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Would chefs hire a 45yo ex-con J&W grad?

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 
Hi all,

I just joined mainly to get some help on a difficult decision. I've been accepted to J&W and would really like some honest opinions from chefs and students on whether to go, or if it would be a waste of time and money.

Some back-story on me: I'm 40 years old, and had wanted to be a chef when I was much younger. My dad was a cook, my family owned restaurants, and I started cooking when I was 12 and I loved watching cooking shows and reading cook books as a kid, even before there was a Food Network or the whole celebrity chef thing. I sent off for an application to the CIA at 17, but then never filled it out mainly because all my family and friends were so against it. So I did the conventional thing, went to college with my friends, became a lawyer, and just kept watching cooking shows, collecting cook books, and cooking at home for 20+ years.

Fast forward to the present: I've screwed up my law career through some stupid decisions and getting too involved with some criminal clients, and now I've been disbarred, and I'm looking at going to prison for up to three years AFTER I spend the next two years helping the Feds on some related cases as part of a deal I made. In the mean time I've got to either work or go to school for two years, and then find a new career after prison.

I applied to chef school because I figured I'd rather be in school pre-prison instead of working at whatever job I can get with a useless law degree, and was somewhat surprised to be accepted. So now I've got some serious questions:

1) When I get out of school, my first job will likely be in a federal prison cafeteria for 3 years, and then I'll be 45. Will any chef even hire me based on that background, and what types of offers am I likely to get? My charges are all white-collar stuff, for wire fraud and money laundering, if that makes a difference.

2) Assuming I'm in good physical shape from all those prison yard workouts, do you think a 45 year-old starting out can keep up in the kitchen and have a meaningful career ahead of him, or is it just pointless to start that late?

3) With a culinary degree and 3 years cooking in prison, and some experienced restaurants-owning family members to back me, could I open my own place right away, or is that a disaster waiting to happen?

Sorry for the long intro and questions but I wanted to give the complete picture and would really appreciate any input from those already in the profession or culinary school. I know I can ask the admissions and placement people at the school too, but I think you guys can give me a more accurate assessment from the field.

Thanks.
post #2 of 11
Most chefs I know are much rougher felons than you are!!!! ;)

Wow, what a story. You should take advantage of your 'time off' to write a book. I'm serious.

You're obviously a smart guy, and have enough education and common sense to know when a business is failing. Again, you're way ahead a significant proportion of restaurant owners out there. The question is, could you get financing? As for jobs, you may have trouble getting into the Four Seasons, but age and experience are definitely increasingly valued in the restaurant industry. Your record may not be as significant as you might think.

Read Jeff Henderson's bio "Cooked". He is the Executive Chef of the Bellagio. A former drug dealer, he got a 20 year sentence. Quite an interesting turnaround. If he can do it, I'm sure you can too.

Thanks for posting; that's quite a story. Planning a career switch around a prison sentence is not exactly common... Best of luck to you.
post #3 of 11
Hi exlawyer and welcome to Chef Talk. Anneke's response is the first of what I hope will be many. However, I think you'll attract even more answers if you post it in the Professional Chefs;s forum.

I also recommend you browse the Jobs forum just to see how that works, but also all the other forums, cooking articles, cookbook reviews, recipes, blogs, photo gallery.... whew! There's a lot here and many knowledgeable people to interact with.

Good luck with your new direction!
Regards,
Mezzaluna
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post #4 of 11
I echo Annekes sentiments.

We are always looking for people with life experience and are driven to succeed.Remember there are so many avenues open to culinarians these days. Food stylist,writer,recipe development, etc.You may be surprised at the opportunities.
In any regard, good luck with your life, we chefs are a supportive group
Baruch ben Rueven / Chanaבראד, ילד של ריימונד והאלאן
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Baruch ben Rueven / Chanaבראד, ילד של ריימונד והאלאן
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post #5 of 11
Thread Starter 
Thanks for the replies everyone.

Anneke, I had read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, and that gave me some perspective, but Cooked sounds like exactly what I need to read, not just from the career change aspect but also what cooking/life in federal prison will be like. Thanks for the great suggestion!

Mezzaluna, I was going to post in the Professional Chef's forum until I read the notice not to post there unless you're a professional chef. So you're saying it's okay?

Speaking of Bourdain, some things he wrote are what made me wonder whether 45 is too old to start. He talks about how he feels old in kitchen even though he's at a point in his career where he's mostly expediting instead of cooking. Of course, that could be because he's been cooking for 20+ years instead of just his age. But I wondered if cooking professionally is like trying to break into sports or some other careers where it's just unrealistic to start at middle age when you're competing against 20 year-olds.
post #6 of 11
Wow, you didn't miss a thing, exlawyer! :blush: Must be from all that reading in the law library. You're right, the professionals' forums are for professionals. I'd suggest The Late Night Cafe for your query.

By the by, I took the LSAT way back in the early 80s. I did pretty well, but I have to admire anyone who can think like that. I'm way, way, way too far on the other half of the brain; it's not for everyone. :) I stayed in teaching, mostly in middle schools. :bounce:
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post #7 of 11
Thread Starter 
I did consider food writing because my undergraduate degree is English Lit. I'm glad to see you mention it as a culinary instructor. It would definitely push me more towards getting the degree if food writing was a realistic path if cooking professionally doesn't turn out to be what I want.
post #8 of 11
Thread Starter 
Reading the fine print is an old habit, I guess! Thanks and I'll check out the Late Night Cafe.

I took the LSAT in '89...the days of "LA Law" on TV. Seemed like everyone I knew wanted to be a lawyer. I did well on the test, got into a decent school, and it seemed a shame not to go even though I wasn't sure I wanted to be a lawyer. Kind of like this chef school decision, perhaps. Maybe one day I'll know for sure what I want to be when I grow up. But I admire anyone who can be a teacher, especially for teenagers.
post #9 of 11
Several years agos when I opened my restaurant, I was looking for cooks that I thought would have the same passion and drive that I did. I wanted some one that I could trust. I was looking for that person that every chef wants to hire and hardly ever does. I had an applicant with no formal experience but interview fairly well, My instinct told me something was not just right. So I asked the applicant what was he not telling me? It turns out he just got out of prison from a drug conviction. He had a great job previously but made some bad choices. To make the long story short he (and I) learned to cook in prison and also accepted Christ. This was in 2003. He was the best hire I ever made in my 24 years in the food industry. He is now the chef de cuisine and will probably be the exec in the next location. He may also move on to do his own thing. Bottom line. Get past your past and make your future. Whatever level you make it to, be the best.
IMAGINE WHIRLED PEAS...
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IMAGINE WHIRLED PEAS...
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post #10 of 11
Philosophical and spiritual convictions, whether religious or not, are great things.
post #11 of 11
Bravo! You have some great suggestions here. Writing/teaching seems to be what you are leaning to. I think you will do well whatever you choose, and anyone would be wise to want to work with you. Best of luck!!

K
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