We are only 3 days into the new year and I’ve finished my first book! Sounds great, right? Except I started it way back in 2014. I did not read nearly as many books as I should have last year. Between my full time job, this site, freelance writing gigs, recipe development projects, volunteer responsibilities and general life happenings (such as Brandy’s second ACL surgery), there didn’t seem like much time to fit in a few pages here and there.
2015 is barreling in and I am making changes. Solid Gold Eats content will have a clear focus, allowing all of my other projects to fall in place. Each post will be centered around one of these topics: science, history, ingredient-focused, skill, and non-recipe (book reviews, sponsored content, Indianapolis adventures, etc). I have the first quarter planned out and my brain feels clear and open to new opportunities. That space will be filled with books.
After going to the library book sale in November and coming out with a remarkable new list of books to read, I decided there’s no way I’m going to get through everything by reading one book at a time. I picked up my Kindle, which I also filled with comics and graphic novels to make sure I read stories that are just as entertaining as informative, and I noticed a book I started but never finished. I don’t know about you, but I cannot NOT finish a book unless it is absolutely terrible. This one was not, and I needed to pony up and get going.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to drop everything and enroll in culinary school? Is it worth it? What would it be like? Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America is written from a perspective I can relate to. It is no secret that many of the students enrolling in the CIA are young. Like, crazy young – 17, 18, 19-year-old’s with energy, enthusiasm, and naiveness to what they are about to embark on. Jonathan Dixon, the author, is 37-years-old with an established freelance writing career and a hunger for cooking. I wholeheartedly relate.
At the CIA, a strong desire to be there and do well is not enough. You must eat, live, breathe, sleep, dream and unconsciously feel like you are becoming a chef. Jonathan wants to prove what we already know but are weary to accept – that there is such a thing as being too old to do something. However, even with as much as he pushes himself into feeling like he is too old, it’s not that easy. Forced into professional kitchens with 90 hour work week schedules, Jonathan thinks his age is slowing him down but it isn’t his age at all.
If you have ever wanted to know what it is like to cook in a professional test kitchen, to learn from the masters, and to have the opportunity to cook for hours a day, learning and soaking up as much knowledge as possible, Jonathan will save you the tuition money and allow you to live vicariously through his writing. Days often start with getting out of bed at 3:00 AM to leave his girlfriend in upstate New York to travel to the CIA, day in and day out, only to return at 11:00 PM feeling like there is not one more drop of blood to drain from your body. Each step in his culinary school career is made with intention not often realized until much later.
Jonathan experiences what any person over the age of 25 does when going back to school. Constantly surrounded by people 10+ years younger than him, he is challenged to remain focused without concentrating on the successes or failures of his peers. It is no secret that youth and virility are one in the same, especially in the way of being able to stay up long hours, absorb information and retain it, and simply keep going longer. Falling on that as a crutch, Jonathan almost gives up, thinking he just can’t run with the kids anymore. But that is not the case. Instead, he must find what he is truly passionate about, and kitchen cooking might just not be what he thought it was.
Aside from his professional kitchen externship at Tabla, Jonathan spends the majority of his time in the classroom with accomplished chefs, many of which graduated from the CIA in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Jonathan identifies with his professors more than his peers and is often found leading his peer cooking groups, barking orders and taking charge in a stubborn way. He, too, is often yelled at by those teaching him how to properly create a sauce or sear a steak, and quickly fails when put under pressure. There is some notion that to work in a restaurant kitchen, you must be better than the best – able to accurately work under extreme pressures of hot temperatures, incredibly fast paces and someone screaming down your throat to work even harder. And in the case of his externship and his first two semesters, Jonathan feels this method of teaching to the tenth degree and almost decides to drop out.
But later, in baking and pastry classes, Jonathan meets professors who choose a different teaching method. Instead of screaming red faced with eyes bulging out over the littlest of mistakes, he meets chefs who encourage, guide, and urge learning in the most pleasant way possible. Think about your favorite teachers in school and the grade you received in them. I have a feeling you excelled when you were taught to believe in yourself and encouraged to learn in your own way. It was this turning point in which Jonathan understood how much more he enjoys learning and working even while under the same restraints of time, skill and ingredients as he was before.
Not only did he start enjoying school more with proper guidance, he also understood that he was gaining competence. When you know what to do, you are less nervous or worried about your next step. His new competence led to confidence that allowed him to prosper in any environment.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading about all of the dishes and techniques Jonathan was taught. I felt like I was right there with him kneading that pizza dough, making that sauce over and over until it was just right, to even tasting the poached salmon he detested so much. Don’t mistake this book for giving you a crash course in culinary school as that is not the case, but if you have ever drifted off in a daydream thinking about cooking on the line in one of the Michelin rated New York City restaurants, this book is for you.
Would I do it? Go back to school? Money and time aside, absolutely. I love to learn – that’s why I’m voraciously reading as much as I can in 2015! Though it didn’t seem as difficult as Jonathan described it. Don’t get me wrong, there are challenging concepts at the CIA aside from the immense about of time spent in and out of the kitchen, but maybe Jonathan sugar coated it for me. Two years can pass by like a blink of an eye, and his account cannot describe every single detail and experience he went through. But what I did not read was anything about it being impossible. It’s a challenge I would love to accept, but culinary school is not for me. Like Jonathan, I do not know what I would do after graduation. Aside from the food writing and recipe developing I am already completing, there is only so much time in the day to take on more projects. Restaurant life is not for me – I’m too stubborn to do anything other than what I want, when I want.
Until I figure out what I really want to do, I’m going to keep going in the same direction but with a few slight changes. Along with my intentional focus areas for cooking and writing, I’m going to be learning as much as possible through books. That art history degree taught me how to pick up a book, read it, digest it, write about it, and discuss it in groups. I did that hundreds of times to complete my degree – so why should food be any different? It’s the best I can do while my funds are limited, but luckily the Indianapolis Public Library has every book I could imagine. And with that, I need to stop writing and go pick up my books holds right now. What’s next? Fannie’s Last Supper by Chris Kimball. I’ve got a full list of books on Goodreads if you are interested in following along!