World Chefs: learning the ropes at top U.S. chef school

TOKYO Tue Jul 19, 2011 8:31am EDT

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Like many people who love to cook, Jonathan Dixon had long dreamed of going to culinary school for training. Unlike many, he actually did it.

"Beaten, Seared and Sauced" is the story of his two years at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and how he went from a passionate, but far from professional cook, to working as an intern in a noted New York restaurant and, finally, to graduation and a foray into cooking for private clients.

In between came intensive training in knife skills, fish identification, classic cooking techniques like sauteing, and mad dashes through regional cuisines including Asian.

Older than most of his classmates from the start at age 38, Dixon spoke with Reuters about his immersion in cooking, what he learned about food, and what he learned about himself.

Q: You've been away from the experience for about a year, how do you view it now?

A: "I remember my father telling me about losing people when they died, how you forget all the bad stuff, and then it's just the good memories. School is a little bit like that. I look back on it now with a pretty rosy view, but at the time ... that's one reason I'm glad I was writing the book as I went, because there were warts and there were some really, really rough periods. It might be harder, looking back now, to get the nuances of the more negative stuff.

"I look back on the experience as this incredibly intense two years. It just never let up. You never got a break, there wasn't spring break, there wasn't a big semester break around Christmas, you just kept going and going and going."

Q: What were the highs and the lows of training?

A: "The high point and the low points are connected, in a way. The high point is that you're forced to perform, and you're forced to perform at a certain level, otherwise you fail. The low point, which is directly related to that, were all the rules and regulations you had to follow, the constant discipline."

Q: What did you take away from your time there?

A: "It's done before you think it is. It's never as hard as you think it is. Basically, I learned that you can actually really accomplish stuff. Eventually you wound up cooking for the other students, and it's not the high-pressure environment that working in a restaurant is obviously, but you still had the mindset that you needed to get something done at a certain time. And no one held your hand, nobody walked you through it in a nice, gentle kind of way. You got tossed in the pool. It was amazing to realize what you were actually capable of doing."

Q: Name one really good memory and one really bad memory.

A: "The first good memory that came to mind was from the fish class. The fish class started at 4:30 in the morning, which meant that I had to be up at 2:00 in the morning, which isn't that far after I actually go to sleep usually. I have to be up at 2:00, on the road, with my head just absolutely pounding with caffeine and exhaustion, get to school, learn how to cut up fish, identify fish, and then sit through three hours of lecture about ... fish.

"I was miserable, and I was absolutely convinced that I was going to bomb the class. I studied like I'd never studied before. I went in after class to keep learning about cutting up fish, and I got an A- in the class. That was the first truly great memory ...

"The most physically bad memory -- and this is a piece of knowledge I would love to pass on -- is that if you are cutting a potato on a mandoline, and it sticks, let it go. Don't force it. Because otherwise you're getting carted off to the Emergency Room to get a bunch of stitches in the palm of your hand.

"There were moments when I really did just want to stop, when I felt really burned out from months and months of being yelled at all day, and being reprimanded all day, and nothing you ever did was right."

Q: How has the experience affected how you cook now?

A: "I had been cooking since I was a kid, but I was slow as molasses and I had no idea about really basic things. I had no idea how to really saute something, I had no idea how to really braise something. Most importantly, I had no idea about seasoning things."

Q: What do you mean, you didn't know about seasonings?

A: "I just never understood how salt enhances flavor. I always sort of thought salt was something you dumped on french fries or dumped on your food when it got to the table. I learned with seasoning that if you start throwing salt in early, in little increments, it tastes really good. I'm kind of paraphrasing Thomas Keller right now, but it doesn't taste as if it was salted, it tastes seasoned. It's a world of difference."

Perfect Roasted Chicken

Dry the skin of the bird with a paper towel; you don't want moisture. Remove the wishbone. Salt the cavity of the bird.

Truss the bird -- there are a hundred dozen ways to do this; choose one -- and salt the exterior of the chicken as well. Have your oven at around 425 F. Put your chicken in a pan, up and off the pan's floor. Some people use a rack, I roll aluminum foil up, wrap it around my fingers into a coil, and perch the chicken on top. Put it into the over and let it go for 20, 25 minutes, until the skin begins turning color.

Drop the heat to 375 F and let it go for another 35 minutes. Tip the chicken; red juices will run out. Close the over on it for another four to five minutes. Tip again. There will be less red in the juices, and they will be darker. Close the oven. After a couple of minutes, tip again. The juices will be a dark, cooked red with some gray. Take the bird out; it's done. Let it rest, uncovered, for 20 minutes -- no less. Then cut it up.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; editing by Patricia Reaney; For the latest Reuters lifestyle news see: www.reuters.com/news/lifestyle))