Am I crazy to want to be a chef?
April 14, 2009 7:08 PM   Subscribe

33, recently quit a career of 15 years in the entertainment industry and now I am mulling over pursuing another passion of

My last job was pretty much crazy hours and crappy pay. I can normally handle that if there is some form of personal reward for the toil, however, after so many years of sacrifice, my career was going nowhere. I lost my passion for my industry after realizing that it had no interest in taking care of me and appreciating my hard work. It's been pretty hard trying to figure out what to do next with my life...after alot of thought, I realized that one of my other great loves has always been cooking. A bit about me:

--I get excited over making a flavourful, crystal clear stock and obsess if it's not clear or tasty enough.
--I love my cooking tools. A good chef knife and excellent set of pots and pans make drool.
--I remember back when I was a kid, I had alot of positive food experiences: picking and eating mushrooms with my father, making sausages, visiting my grandmother in the kitchen of the diner she used to work in. I even went as far as making mock menus from time to time.
--I truly love making beautiful, tasty dishes for others. Makes me feel good about myself.
--I would rather make things fresh at home than buy them at the store. This includes bread, pasta, stocks, sauces, etc, etc. To me, it's great fun and I get inspired by fresh flavours and spices.
--I need to be in a career where I can create things and make an impact on others with the things I create..if that makes much sense.

But am I fooling myself into thinking I may be happy working in a professional kitchen? Am I too old? I know the hours are long, the pay not so hot, but could it work if I am passionate enough? I'd love to hear from those who work professionally in the kitchen. If you think it's something I could make a go of, what would be the best route to take? I am leaning more towards starting at the bottom in a kitchen somewhere, hopefully a kitchen helmed by a talented chef.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have zero experience in this, but have you read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain? It's all about what it's like to be a chef, and I hear it's pretty spot-on.
posted by wholebroad at 7:14 PM on April 14, 2009

If I may make an observation - you seem to be in love with process and quality.

Instead of becoming a chef, why not become a small-scale manufacturer of fine foods? Find a way to create that crystal clear stock by the barrel, and a way to bottle or package it, and sell it at the local farmer's market. Or a line of gourmet sausages. Or what have you.

From what I can gather, working in a restaurant isn't as much about food as it is working as part of a (underpaid, often abused and disfunctional) team under the direction of a chef. Your creativity and love of process will be ruthlessly quashed while you "pay your dues." Instead, find something you love to create, that gives you pride in having created it and find a way to share it with a few thousand people who taste things the way you do and feel the same way about quality.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:26 PM on April 14, 2009 [10 favorites]

Are you fast in the kitchen? Rather, are you willing to hone your skills to replicate your love of food into tasty dishes very, very quickly?

Many people become professional cooks as a second or third career, and are quite successful doing so. I really don't think you're too old. I don't know if you're fooling yourself. If you love cooking and serving people, and you can tolerate moving nonstop for 3 hour straight, getting ordered around, remaining unphased by rudeness and criticism, then you probably aren't fooling yourself.

But learning to pace a busy kitchen is mucho important. If you have no experience, many kitchens will be hesitant to hire you even as a prep cook, no matter how good of omelet you can whip.

I know of 3 ways people have gotten into professional kitchens: (1) cooking school; (2) busing tables and moving into the kitchen; and (3) entry-level catering and moving into the kitchen. I'm sure there are more routes.

posted by jabberjaw at 7:31 PM on April 14, 2009

How are you with managing people? Are you OK with continuous short-deadline stress? How about repetition? IF being an executive chef were all being creative and exacting with food, a lot more people would enjoy it. It's not what you can do with food, which can be taught, but being a manager, organizer, boss, timetable keeper, cost reducer, and stuff like that that makes up the bulk of a professional chef's work.

If you're at a crossroads where you've recently quit and have some savings to live on, then the truly best way to answer this question for yourself is, as you say, get right to work in the kitchen. You shouldn't just be "leaning towards it," that should be the plan. Don't go off to cooking school all crazy-like. Instead, do your best to land a decent break in a good kitchen - and I do mean saying you're willing to dishwash or do prep - and spend a few months seeing how you like the atmosphere and watching the chef to consider whether you would like to do what he (maybe she) is doing. It's the only way to know.

It sounds like you have nothing to lose at the moment, so give it a shot. You might really love it - a lot of people do. But a self-developed practicum is the way to go here. Be humble, work hard. If it sucks, you can leave really soon, no hard feelings. You sure wouldn't be the first fly-by-nighter who changed their mind, and the industry is used to that. if you like it, you'll find people who can give you a leg up very quickly.
posted by Miko at 7:32 PM on April 14, 2009

Jabberjaw's #3 is the route I recommend. It's really hard to transition from busing or from anything front-of-house, there's just a cultural prejudice there. And cooking school is too big an investment to make before you know if you want to do it, and ultimately not totally necessary although some people do very well with it.
posted by Miko at 7:34 PM on April 14, 2009

I'm not a professional cook, but I do have restaurant experience and researched cooking as a career (decided that wasn't for me). Working on the line can be pretty monotonous. A lot of cooking parts of dishes on a specific station, making the same things over and over, working under time constraints, etc. It's not just about making things well, it's about multi-tasking, and cooking many things quickly. You don't necessarily have time to obsess over the finer points of what you're making, though you do become a master at certain things. Unless you are higher up in the chain of command, there's not a lot of creativity, at least not when you're cooking for customers. If you're willing to deal with that to work your way up, you should go for it. If not, Slap*Happy's suggestion is great. You have mastered dishes and foundation elements that you could possibly work on producing for sale.
posted by fructose at 7:36 PM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

BAM! How about a cooking show? Start local, let your personality shine. It would be the perfect marriage of your two talents.
posted by Acacia at 7:43 PM on April 14, 2009

Catering is a much better place for people who actually like good food, well-made with care - because you have time to make it.

I am no chef, but I did work briefly as a line cook/prep cook assistant (not a fancy place, but there was an actual chef) - and from what I saw, cooking in a restaurant is about speed and efficiency, the real fussing about quality was in the catering side of the business.

That said, this may not be the time to switch. A friend of mine just got laid off from her cook's job. (She went into the business for much the same reasons as you are interested.)
posted by jb at 7:45 PM on April 14, 2009

In the meantime, you could always experiment with making cooking videos for YouTube. Even if there's no money in it, sharing your anecdotes and love of the craft might satisfy your urge to "create things and make an impact on others".
posted by aquafortis at 8:05 PM on April 14, 2009

I also LOVE cooking. And I have worked in a restaurant. Crazy hours and crappy pay are the norm. You will come to hate making the same food repeatedly. You are romanticizing restaurant work - you may be much better off in a catering role. If you do give it a go, just get a job in a kitchen, don't bother with culinary school.
posted by gnutron at 8:20 PM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

From what I can gather, working in a restaurant isn't as much about food as it is working as part of a (underpaid, often abused and disfunctional) team under the direction of a chef. Your creativity and love of process will be ruthlessly quashed while you "pay your dues."

I know a lot of cooks and chefs (more cooks). Many of them are remarkably happy with their jobs, probably the happiest people I know, work-wise. The ones who are the happiest are the ones who love the process, like you are describing. The hours suck, the pay sucks, the schedule sucks, but if you really love the things you are talking about, you might love it.

I have at least two friends who started at the bottom as adults with no real experience in highly-respected joints. The way they did this was to go to the chef and say, "I will work here for free if you train me." Granted, you gotta have some savings to make this work, but it works. Once you become more of a help than a hindrance you'll get a low-paid prep job (based on my sample size of two that I can think of right now, I was also offered this arrangement as a youngin, so three). If you are _really_ lucky, you might be able to get a prep job somewhere good where the guy pays you, but mostly that will be as a favor to someone else. You gotta remember that at really good places, there are lines of really well-trained effective people offering to work free on stage. Anyway, point being, at least two of my friends eventually got paying jobs working for highly regarded people by working for free for a while. One of them is still in the business however many years later and would never do anything else, the other bailed out after a while.

I think maybe a lot of the variance in these answers is regionally-driven. I know a few people in the catering business as well, mostly relatives. The emphasis on quality is like not comparable to restaurants around here (nyc). My brother actually quit catering in part because he couldn't deal with serving warmed-over crap any more, and the money was good. The clients are all "we want this this and this." And they're like "that sucks." At the restaurants, the chefs make what they make, people who like it go there. The people I know who work in restaurant kitchens work with psychotic quality standards (think measuring random samples of the minced ginger to ensure that no particle of ginger is over however many mils, true story). Like, so much so that I sometimes think its just for show to intimidate the newbs.

The only one of my friends who went to a fancy culinary school that I can think of deeply regrets it. He said it was a waste of money and time.

Just as an aside, I also know a bunch of people involved with food television. None of them love it.
posted by jeb at 8:28 PM on April 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

I agree with what a lot of people above have said. I'm a pastry sous chef and have worked in numerous restaurants, and have seen a fair number of interns who come into the place and work for free, trying to get experience so they can eventually have a culinary career. Without exception, these interns have been idealistic and have gone on and on about their "passion" for baking (or in your case, cooking) and how much they love inventing new dishes, etc etc. More often than not, they quit the internship feeling disheartened, with the sense that professional cooking is not what they thought it was. It's great that you have enthusiasm, but as a manager, I couldn't care less about that.

Here's what I care about: do you know how to move in a kitchen, or are you going to be tripping all over yourself and others? Do you know how to multi-task and do two, three, or four things at once? Do you work clean? Can you work quickly? Time is literally money, and the longer you spend dicing carrots into perfect cubes, the more each cube costs. Will you get bored with the endless-ENDLESS-repetition of tasks and start looking for ways to avoid doing the grunt work? Are you a prima donna who thinks he/she's too good to clean your station/mop the floors/any other task I assign you?

Cooking can be creative and fun, but it can also be exhausting, back-breaking, extremely boring, and very stressful. Are you willing to start at the bottom and work yourself up? Can you live on near-minimum wage? (Seriously--the pay is utter crap.) Will you have a problem taking orders from a chef who's your age or younger? Can you handle working with people who are socially inept, sexist, obnoxious, or all of the above? Do you value having your weekends, evenings, and holidays off?

I don't mean to discourage you, but I do want to be clear because I've seen too many idealistic people flounce out of a kitchen because they had built up an utterly absurd, romanticized notion of what cooking as a career actually is. My best advice is to hit some of your favorite restaurants--where you really respect the food--and ask if you can work for free an afternoon or two a week. You'll likely be assigned to lowliest of prep work, and you can get a feel for how comfortable you are in a kitchen. Certainly don't invest in culinary school--a phenomenal waste of money, in my opinion.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 8:36 PM on April 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

I went to culinary school when I was 32. I really enjoyed it. But culinary schools are expensive. I still work in the restaurant industry but I spend more time with management work than I do cooking simply because that is what pays. I would suggest that you really do some research before committing to any type of culinary career. Catering usually pays well but for every hour that you spend cooking you have to spend four hours talking to the mother of the bride about the reception. Line cooking is fun but it is also physically demanding and low paying. I don't mean to sound negative about a culinary career. I really enjoy it. But you need to be realistic about what you are getting into.

There are also hundreds of different jobs that might fulfill your desire to be creative with food that don't involve working in a restaurant. I spent a year working as a demonstration cook at a local health spa. Many high end kitchen stores have a demonstration kitchen or have cooking classes. The International Association of Culinary Professionals is an umbrella group for people who work in the culinary industry and not just chefs. I really enjoy cooking professionally but the majority of the people that I have worked with in restaurants don't work there because of their love of good food.
posted by calumet43 at 9:20 PM on April 14, 2009

I liked Bourdain's book, but I loved "On the Line" by Eric Ripert. He's the head chef at Le Bernardin, and the book has great detail of what goes on in a restaurant. It describes each job, and includes some great stories.

Oh, only about half the staff went to culinary school.
posted by Marky at 10:07 PM on April 14, 2009

I don't mean to discourage you, but I do want to be clear because I've seen too many idealistic people flounce out of a kitchen because they had built up an utterly absurd, romanticized notion of what cooking as a career actually is.

One of my friends, when he was starting out, the first couple kitchens he walked into, multiple people said to him, "jesus christ you're not one of those [deleted]s who's here to write a book are you? SWEAR TO ME THAT YOU ARE NOT WRITING A BOOK!"
posted by jeb at 11:14 PM on April 14, 2009

Yet another book to recommend (sorry--there's just too much great writing on this topic): I just finished Heat, by Bill Buford. Buford was a fiction editor for years (Granta, The New Yorker) and in his late 40s when he started to write a profile of Mario Batalli. He ended up leaving his job, apprenticing full-time at Batalli's restaurant Babbo, and traveling to Italy several times to learn pasta-making and butchery. His book vividly describes how a professional kitchen functions, and it is also a first-person narrative of a guy learning the difference between home cooking and professional cooking (in middle age).
posted by alb at 7:50 AM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Since we're recommending books I'll also throw in The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman, one of those guys who was writing a book.
posted by Miko at 8:34 AM on April 15, 2009

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