Yesterday I had the honor of participating in a career fair for high school kids at a local community college. I was instructed to offer some food for thought to those who may be thinking of pursuing a career in the culinary field. I wanted to make sure I encouraged the kids while simultaneously making sure they realized what the reality of a career in the culinary world looks like. Without further ado, here are my top 10 nuggets of wisdom. Feel free to share with anyone that may be considering a culinary career or anyone who is college bound really. I think these are fitting for any student just graduating.
1) If you think you are going to go to culinary school and it will automatically lead to television appearances and being the next celebrity chef, think again. A lot of the folks who struck it big got lucky. Many didn’t go to culinary school and many have never actually worked in a restaurant. TV is more about personalities, money and luck than about talent and ability.
2) If you think being a chef is glamorous, think again. It is a lot of long, grueling, hot hours of physical labor under not only uncomfortable circumstances, but often dangerous ones. This doesn’t mean it isn’t fun and it doesn’t have its rewards, which it does, but don’t kid yourself into thinking it is a cushy job. You will never see nights, weekends or holidays again and having a normal family life is pretty much out of the question.
3) If you are looking at going to a two year, high end, culinary trade school, you may want to reconsider that. A lot of talk has been going around about these “cash cow” trade schools. They take your $70,000, leave you in debt and you are not actually more likely to land a job as an executive chef at a high end restaurant. In fact, your odds are the same as everyone else. A lot of chefs actually never attend culinary school, but rather do stages or apprenticeships in restaurants, working from the bottom of the barrel up, learning the trade and learning the style/recipes of that restaurant. I’m not saying don’t pursue an education in the culinary field, but it is wiser in my opinion to go to a community college first, get your GE’s done and then transfer to a culinary program at a smaller, less expensive school while working in the industry to gain practical hands on experience.
4) Don’t decide on your “major” right away. Going in undeclared, unless you are absolutely sure of your calling in life, is a lot smarter. I think almost everyone who goes in with a major declared ends up changing their major at least once, if not many times during their college career. You are better off getting your GE’s out of the way and seeing what it is that really strikes your fancy and then deciding and committing to that so you don’t waste time on a bunch of classes that will be of no use to you. And even with that being said, just because you pick a major and graduate with a degree in that field, there is no guarantee that you will actually get a job in that field. The benefit of the education is greater than the degree. Be flexible. I have two bachelor’s degrees (B.A. in French and a B.F.A. in Theater Performance with an Emphasis in Film/TV) and a Master’s Degree in Cultural Anthropology with an Emphasis in Food and Culture and I am not actually working in any of those fields, but everything I learned can and does come into play in my current job.
5) Should the opportunity arise to study abroad, take it. Make it happen even. I learned more and gained more wisdom and maturity in the 6 months I spent in Paris than in the entire rest of my time in college. The experience of living in another country, learning the language and having your independence cannot be overestimated.
6) If you get $$$ toward school, whether it is a grant or in the form of a scholarship, take it. You will thank me for that one later when you don’t have a huge student loan to pay off. It may not be your first choice in college, but sometimes that is is a compromise worth making.
7) Research your options within your field of study. For culinary degrees this may not just involve working as a chef. You may teach, work with a food manufacturing company on research and development, work in a nutritional/recipe development capacity for an institution like a hospital/school/nursing home, work in sales for a food company or something else altogether that you haven’t even thought of or that hasn’t even been invented yet. Things are changing fast and new opportunities arise every day.
8) Follow the Julia Child school of life, find something you are passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it. I don’t care if that’s food or math or engineering, but if you love what you do, you will surely be happier in life than if you hate what you do. You may not get rich, but I guarantee you will feel like you are the wealthiest person alive.
9) Continue being a student. I graduated college in 1998 and finished my Master’s Degree in 2008. Since then I have gotten my certification through the International Association of Culinary Professionals and am currently pursuing an additional certification through the American Culinary Federation. If you always keep learning, you will always stay ahead of the rest. You can never know too much.
10) Find a mentor, someone who you look up to and who can help support you in your endeavors. This can be a teacher, a friend, a fellow student or something totally different. All throughout my schooling there was always that one person who I could trust to give me honest feedback and who was there for me when I had my doubts. That continues to this day. Building a support system is key to making the most of your education and of your life in general.