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Book Notes

November 17, 2011

Book Notes: A tasty tale through culinary college

Anyone who is familiar with the Hudson Valley knows it is one of the most beautiful areas in the state. Among its most appealing attractions is Hyde Park, home of the Franklin D. Roosevelt home and museum. And even more appetizing than the FDR exhibits is a visit to the Culinary Institute of America, where you can wine and dine on delicacies from the next generation of great chefs.

I was fortunate enough to eat lunch at the CIA about 20 years ago. Another attempt two years ago went awry  when its website indicatedone of its restaurants was open when it wasn’t. But that’s another story. It’s a reflection of its incompetence not, its food. But I digress.

The important thing is that it was one of the memorable dining pleasures in my life. Where else can you count on good food and food service? The chefs and servers are students who are aiming to please because they want cooking to be their life’s work.

Besides, they have instructors breathing down their necks to make sure they do things right. It’s no wonder that a meal at the CIA is one of life’s great experiences.

If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to become a top chef, we now have a book in house that describes one such journey.

Jonathan Dixon is a journalist who happens to have a love of cooking. It was always his dream to become a great chef, so at the age of 38 he switched career paths and gained acceptance to the CIA. He writes about his experiences in a new book, “Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America.”

Normally, reading a book on cooking may be as bland as eating a hard-boiled egg, but Dixon makes it entertaining. His description of his fellow students and the different instructors is endearing.

And his adventures through the two-year program are like experiencing Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. It’s never dull!

The first thing Dixon notices is that the most of the students are teenagers, right out of high school. That’s not surprising since culinary school is their equivalent of college. But a lot of them are in for “culture shock” since they don’t have the slightest idea what it takes to become an accomplished chef. Not everybody survives culinary school.

Speaking of college, I know from firsthand experience that the CIA really looks like a college campus and a beautiful one at that. It has academic buildings (all devoted to food, of course), dorms and even a gymnasium. And the dining commons are the stuff of dreams! The school has also produced more All-Americans in hot dog eating than any other college (just kidding about that!). The main thing is that the CIA does have a university feel to it. The professors are first-rate and have extensive backgrounds in the culinary arts. Their personalities range from the screamer to the encourager but their basic message is the same: Respect your craft and never take shortcuts.

Beyond Dixon’s descriptions of his classmates and professors what stands out are the different cuisines in which he receives training.

You really begin to understand what it takes to create a great meal. And the effort involved makes you believe that an accomplished chef can make anything mouthwatering, even liver and salmon (two things I hate!).

The most strenuous experience for Dixon was the externship all students are required to perform. For those who are wondering, an externship differs from an internship only in the spelling.

Actually an externship is a shortened version of an internship, 126 hours in this case. Dixon made the twin mistake of waiting until the last minute and then insisting on an “elegant” restaurant in New York City. The end result was a trip to hell and back. Although he learned a lot, it was a brutal lesson in what life on the outside can be like. He ran into situations where different supervisors gave him completely opposite instructions on how to prepare dishes. It’s unlikely that his classmates found their externships as depressing.

In the end, Dixon survives everything and graduates from the CIA. In the process he presents some colorful characters and wonderful food. If you’re a wannabe chef you learn you must be totally dedicated to your craft. If you’re a merely a lover of good food you are simply enchanted. A meal at the CIA can’t come soon enough.

David kent is librarian at Cooperstown Village Library.

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