a writing assignment, and thus falls off pace with the students in his original stream). Of course, there’s no saying for sure, but this separation may have cost the book some dramatic tension.
From a simple narrative perspective, I feel that story lines have better opportunity to emerge when the bonds, alliances and rifts have ample time to become fully fleshed out. As a result, the book lacks recognizable secondary characters. Regardless, if I had to recommend either “The Making of a Chef” or “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced” to a potential culinary student, I’d probably recommend “Beaten,” just based upon its externship chapters, which I found by far the most compelling.
But before I recommended either book, I’d first recommend that they don’t go to culinary school at all.