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Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America

Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America - Jonathan Dixon Jonathan Dixon drifted. For years. Decades. One day he woke up and realized he was almost forty and had no career. He decided, with the help of his girlfriend, to become a chef. Further, he decided to become a chef by enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America, a rigorous training program.I was fascinated with this story, Dixon’s account of his struggle to become a chef. I was especially intrigued with Dixon’s difficulties with the program, the same difficulties he had faced in earlier attempts to become a newspaper critic and a magazine staff member.“Nelly once said to me that it wasn’t just failure I was afraid of, but succeeding, too. I didn’t understand it at the time she said it…but after she said it, the sentence lay there newly born, glistening with truth. To do something right carries with it a set of demands that you be able to do it again, that you irreversibly elevate your standards. I had no idea why that should be unnerving.”As an educator, it was the teaching styles of the chefs at this prestigious school that most interested me. Here’s a sample of a typical diatribe from one teacher of the Extreme Fear teaching style:‘”What is this? Were you going to try and serve this? This is useless! Useless! This is the worst spaetzle I have ever seen in my life! In my life! This is just…just…just *$#%*.” He tossed the spaetzle onto the floor and stamped his foot in it, grinding under his shoe….He turned and strode out of the room.’Other teachers at the school seemed to be from the Let’s Just Deal With It school of teaching. With quiet patience, these teachers would approach students who were fumbling and help them correct their mistakes.After almost two years of classes and preparation, Dixon finally has an epiphany. He is observing two experienced chefs working together to create a masterpiece of a meal. He is stunned by the experience:“What I’d just seen was a philosophy of life in action. Two guys---two kids---who one day decided they would be excellent; who disciplined themselves, learned everything they could, practiced aggressively, and moved their thinking onto a whole other plane. They might have been musicians; they might have been dancers. In their case, it was about food. And they recognized that at each stage---from the second they set out their equipment through the moment they do their prep to the final assemblage---that there is a best possible way to do everything. Every gesture, no matter how small, was about the individual attempting to be great. What those guys did---what they do---is attainable. You’ll wind up bleeding to get there, but you can get there. But not me, at least not with the bruises and slights of how I think about myself, with all my hesitations, my timidity, my half-*$#%* methodology of doing what was expected of me but little more. This is why they yell at you. This is why you’re forced to get up in the morning and go cut fish. This is why they will never give you a compliment. This is why.And I disagree with so much of how they do it sometimes, the chefs, with their bullying, their brute force. But I understand now the impulse behind it. If you can get rid of all your mental baggage and distractions, all your own doubts and pettiness and *$#%*, you can arrive at the clarity of mind with a diamond focus that lets all of a person’s training and skill bloom. Then a person can be great.”A wonderful tale of a man who becomes a better person when he undergoes the training to become a chef.