I was in my mid-thirties and had been working for a software firm making a decent living, so the idea of starting at the bottom in a brand new field was a little daunting. Every time I contemplated the change I was mentally cataloguing all of my worries: Would I be able to support myself? Would anyone want to hire me? Am I too old to be on my feet all day after years of sitting at a desk? Did I really want to go back to school with a bunch of 18 year olds to learn a new trade?
Despite all of my concerns, I moved forward. I decided that since I hadn’t enjoyed school that much the first time around, this time I would do it right. I would pick a good school and apply myself to learning everything I could. I was more interested in baking and sweets than anything else, so I opted to concentrate on that. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time in school, so I wasn’t interested in a long 1-2 year program. In my research, there seemed to be several good schools, but ultimately I fell in love with the notion of living in the Napa Valley and decided to attend the 30-week Baking and Pastry course at the CIA’s Greystone Campus. Moving from an area that was not very up to date on haute cuisine, it was a great experience to live in an area where everyone seems to love good food and wine. It is also fun to run into Thomas Keller over bacon and eggs at a local café (high point of the week :) ).
My classes went by so much quicker than I expected. I was happy to find that I had a small class and that at least half of the students were either career changers like me or at least not directly out of high school. In other postings that I read I see the same advice over and over again – if you think you are interested in cooking, get a job in a kitchen before committing yourself to it as a career. I understand why this so often gets repeated. I felt that I was a fairly advanced home cook, but soon realized that cooking professionally is really very different. I saw students drop out from my class and from some of the other classes in session at the time because it was not what they expected. I was sad to see some of them go, but in my case I was happy with the choice I had made.
I was also happy with the program at the CIA, but not all of the students felt the same way. There were moments in the beginning where I thought we were spending a lot of time on simple things like cookies and muffins. I would have expected anyone entering the program to already have these items down. But surprisingly, there were some students that came with very little cooking abilities. Nonetheless after the first month we progressed to more challenging fare and I feel that I came away from the program with a good understanding of the basics. The instructors all had impressive credentials; the school itself is in a gorgeous old stone building next to the Beringer Winery and there were always fascinating things going on at the school. It is mostly geared towards continuing education, so a lot of professional chefs visit for classes and I was able to meet several of them. By far one of the best things I got from the school was the many contacts I made.
When I graduated I did not have any trouble finding a job. In fact I was surprised to find that instead of being a liability, my previous work experience was an asset. I soon found that many job candidates for the entry level positions I was looking at had very little idea of how to handle themselves in an interview or act professionally. I ended up getting several job offers before I actually graduated.
The job I chose was for a fine dining restaurant closer to the city for only $10/ hour. This is barely enough to cover rent in this expensive state, but I looked at it as a further investment. I figure that if I was willing to pay so much for school, I may as well consider this chance as a continuation of my education.
It has been over a year and again I do not regret my choices. I did find that some of the things I worried about did not come to be, some did (yes, sometimes being on my feet so much is tough) and there were some problems I had not thought to worry about. I have found my jobs since graduation to be fairly easy. I have been amazed at how lazy some of my coworkers have been. By comparison, just keeping busy and not goofing off has set me apart. In my jobs, most of my coworkers are quite younger than me. Their favorite topic seems to be “So, how hungover are you?” Though I have no problems getting along with them, I have found very little common ground. Sometimes this is a little lonely and I very much crave adult conversation.
I have also been quite surprised by how poorly run some of these businesses are. Just because someone is a great chef, it does not mean she knows the first thing about management. Some things that seem very necessary to me, like understanding food costs or abiding by employment laws seem to be considered superfluous. It appears as though the health inspector, taxman and ACLU don’t pay these businesses any attention. I guess these differences between my work at larger corporations and these small businesses are quite apparent to me.
Truthfully, I don’t miss the money. Crazy as that sounds, this is the first time I have ever loved the work that I am doing. I had wondered once if going to cooking school would be an “overdose” and I would grow sick of cooking. On the contrary, I have an even greater desire to learn as much as I can. I subscribe to the magazines, go to the foodie shows and visit websites like this. Being miserable in your job affects every aspect of your life. I am very grateful that I finally found the courage to make this change and know I will never regret it. I always have the skills I learned previously and if I ever tire of actually being in the kitchen all day I am certain I will find many other opportunities within this field. If you are considering a similar career change, my best is advice is to do your research and go in with your eyes open – the CIA even offers a week long “career discovery” class that immerses you in the routine. Find out if it is what you truly want, then pursue it with all your heart. Good luck!