Question for chef's

So I found my love for cooking about 2 years ago. Decided to enroll for le cordon bleu. I am enrolled to start at the end of the year. But I recently had a job at a catering company and decided it was just not for me. I don't know if it was because the food was crappy (they were only making stuff like pizza and burgers that were fast food quality). and of course I can't just hop into an upscale restaurant because they want someone who is experienced. I'm kinda questioning my career choice and don't want to go to school then end up getting stuck in a career I don't like. So I guess I am just wondering if anyone has decided that they did not want to work in the food industry and just cook on their free time instead?

Christina Marie Smith


Voted the Best Reply!

Shuna L. March 31, 2015
Hello Christina,
Your fears are valid, and it's fantastic that you gained a little experience, albeit yucky, before signing a big check away. I have written a lot on the subject, you may want to peruse ~

It's incredibly hard to pay off culinary school at the wage one generally gets as an entry level cook in a restaurant. But I agree that restaurants are not the only place to learn how to cook professionally. Restaurants tend to speed up the learning, though, because they are faster paced and more high pressure than a lot of other cooking environments.

If you have +/- $37,000 to spend on culinary school, an option would be to put that $ in your bank account and live on that while you make an entry level wage.

The not so secret truth about all restaurants, high end or not, is that one does *not* need to be experienced to get a job in one. All one needs is: 1. the desire to learn, 2. stamina - physical, mental, spiritual, 3. one or two good knives, 4. an open schedule 5. the ability to think on your feet, work clean, listen, and learn quickly.

Read all that you can, and talk to all the cooks you know - both who have gone to cooking school, and those who have not, before signing up for one. Do due diligence on the school too - many cooking schools have been sued by current and former students for lying about what they will provide during and after graduation.

There's a million incredible kitchens out there, and many of them will be an awesome learning experience for you, I promise.
BakerRB March 27, 2015
I'm not a chef, but I did attend a Pastry & Baking program ~10 years ago because I'd always wanted to do it and the opportunity presented itself. Make sure you know what your total monthly loan payments will be after graduation! Quite a few fellow students had absolutely no idea what they'd owe at the end. The student financial office had clearly spelled out the federal portion's payment, but had glossed over the private loans, and students were in tears on the last day of class when loan docs were passed out and they realized they would soon owe $600+ instead of the $110 they knew about, and they'd be making $8-$10/hour. Honestly, many decided they couldn't afford to change jobs at that point. Independent of that and more related to your question, several husbands/wives of my coworkers have gone through culinary programs and realized during the internship at the end that they did not like the restaurant work one bit. I'd echo other sentiments that you try another job (or several) before school begins. Also on the financial side, at the time I was in school the costs were monthly (even if you made payments annually or semiannually) so that you could quit the program and only owe the amount due through the current month. It's worth reading a copy of the cancellation policy now to see what happens in case you realize school is not for you midstream. And if some great job opportunity arises midyear you want to be able to take it!
Nicole O. March 27, 2015
I got my first job in a restaurant at 15 and continued working in them until I was 22. I did everything from fast food to fine dining, high volume bakery, cooking, bartending and serving. This is something that people don't mention much but do you want nights, weekends and holidays ever again? Most restaurant & catering jobs won't allow for this. Also, the lack of benefits, paid time off and sick leave are troubling. If all your friends and family are in the service industry, this can make it easier however, it's something to consider. I had to translate my love of cooking into my home for my family and also, I got a position with a contract food service company- but I work in HR. I'm exposed to the world of food on a regular basis however, it hasn't ruled my life. Balance is important. Also, I went to JWU- baking & pastry. I continued on and got my BA and MBA from the school. I'm $85k in the hole and at $700 a month in loan payments, it's rough. I don't know that I'd be so quick to spend $37k on school if I had the choice again. Just my thoughts :-)
thirschfeld March 27, 2015
Don't sell yourself short. I don't know where you live but in most towns high end restaurants would kill for dedicated and motivated employees and experience isn't always the first thing they are looking for. I thought the same way you did when I was looking for my first culinary job, that no high-end restaurant would higher a newbie, but I applied anyway and found a position in a really good restaurant. Try to get your foot in the door of an upscale place, even if it mean as a dish dog, and see if you like what is going on.
LeBec F. March 26, 2015
christina, i hope you can put behind you the scars of that first food industry experience; i think it should not be clouding your dreams. Most of us start out doing jobs we don't like. Personally, I think the difficult choice is between cooking school and just jumping right into a restaurant kitchen situation. Some advice re: careers in restaurant kitchens:
-There are a number of good first-person account books about chefing in a restaurant. READ those. They will give you the nitty gritty facts about (aside from many other things):
-- what kinds of jobs require what shift hours (as in- pastry chefs often work early mornings when the regular kitchen crew hasn't arrived yet.)
- the physical aspect of this line of work (are you strong enough to haul heavy floor mats and lift big stock pots? [These won't always be relevant ; many kitchens have clean up crews and a stock chef who does that task]);
-- what kinds of jobs require what shift hours (as in- pastry chefs often work early mornings when the regular kitchen crew hasn't arrived yet.)
--are you confident that you have the stick-to-it-ness to work hard while acclimating to a physically demanding and on-your-feet-all-day job?
You might be surprised to know how many Head chefs started out washing dishes in the very kitchen where they eventually became the head chef. Hard work , serious work ethic, and flexibility ( "Christina, Jimmy's sick today; could you cover his shift on garde manger ? I'll walk you though it") While there are many very tough parts to restnt chefing, a big plus is usually that the environment is (or is, eventually) a family one where there is not a strict hierarchy (that DOES exist but usually in the Hotel world or the more traditional French kitchens), so if you prove yourself, you will advance. Because of this ( and many other reasons), many many restaurant chefs don't go to culinary school; instead, they jump right into the work world, either volunteering and/or accepting a very low wage--while they "learn the trade."
I think the intro to David Chang's Momofuku book, and certainly Tony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential-- give related details. And there are many other books as well. "Shucked", while it is not about restaurant chefing, but about working on an oyster farm, is a terrific book for giving one a feeling for the hard hard work, and the camaraderie, of working in a physically demanding mostly male world.

As other 52ers ave mentioned, there are many other food related careers. If you were thinking of private chefing or catering--- do you have an outgoing energy? can you sell yourself? is your attitude about new challenges, "I can do this!"? and tons of other issues.
boulangere March 26, 2015
Well, the good news is that you've figured out what sort of cooking you DON'T want to do, and that is valuable in itself. I agree with all the other suggestions to persevere in terms of pursuing the sort of cooking you think you want to do. When people tell me that others tell them that they're such a good cook, they should open a restaurant, I quietly shudder inside. Loving to cook and running a restaurant or cooking professionally are very different things. You already know that you love to cook. Now you need to see if you can make room in that love to learn from someone who actually has something to teach you. I'm not remotely saying that you should set aside your goal of attending culinary school. I did as an adult. It is about my 4th career, but it is the one that has made me the happiest. On the other hand, I know many people who were rudely awakened upon graduation by learning they were qualified for jobs paying $10 an hour. This a few years ago; nonetheless, the fact remains that even given somewhat higher starting wages now, it is difficult to carry a significant debt load on a starting wage. You are so wise to proceed cautiously. If you lived near me, I would hire you in a heartbeat. So go sell yourself to a place you respect and a chef you admire. Onward! And please let us know how your story unfolds.
Mei C. March 26, 2015
Hi Christina! I can write to you with the perspective of someone who did end up going to culinary school and switching gears completely--I've worked in restaurants for 5 years and counting. I totally know what you're talking about. It's so good that you're asking yourself this NOW--BEFORE you go to culinary school, as it is indeed a huge investment of time and money. I think it's really important to know what you're getting into before taking the plunge; professional cooking isn't for everyone. If I were you, I would reach out to and stage at restaurants you like, to see if you like the pace and the style of cooking in a restaurant. This is a very common practice, and anyone who lets you in probably wouldn't let you do any heavy lifting, but it's so good to be able to actually be in a kitchen and see what it's all about.
The thing is, cooking professionally is GREAT. By and large, the people are really fun, and the work can be, too. The flip side to that, of course, is that it can be grueling and difficult and sweaty and stressful. It's a very balanced mix of both, depending on where you are.
Good luck! Don't be discouraged that you weren't crazy about your catering job. There are plenty of other options out there, but if you find that professional cooking isn't your thing, that is OK, too. There are tons of options out there that involve food but that aren't cooking in restaurants.
Christina M. March 26, 2015
Yea I think thats my biggest fear is going to school and finding out $37000 later that it's not what I want to do. I know people that have went to school and decided that it wasn't what they wanted to do and ended up in regular office jobs, but they're still paying off student loans. I honestly felt like that catering job completely killed my dreams of being a chef, but at the same time i know that if I did go to school to become a professional chef it wouldn't be at a place like that! I have an interview with a family that's looking for a personal chef and they seem really interested in hiring me. So hopefully they'll hire me and I can get more insight on whether this is what I want to do for a living. They live in the rich neighborhood near my area so I have a feeling i'll be cooking stuff i'm more comfortable with cooking. Not pre-made pizza and burgers. Ugh they even had those powdered mix into water mashed potatoes. I think that was my breaking point, lol.
Monita March 26, 2015
Don't give up. There are many pathways you could pursue in a food career. There's certainly upscale catering but there's also:personal cheffing; working in a restaurant; writing cookbooks; food styling, teaching. Is there a local professional group in your city that you could join. If you were in NY, I'd recommend connecting with the NY Women's Culinary Alliance. Once you start school, you'll also be able to target some local restaurants and get opportunities to "trail" for a shift. That will give you a taste of restaurant work
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