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On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America

by Jonathan Dixon

Pub Date: May 3rd, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-58903-3
Publisher: Clarkson Potter

A former odd-jobber and Martha Stewart Living staff writer records the highs and lows of studying at the Culinary Institute of America.

Just before turning 38, Dixon decided to veer from his aimless career path and pursue cooking, the passion of his youth, as a vocation. So he and his girlfriend boxed their urban life and moved to scenic Rhinebeck, N.Y., where he embarked on the two-year Associate of Occupational Studies program at the nearby Culinary Institute of America (CIA)—a place “like Disneyland for cooks.” Knowing at the outset that he never wanted to own his own restaurant, Dixon’s fears that his latest desire to become a chef was yet another form of vocational “escapism” and “indulgence” were only heightened upon meeting his classmates, many barely out of high school—as one notes, “my parents wanted me to come here instead of juvie”—others possessed of the same focus and drive as famous CIA alumni Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz. “The Muslims may have ninety-nine names for God,” writes Dixon, “but at the CIA, there was pretty much just one: Keller.” Filled with engaging journalistic details as his studies move from theory to practice, Dixon’s acerbic account makes the CIA program sound like two years of protracted fraternity hazing, with 16-hour days and boot camp–like ego annihilation for weeks on end, coupled with an emphasis on collective success or failure in the kitchen. Throughout, the author waffles between self-doubt and confidence, gaining as much culinary knowledge—“For every end result, there are a dozen different ways to get there”—as personal introspection: “I knew I was too pigheaded to flourish in a situation where ceding control to others was required to truly learn and succeed.”

Cheeky and informative, but may leave readers wondering whether this writer will ever know what he wants to be when he grows up.