Duffdude, I think it might be a good idea to hang out at the Culinary Students' forum here and ask people who are in the business how they got there, what they'd do differently to make it easier, etc. I bet you'll get some great pointers.
My younger brother thought about being a chef when he was the same age as you. He got a job as a busboy at a family type restaurant and worked his way into the kitchen after about a year. He hung out with the cooks and learned a lot of life lessons from them (some probably not the type of lessons my parents had in mind, but there you go....). He started out at the salad station then moved to the line. He switched jobs and learned more from another chef. Finally, he decided to go to culinary school. After lots of jobs (each one a move up) he became executive chef in a corporate dining room, which led to opening his own restaurant and catering business. He tried branching out and expanding but the excessive hours weren't worth the stress, so he has focused on his bistro and catering, with good success. I think he always wanted to own his own place, but it took him at least 15 years to get himself to that place. In the mean time he learned from a lot of people and so he was ready to make that move when his opportunity appeared.
Lesson (sorry, I used to be a middle school teacher): learn where you can, move up with each move if you can, and work gradually toward your goal. My brother isn't the most patient person in the world, but he managed to make the right moves because he didn't let his impatience get in the way.
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