Friday, June 17, 2011

Guest Post: I Went to Cooking School (and Don’t Regret It)

Note: Michele, my dentist's assistant, knows what I do, loves to cook and, like so many of us, spends a good deal of time immersed in food and cooking media. So I wasn't at all surprised when she asked me if I had seen the book by a guy who wrote about going through The Culinary Institute of America. She didn't know the title or the authors' name so, I assumed that she had seen the book that Ruhlman had written ( The Making of a Chef) when I was still teaching at CIA. But after a few minutes of conversation, I got the impression that we were not talking about the same book. So when I got home I went online and, in like 2 minutes, discovered a blog post at The Culinary Librarian about a talk given by Jonathan Dixon, the author of Beaten Seared and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America.
I left a comment on the blog and in a few minutes was exchanging emails with Jonathan. (The web is thrilling still!) Later, I downloaded his book to my Kindle and was so impressed by his story and writing style that I asked him to guest post so that I could support his work. Bob dG

by Jonathan Dixon 
I am an author and a private chef. I am compensated for writing about food, and I am compensated for cooking it. I am also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. I did not enroll there without a lot of thought and significant research. I weighed all the pros and cons. The essence of the positive side seemed to be the notion of a total immersion in the world of cooking and really, truly learning how to handle food. As for the cons...well, I found many, many screeds that took a negative point of view.

The crux of almost every argument against going to cooking school always comes down to this: the cost of tuition far and beyond outweighs the salary you’ll make in a restaurant kitchen. You (or your parents) will be slowly crushed under ten tons of debt while earning only a very little more than minimum wage. It’s when advancing this argument that anti-culinary school folk often start sounding like crotchety old codgers, explaining that they didn’t need cooking school—they did it the old fashioned way, beginning as a dishwasher and working their way up, and not wasting time with some fancy education that won’t ever pay off. This has always sounded to me like a variant on the old walking-to-school-barefoot-through-blizzards-uphill-both-ways trope and, even if there’s truth to it, whenever I hear the tales, my mind starts wandering and my eyes glaze.

In one sense, though, it’s hard to argue against the point. Restaurants are notorious for exceptionally poor compensation. And this leads to the oft-leveled charge that cooking schools take advantage of students’ ambitions, telling them they could very well be the next Grant Achatz or David Chang if they get an education under their belts (it’s worth noting that both are culinary school alums). There are class-action suits pending right now on this issue. Interestingly, no one has ever sued, say, the Universities of Iowa or Arizona for letting its MFA writing students believe one of them could be the next Denis Johnson or David Foster Wallace (both of whom did, in fact, get MFA’s). I, for one, once wished I could be the third guitarist in the Grateful Dead, a goal which sadly failed to work out, but a failure which has not made me consider litigation against my one-time guitar teacher.

But the keystone of the whole discourse is wrong. The underlying assumption of the entire polemic is that every student will wind up in a restaurant kitchen. I’d venture that’s where most students see themselves. Look at Achatz and Chang and their presence in the media and culinary worlds, read the strutting romance of Bourdain’s  Kitchen Confidential, and hell, where else would you want be but in a professional kitchen? Some will wind up there and it’s just where they are going to want to be. For a lot of people, that is precisely where they don’t want to be.

The food industry in America generates something like $900 billion annually. Restaurants contribute a good chunk of that cash to the revenue stream, but obviously not all of it. Where else does the money come from? Menu development, research, test kitchens, catering, writing, food styling, consulting, on and on and on and on. Someone needs to help write The Babbo Cookbook and someone needs to test its recipe for Beef Cheek Ravioli. The ribs and cornbread that got served at my girlfriend’s college reunion which we attended last week? Someone had to cater the affair.  Okay, yes—none of these jobs is as swashbucklingly cool as being a renowned chef. No matter how great she may be, Abigail Kirsch lacks the star power of a David Chang. But not everyone can be—or even wants to be—a star, and most of these jobs pay a hell of a lot more than a restaurant does. I have a gig cooking privately for a family in Manhattan. This means that I’m missing out on some exciting stuff. I don’t get the adrenaline thrill of service in full swing. I don’t get the intense camaraderie that comes from working with others in that situation. If the many war stories I’ve heard are to be believed, I am not having sex in the walk-in, nor am I doing lines of blow off of a server’s breasts. But, in one night, I might make what a line cook in the city earns in a week. Being a private chef may, as Anthony Bourdain has written, get me laughed out of any bar he and his confreres drink at, but somehow I suspect I’ll live.

Jean-Michel Basquiat never went to art school. Cormac McCarthy did not get an MFA. Thomas Keller did not attend cooking school. There is more than one way for anyone to reach his or her personal endpoint. And there are a whole lot of different endpoints to reach. If a culinary education is going to put one them that much closer to your fingertips, then why the hell not take the plunge?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ducathlon, the Video

In which the silliness that was the D'Artagnan Ducathlon 2010 gets the montage treatment. The best part is near the end (min 4:35) when I appear during the awards ceremony. Well, the best part for my mother anyway :-)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Difference Between Organic and Conventional Meat (mostly Beef)

I'm not endorsing the conclusions of this review of the nutritional and organoleptic differences between organic and conventionally raised meat, but it feels right to me.  The following is excerpted from the paper's conclusions.

Keep in mind that the study is an evaluation of the status quo and does not address advancements that might improve the quality conventional or organic meat. 

"Beef animals raised organically grow more slowly and produce leaner carcasses. As a result the meat tends to have less marbling and is less tender. The profile of the fat is altered with organic production (or with grass feeding), with a higher content of PUFAs (in particular CLA) and is regarded as more favorable in terms of human nutrition. Similar findings have been reported with pigs and poultry, the research and consumer findings suggesting that the result is a slightly tougher meat but with an enhanced flavor that is preferred by some consumers (probably an age effect since organic animals and birds take longer to reach market weight). The main difference between organic (farm-raised) and wild fish is a higher content of fat in the organic fish, due to diet. The fat is considered desirable in the human diet."

Click  Is Organic Meat Higher in Nutrient Content? by Robert Blair to read the entire paper.