Culinary career change?
July 14, 2006 9:30 AM   Subscribe

Am I batshitinsane for considering an Associates Degree in Culinary Arts at 27 years of age while holding a BBA and having some great experience? Before you comment, please read the

So I've got a BBA in Economics and Int'l Business from a quite reputable (regionally, at least) private university. I've made myself a happy life doing Budget Work (on a large level) and helping start up a small business (with all of the management and tax and whatnot that goes with that).

That said, I'm at a crossroads with said small business to whit I reckon I'll probably be out by the beginning of next year, for a variety of reasons that aren't pertinent to the question at hand.

Hence: Among the options I'm exploring, I'm digging around culinary school. I figure with my business sense, and some other ideas for some niche market-ing, either where I currently live (TX) or elsewhere, I could have a good run at something.

That said, am I crazy for considering this? From the two major local programs that I've found, I'm looking at a ~$50k or so investment.

I'm most interested in hearing stories from people that have done mid-life culinary school and found either success or failure and what would be the result of me 'graduating' from such a program. Any questions or anon-replies can be e-mailed to

posted by anonymous to Education (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If this is your dream, go for it!! If it's a mid-life crisis (at 27? Sounds more like finding yourself...)

As for being crazy - nope a great friend of mine gave up several years in the new york corporate world to start her own catering company that's doing awesome! She's a work-horse though, so if this is in you... I think good things will come.

Good Luck.
posted by eatdonuts at 9:44 AM on July 14, 2006

While culinary school itself is awesome, several people I know that have gone that route find that once they get out of school they start at the bottom of the barrel food prep once in the industry. You have to work insane hours with a lot of scutwork to prove yourself before becoming a chef in an establishment.
posted by pieoverdone at 9:48 AM on July 14, 2006

Am I batshitinsane for considering.....
Not one bit.
Do what makes you happy.
(This coming from someone in their mid-30's who is dropping out of the IT world and going into nursing)
posted by zerokey at 9:48 AM on July 14, 2006

A lot of people are getting into cooking as a career after having done something else. I should remind you however, that working in the industry is not as easy as putting bread on butter. Most cooks work 15 hour days, bakers are usually in-store by four in the morning, and don't even get me started on restaurant-owners.

Consider this from the position of not: How cool will it be when I become a chef! but from the position of What will I do when the course is over?.

I suggest that you try to get some experience as a sous-chef at a local restaurant, who would probably take you. Then, once you learn the ins and outs of this career choice, make the decision to go to school.

If more people knew the hard work that goes into things, they would probably thank their lucky stars about where they ended up in the first place. I think this is doubly important if someone reading this is thinking about becoming a journalist.

An interesting aside is Fife Simington, the former governor of Arizona, who is now a pastry chef.
posted by parmanparman at 9:52 AM on July 14, 2006

Go for it.

I watched Bravo's reality series Top Chef this past spring and was impressed with one participant's background.

Dave Martin was running his own technology business in Newport Beaxch, CA.
"...the money came easy but something was missing. He was constantly entertaining and putting together parties and cooking for friends and family to keep him going. Upon the technology market crash of 2000, Dave lost almost everything and made the choice to start over again and to pursue his true passion and love for food. He was then inspired to make a different kind of dough and chose to attend culinary school at the Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and graduated with honors. While still enrolled in school, Dave formed his own catering company, As You Wish. Additionally, Dave took on the Executive Chef role at XO Wine Bistro in Manhattan Beach. He soon built a strong local following of customers that enjoyed his multi-regional cuisine that ranged from Southern BBQ to Southeast Asian. Dave has a true love and passion for food and people, and enjoys bringing the two together. Dave is busy planning his next food related venture."

posted by ericb at 10:03 AM on July 14, 2006

You might find inspiration in Warren Brown's story.
posted by necessitas at 10:04 AM on July 14, 2006

parmanparman makes some good points.

If you haven't already, you might enjoy reading:

Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef, The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen.

Bill Buford's Heat : An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.
posted by ericb at 10:08 AM on July 14, 2006

As someone who's switched careers (but not into cooking!) in their thirties, I'd say the most important question to ask is what's making you consider this new path.

There are lots of things in the world that you may be curious about and interested in, but there's likely fewer things that you are very passionate about. It's the passion though that will determine whether you will be happy and successful in a career change.
posted by storybored at 10:10 AM on July 14, 2006

I assume you want to enter culinary school to become a chef (as opposed to a restaurant manager).

1. Read Kitchen Confidential first to get an insider's view of what life like a chef really is.
2. Work/stage in a restaurant for 3-6 months. This advice comes straight from the author of Kitchen Confidential at his last appearance in SF.
3. Read The Making of a Chef. Author Michael Ruhlman describes his journey through the CIA culinary school. It's a good snapshot of what you'll be learning. He also introduces people from his classes, some of whom were mid-life career switchers (I recall an IBM engineer and a finance person of sorts).

Having good business sense is crucial to running a successful restaurant but if you're planning on being a chef, you'll be working hard. Bourdain often draws analogies to the military in both physical and mental exertion.

And 27 is not a crazy time to switch at all. Many people continue to bounce around in their 30s-40s and still find success in their true calling. If it's what you want to do, take a chance on it but for something like the restaurant industry, it's important to know what you're getting into.
posted by junesix at 10:10 AM on July 14, 2006

You might find inspiration in Warren Brown's story.

As well from Joanee Chang's:
An honors graduate of Harvard College with a degree in Applied Mathematics and Economics, Joanne left a career as a management consultant to enter the world of professional cooking.

She started as garde-manger cook at Boston's renowned Biba restaurant, worked for a year assisting the owner/head-baker of Bentonwood Bakery in Newton, and in 1995 was hired as Pastry Chef at Rialto restaurant in Cambridge.

Joanne moved to New York City in 1997 to oversee the cake department of the critically acclaimed Payard Patisserie and Bistro. Returning to Boston a year later with dreams of opening up her own pastry shop, she brought her French and American training to Mistral where she was the Pastry Chef until summer of 2000.

Now she has opened Flour, a bakery and café, in Boston's South End. Flour features breakfast pastries, breads, cakes, cookies, and tarts as well as sandwiches, soups, and salads. Flour has been featured in Gourmet, Food and Wine, the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Lucky Magazine, and Boston Magazine and has received numerous Best of Boston awards.

Joanne's energetic commitment to excellence extends beyond the kitchen. She writes pastry articles and reviews cookbooks for Fine Cooking magazine. She is currently working on a cookbook featuring the most popular items from Flour. She teaches classes and advises pastry cooks both within the bakery and at area cooking schools. An avid runner, she has competed in every Boston Marathon since 1991.

posted by ericb at 10:11 AM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I used to to teach business classes at a small culinary college in the Chicago area. About one half of the students were non-traditional - over the age of 24, almost all of them with prior BS (or higher degrees).

I could write for hours but I'll keep it short - unless you are independently wealthy, do not go to culinary school if you do not want to work in a kitchen 14 hours a day 6 days a week. because that's what you will be doing, both in school and after.

If you are not working in a restaurant now, you should give it a try. The more menial and less rewarding the restaurant job you take, the better it will prepare you for culinary school.
posted by Jos Bleau at 10:14 AM on July 14, 2006

Alton Brown, too. Note it can be a rough transition from one's previous job to food industry entry-level work. AB directed TV commercials, and I recall reading somewhere that the scut jobs he had immediately upon leaving the New England Culinary Institute had him literally weeping on the drive to and from work. I hear he's done OK since then, though.
posted by mojohand at 10:20 AM on July 14, 2006

I made the switch to culinary school right after getting my Bachelor's in history and this is the best thing I could have done. It's expensive (I'm paying around $40k), but it's a lot of fun. If you love food, do it. If you have a business degree, you're going to make an awesome executive chef someday (you know...the guy who does all the admin work, not the cooking) or even a food and beverage director for a hotel. If you want to work in the food industry, even in a non-cooking position, I strongly urge you to go.

That being said, take much of what has already been written above with a grain of salt.

1. If you have no cooking expereince, that's okay. I didn't. Many people don't. But you have to be 100% positive that this is the field you want to go into. If you're not sure, call up a nice restaurant (one of the nicest in your me) and ask to come in as a stagiaire for a couple nights, work for free. They love free labor. Then you get good exposure to the industry and the food.

2. Anthony Bourdain may be one of the most famous chefs in the US today, but that doesn't mean he has written the bible on being a chef. I know that all Mefites absolutely adore Kitchen Confidential, but face it: he doesn't know everything and his experience isn't going to be the same as yours. Bourdain is an entertainer. He grew up in a different time. Things change and restaurants aren't all like they were when he was actually still a cook. If you want books to read, try something by Ruhlman or Psaltis, or Dornenburg & Page.

3. If you go for it, commit yourself 100%. Culinary school has a high drop-out rate. You'll take some classes you don't enjoy, that may be mostly lecture. But it's all worth it if this is what you enjoy. You will hear a hundred times: you get out of it what you put in to it. They say this for a reason: it's true.

4. If you enroll, get a job in a kitchen. I can't stress enough how important it is to be working in a kitchen while going to school. This will make it so much easier. You get more exposure and more experience.

5. Don't be scared of the price. You pay more, you get more. I chose one of the more expensive programs in Minneapolis and I've had some great instructors with impressive work experience. You go cheap, and you could get instructors with limited ambition and knowledge.

6. Figure out what you really want to do. Do you want to cook? Do you want to open your own restaurant? Do you want to manage a restaurant? Do you want to work as a purchasing manager? Do you want to be an F&B director? Do you want to be a consultant for restaurants? Do you want to work for a foodservice vendor or manufacturer? Figure this out and then start moving in that direction. Get a job that will get you as close as possible to that. A culinary degree (along with your business degree) will make you a prime candidate for any of those jobs.

7. Read, read, read, read, read. Read everything you can about food. Screw the Food Network. (You'll find that all professional chefs hate Emeril. And don't ever mention Rachel Ray.) Maybe if you don't have anything handy to read, it's okay to watch it. But you'll gain much more by reading books and magazines related to food and industry. Find out what the trends are, who the leading chefs are, what they are doing, what the finest restaurants are and how they are unique. Get magazines like Saveur, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Food and Wine. Get books like the Food Lovers Companion for a handy reference guide. Get books like Culinary Artistry to understand what it is to be a chef and the finer aspects of cooking.

If you have other questions, email me. nelson.bradley [at]
posted by BradNelson at 10:57 AM on July 14, 2006 [2 favorites]

I did this, too. Although I was 41 when I left my job and went to cooking school, and the reasons for my decision were a bit more complex than just a career change.

The people who are telling you that you'll start out at the bottom are right if the path you choose after culinary school is to work in the restaurant and/or hotel business. It's a weed-eater profession that only wants people who work hard, don't mind awful hours and don't care if the pay is shit.

But that's only part of the story. There's a growing market for personal chefs (which is what I'm trying to make a go of these days) and lots of sort of non-traditional opportunities to cook or otherwise be involved in the world of food.

When I asked AskMe about this a couple of years ago, I got a lot of negative people telling me not to do it. Here I am, a couple of years later, loving what I do (though I'm not making much money yet), and doing things the way I want to do them.
posted by briank at 11:00 AM on July 14, 2006

" When I asked AskMe about this a couple of years ago, I got a lot of negative people telling me not to do it. Here I am, a couple of years later, loving what I do (though I'm not making much money yet), and doing things the way I want to do them. " - briank

I think that is the issue all of us face. Happiness or Money? Got kids and a mortgage? Then I would lean against it. Otherwise... why not... you could get hit my a car tomorrow.
posted by meta x zen at 11:04 AM on July 14, 2006

This is coming from the wife of a chef and co-owner of a catering company.

If you want to be a chef (catering, restuarant, and sometimes a personal chef) or a restaurant owner, then you'd better be prepared to not have a "traditional" social life. Your job is to work while everyone else plays. Of course, you'll have plenty of time to knock back a few beers, but more often than not it's going to be at 2 a.m. after the restaurant closes or during the week. Not only do you have to be okay with that, but your significant others have to be, as well.

The work is hard, the hours long and sometimes it's really thankless. That said, there's nothing my husband would rather do.

If you're really interested in working in this industry, but are afraid of spending the money for culinary school, then earn your bones (no pun intended) the classical way, which is what my husband did. He worked his way up from the pantry to executive chef. Go out and get a job at the best restaurant you can, one that has a chef whose work you respect. You might start out as the dishwasher, but you'll learn in a hurry if this life is for you. If you think you want to go to culinary school after you've been working for a while, the Culinary Institute of America has a fast track program especially for culinary professionals.
posted by lemoncello at 11:34 AM on July 14, 2006

One of my best friends was making good money working IT for IBM. unfortunately, he hated it. He decided to go to CIA and now works as a chef. The downside is that he makes about half of what he used to and works pretty long and late hours, but on the other hand is much much happier. In the end i think you'd really need to figure out if the hours and pay would be worth it for you.
posted by m@L at 11:43 AM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I hear a lot of people saying that you'll make less money... how much are we actually talking about, per hour?
posted by mhuckaba at 12:32 PM on July 14, 2006

Whatever your friends are making divided by 2.
posted by junesix at 1:22 PM on July 14, 2006

I'm 37 and I graduate from Le Cordon Bleu in December. Go for it. Yes, you could end up starting at the bottom as a pantry cook chopping veggies for minimum wage, but thats not EVERYONE's experience. You could also end up as a personal chef, a caterer, a food writer, a restaurant manager, a food and beverage manager at a hotel, etc.

So yes, there are risks, but there are also great rewards.

But also, do it right. Don't go to one of those fly by night storefront cooking schools that promise to make you a chef in 3 weeks. The Le Cordon Bleu program is 18 months, Culinary Institute of America (Where Bourdain eventually went) is a 4 year school as is Johnson and Wales in Providence RI and I believe the one where Alton Brown went in Vermont.

I know my school in Pasadena has 'one time events' where you can work for people like Wolfgang Puck (our students prep the Governor's Ball with him) and other catering type things, do those, great experience and a little cash as well as networking in the industry.

Anyway, I'll stop now, but don't let the money stop you if its what you want.

posted by legotech at 1:54 PM on July 14, 2006

I know several chefs and my observation from the outside is this: you'd better be prepared to have a physically demanding job and work long and (and as lemoncello says) weird hours. That said, all the chefs I know like what they do and a few have managed to find work in situations with more traditional hours (by working for a Uni food hall and convention catering, to be specific).

From your description of your life, though, let me make an alternate suggestion - what about going back to school for hospitality management? If you are comfortable being a part of a startup and just think food is an area you could have some success in then that might be a better plan. I think the big question is how much time you want to spend actually planning a menu and cooking vs the more general running a restaurant.

If you're willing to move to Florida my alma mater (Florida International University) has a well-respected HM program. With an existing BA you could be done in 2 years. At $104.33 per credit (or $517.63 for out-of-state students) it's pretty affordable.

And either way, learn/improve your Spanish.
posted by phearlez at 2:25 PM on July 14, 2006

I started culinary school at 32. I'll finish this fall at 34. I have an MA in English and was working as an associate producer in television.

I wanted to teach and write cookbooks and have some credentials to do it. So far I teach cooking classes at the local Williams-Sonoma, have private clients for in-home culinary instruction and have been offered community ed classes at the school I am attending.

My advice, pay for everything up front. Borrowing money for culinary school is not a good investment, not a bad one, but if you are looking at $50K, it may take quite a while to recoup that. I agree with the poster above about looking at more programs. There are other programs with credibility that don't cost a fortune. If you want to be a "top chef" going to a well known school will often get your foot in the door. If you want to cook to be happy, a tech school will get you credentials and necessary skills.

Go for it. It's been one of the best decisions I have ever made.
posted by janespeed at 2:57 PM on July 14, 2006

Does one really NEED culinary school to learn how to cook?
Some of the best cooks out there are self-taught. This would take time, and practice. Im not talking about just cooking a few things, but your own study, research and developing a cooking style.

Why not teach yourself to cook, there's plenty of information out there even for the fancy obscure stuff and use the $50,000 to start a food-related business?

Then you dont have to worry about proving credentials...if you're the guy in charge.

I worked in food service for a short time during college, and even was a minimum wage "sous chef"...{I really was the salad girl and baked rolls for a hotel restaurant};)

Question for Brad Nelson--Why do professional chefs hate Emeril? [I believe his food is overly-rich and he's more of a showman]
posted by Budge at 7:27 PM on July 14, 2006

I quit the technology industry when I was 28 to start my own restaurant. No, I didn't go to cooking school because I had been cooking since I was 13 and was pretty sure I knew my thing. That said, it was still a big learning experience. I've written an article on the career switch that might be of some use to you.

If this is your dream, go for it. Just make sure you know what it involves. Professional cooking (as I found out) isn't like cooking a leisurely meal at home.
posted by madman at 8:36 PM on July 14, 2006

Budge: most chefs hate Emeril largely because he symbolizes the TV celebrity chefs. The problem they have with TV chefs is that they give a lot of bad ideas to the average customer, who then take them into restaurants and try to act like culinary experts. They can get an amazing dish, then reply "well, Emeril does it this way." It's annoying for a chef to have ignorant customers insult their food.

Also, TV chefs are total sellouts. There is no doubt that they know how to cook, but little of what they do is really innovative. Beyond that, most of them use poor practices on their shows. (You know that whole towel-on-the-shoulder thing that makes Emeril look so cool? Super unsanitary and not acceptable in a professional kitchen.)

It's hard to pinpoint, but I think it's just a general frustration that TV chefs make so much money and get so much public adoration for demonstrating minimal culinary ability. It's not so much that other chefs want that money or fame, they just think the public isn't get a fair shake at seeing and appreciating really great food.

Try watching Alton Brown or Anthony Bourdain's TV shows...they both make occasional rips on Emeril (especially Bourdain). That gives you some contextual idea why Emeril is disliked.
posted by BradNelson at 9:11 PM on July 14, 2006

Bourdain's really moved on to the ladies with big heads on the Food Network: Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee. Unlike Emeril, they have no culinary chops whatsoever.
posted by junesix at 11:26 PM on July 14, 2006

I would go for it. If it sucks or just doesn't work out, you have a skill and experience to fall back on.
posted by frecklefaerie at 10:38 AM on July 15, 2006

Bourdain is a hipster so that is why he disses Emeril. But I have heard him say that while he doesn't think he is the greatest chef, he has heard that Emeril treats his people really well and is supposedly a great guy to work for.
posted by vronsky at 10:03 PM on July 15, 2006

How about a different take? Do you have the $50000 or are you borrowing? If you have it, then find a local chef who wants to open a restaurant and partner with him/her. You'd put in the business experience, they'd do the food. Or start saving now while you earn more money at your current career and plan for a restaurant in the future.

Professional cooking is hard, even if you can skip over the grunt work because of your degree, you'll still be on your feet 12 hour days, holidays, nights, weekends etc. And you probably will not want to cook for "fun" anymore. I think you really have to feel that it's a calling, not just one option among many. Being a restraunteur isn't easy either, but it seems to be a good fit for someone who is already thinking about marketing and business.
posted by saffry at 7:28 PM on August 31, 2006

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