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Just turned 40. Culinary School or More Kitchens? Please help!

post #1 of 20
Thread Starter 

Here is my situation: I've been cooking professionally off and on for eleven years. I know my way around a kitchen. I have been working at an upscale European style restaurant with classical French dishes and techniques for the past year. I am one of two lead line cooks in the kitchen and one or both of us is in charge of the kitchen at night if the chef isn't there and sometimes I still am an charge of service as he is in the back prepping for a tasting menu.

 

 I just turned forty and am working with other line cooks that are in their mid twenties or younger. I am keeping up them for now, but I wonder how many more years I have with fast moves and clean plates. I enjoy the delegation of duties and making sure consistent food goes out the door. I like being in charge and having people come to me with questions and being able to answer those with confidence. Confidence that I've gained working hard for a year in this kitchen while reading culinary text books and kitchen math texts on my days off and before work.

 

I am thinking about culinary school but it will be difficult. It's a two year program that will probably take me four because I have to still work and commute to school which is two hours away. I don't really have the money for it but am saving every last penny. On the other hand I want to branch out and work in more restaurants in other parts of the country and gain more experience, possibly even working in Europe, which would be a dream.

 

So my question is this: I feel the crunch of time and not sure I can still hang as a line cook at fifty. I would like to be running a kitchen sooner than later as I enjoy that aspect and coming up with new dishes. I also would like to travel to different areas of the country and learn more about different foods and cooking techniques but much of it is to see other parts of the country while living and working there, such as Colorado. In your experience, should I spend the next four years in culinary school, which would make me forty four before graduation, or should I spend the next four years in various kitchens around the world gaining experience that way. In this day in age can someone become a chef at a very nice restaurant without a culinary degree? I believe it's possible, yet doesn't happen where I live, to become a chef based on merit of experience.

 

In your opinion which way should I go, please bearing in mind that I am feeling the crunch of time and would like to move up the rung as fast as possible while learning what I need to learn to get to chef position.

 

Thank you for your answers, sorry this was so long, it's a huge issue for me right now and I feel I needed to explain in detail my situation.

post #2 of 20

I am still hanging at 62, probably because I never really stopped. Just the other day I had a younger (who isn't?) person look at me in amazement and ask how I got that done so fast: without breaking stride the guy next to him said because he has done thousands.

 

Culinary school would be an expense that I am not sure would be beneficial or necessary, at this point in your career, in order to be the chef at a very nice restaurant. I feel that work experience probably trumps schooling even in this day and age when hiring for a chef level position.

 

The one thing to consider if you decide to spend the next 4 years traveling and or working in different restaurants for the learning and different experiences, be careful of having too many jobs during that period as you could possibly be viewed as a job jumper with an unstable work history. A varied and broad work history and experience level can be a double edged sword. IMO it is a bit ridiculous and a bit of an oxymoron but that attitude and outlook is out there in employers that are looking to hire.

Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
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Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
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post #3 of 20
Thread Starter 

Thanks Cheflayne. It's nice to know there are some older guys out there still slinging plates. I am leaning more towards traveling and work experience but just concerned with the possible slower learning curve. I'm a lead line cook now and we don't have a sous position at my restaurant. I want to make a move to a sous position soon if possible. I feel I have the management part down as I was in the Marine Corps and know how to lead others, I just need more of the cooking experience. I also have done a bit of inventory and scheduling but not purchasing as of yet.

 

Thanks for your input!

post #4 of 20

Matt........your post is slightly confusing as you said you would need to commute two hours to school and continue to work in your town or city during the four years but then said you were prepared to move to Colorado or Europe.It made it seem like you had a family keeping you where you are.If you have the ability to move around in my opinion that would be much better than any cooking school.I think experience is always better than school and even if you're staging or getting paid a small wage at least you're not racking up a huge debt.You say you want to see the country and the world........spending four years in school isn't going to do that for you.Working seasonal jobs for a while,maybe even in Colorado, will give you a broad range of experience that you can expand on.You said your dream was to work in Europe......the worst part about a dream is waking up and realizing that you were sleeping and not living.

post #5 of 20

     I don't know if anyone can provide a simple or easy answer. I'd agree with Cheflayne. Age is just a number for the most part. Culinary school is expensive and the return these days is uncertain. I've met plenty of graduates who should not have bothered or failed to pay attention because they clearly did not seem to learn anything or are simply lazy. I've also met instinctive cooks with vast experience who never went to any school but I loved working with them. 

     Hiring seems to depend as much on the interviewers expectations, preconceived ideas and general outlook as much as anything you can put on a resume. I recently read that no one wants to see any info more than ten years old. I don't know if that's really true but it seems rather arbitrary. So the Nobel Prize I won back in 1998, the Pulitzer I won in 2001 and the James Beard Chef of the Year award I won in 1993 would not count, apparently. Oh, and the Pritzker Prize for Architecture Prize eleven years ago. My Ph.d in Chemistry might matter but I'm not sure. 

     I loved culinary school and felt it was a great opportunity for me. However I had parental help paying the bill and the school was much cheaper back then. A Phd candidate friend of mine once said she went to school because  no matter what job you ever have no one can take your degree away. 

     You can also do both. Travel a bit keeping in mind cheflaynes' advice about not too many jobs. There are also many classes you can take in culinary all over the country these days. So where ever you end up, there is probably some kind of school nearby. Certainly in the bigger cities. 

     I'd also suggest you consider what kind of experience you are looking to collect. Line cooking is not the be all/ end all of cooking. Knowing how to cook well does not require a three star kitchen exclusively. Management of a kitchen does not mean knowing everything there is to know about cooking. Eating and enjoying the food from different cultures doesn't require you to be able to cook at all. 

And at fifty you might feel differently about life in general. 

     I have found I get the most enjoyment out of cooking for people who really appreciate my efforts. Whether that means a friend in the hospital who I bring a home cooked meal, those at a potluck who enjoy what I brought to share or the patrons of a soup kitchen I volunteered at. The beautiful thing about cooking for me is not just the sense of discovery I have while harvesting and preparing the food itself but those meaningful interactions I have with those I love and care about over the food I make.

  Sorry for the long answer. I think after eleven years you're probably ready to run a kitchen. Which kitchen? I have no idea. But chasing after cooking knowledge is an endless though enjoyable endeavor.  I'll broaden the question by asking, "what do you want out of life?." 

post #6 of 20
Thread Starter 

Rbrad - I am divorced for a year and a half now, hence my move full time to cooking professionally which I love. My kids are all adults now and so I am free to go anywhere I want. I still have to work and my restaurant pays me more than anything I can find in the area now. So I have to commute two hours to culinary school on my days off and then work the other five at my restaurant. On the other hand, it sounds like experience in kitchens seems to be the way that everyone is leaning so far and that culinary school could be a lesser way to spend my money. I suppose that working for quality chefs and restaurants would be far better than a culinary degree on paper. I know the basis of applying various cooking methods to various types of meats and vegetables. I have good knife skills, I'm studying kitchen math so I can work out costs per plate, and I was thinking of spending my money, if not on culinary school, by joining the ACF and getting certified through there as a sous chef first and then chef.

 

Culinary school doesn't start until the fall, thankfully since summer is now upon us and we are doing three plus covers a night now, and ramping up for more. So I have time to think more about this and listen to the advice of all of you, which is immensely helpful! Possibly Florida or Georgia for the winter and learn more from a chef that is willing to teach. 

 

Again thank you all for the input so far and I welcome more. This is a huge life decision for me and will dictate the next four or five years of my life.

post #7 of 20
Thread Starter 

Chefwriter - Thank you for your long post, it wasn't that long and is greatly appreciated! I have only been cooking full time for the past year. Before that it was stints of about three months or so in the busy season to make extra money. It has always been as a line cook, although I have had experience in the past year working a lot in the pantry (cold line).

 

What I want out of life is to be in charge of a kitchen making foods that I love that create a symphony from app to desert. I want to be in charge of it all and help/train up and coming cooks who want to learn. I would like to do this while being able to work and live in various parts of this country and Europe. I want to learn as much as I can about cooking and food and enjoy the fact that it's a life long task - that keeps it fresh! I want to watch my well trained cooks pump out great plates consistently and get the satisfaction of knowing that I helped them get to where they are at. I have greatly admired and appreciated the chefs who have taught me, unfortunately in my present job the chef there has no interest in teaching. Which is one reason I'm looking to move on or go to culinary school - I need and crave my learning!

 

Thank you all for taking the time to write.

post #8 of 20

It might dictate the rest of your life.........there are so many possibilities for you.....good luck Matt.

post #9 of 20
Quote:
Originally Posted by chefwriter View Post
I recently read that no one wants to see any info more than ten years old. I don't know if that's really true but it seems rather arbitrary.

 

I think it is very true. My graduation from culinary school is so far back in my work history that nobody even notices it on my resume but it certainly hasn't slowed me in getting hired as a chef because my work history speaks volumes. Graduation is almost a footnote. :)

 

I closed my own restaurant eleven years ago (after thirteen years) and people don't even get that far back when reading my resume, too funny. I have to work it into the conversation.

Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
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Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
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post #10 of 20
Quote:
Originally Posted by Meatball Matt View Post
unfortunately in my present job the chef there has no interest in teaching. Which is one reason I'm looking to move on or go to culinary school - I need and crave my learning!

 

 

This was what moved me to go to culinary school in the first place. I was 30, had been working in restaurants for 10 years, yeah I know it makes my reply somewhat convoluted, but it is my story none the less.

Quote: ~Søren Kierkegaard
 Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.

There are chefs out there though that enjoy teaching and watching people grow, you just have to search them out. Look for places with frequently changing menus. This can be a good indicator of a chef that is still into learning and growing himself.

 

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Meatball Matt View Post
 

I was thinking of spending my money, if not on culinary school, by joining the ACF and getting certified through there as a sous chef first and then chef.

 

 

This is an excellent idea plus it will open up the chef coconut telegraph in your area and introduce you to chefs truly interested in the craft and potential jobs leads at quality places.


Edited by cheflayne - 5/27/15 at 11:32am
Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
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Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone.
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post #11 of 20

I am 53 year old C.D.C. with over 30 + years of experience, and I still work the line cooking on busy nights. You could spend four years in school, or present yourself to a potential employer as wanting to get the chance to run your own kitchen if they see that you have a good track record with other restaurants that you worked for in the past. You might be able to move up in the place you are at right now.

post #12 of 20

I'll add this. 

     More important than anything else is to have standards for yourself and keep them, no matter where you find yourself working. If you can work exclusively in great kitchens with great chefs using great products and great techniques for your entire career, more power to you. I hope it works out that way.

     But you will most likely find owners with low standards, chefs with low standards, chefs who have given up, establishments who put up a great front to the public but are a mess behind the facade, cooks with drug and alcohol problems, cooks who don't care, cooks and chefs who are jealous of you or insecure through no fault of yours, restaurants who use inferior products, can't pay their bills because their management is poor and look to cut too many corners, too many kitchen "professionals" who take shortcuts and hack it and too many employees in it just for the paycheck with no pride in what they do.  And much more. 

    Do not let any of that affect your style. Show respect for all your coworkers.  Work clean and neat always, good knife skills are always important, buying the better products makes the difference, keeping everything clean is important. Using the correct techniques is important.  Do it the right way, no matter what the next guy thinks is "too much work" or is unnecessary, keep learning, keep trying to improve, keep reaching out to others who share your enthusiasm and avoiding those who don't. Keep your dignity and your pride in your work. If some one doesn't expect you to do it well, do it well because YOU expect you to. 

Learn to hate the phrase, "It doesn't matter".

It does matter.

All of it.

All the time. 

post #13 of 20
Quote:
Originally Posted by chefwriter View Post
 

I'll add this. 

     More important than anything else is to have standards for yourself and keep them, no matter where you find yourself working. If you can work exclusively in great kitchens with great chefs using great products and great techniques for your entire career, more power to you. I hope it works out that way.

     But you will most likely find owners with low standards, chefs with low standards, chefs who have given up, establishments who put up a great front to the public but are a mess behind the facade, cooks with drug and alcohol problems, cooks who don't care, cooks and chefs who are jealous of you or insecure through no fault of yours, restaurants who use inferior products, can't pay their bills because their management is poor and look to cut too many corners, too many kitchen "professionals" who take shortcuts and hack it and too many employees in it just for the paycheck with no pride in what they do.  And much more. 

    Do not let any of that affect your style. Show respect for all your coworkers.  Work clean and neat always, good knife skills are always important, buying the better products makes the difference, keeping everything clean is important. Using the correct techniques is important.  Do it the right way, no matter what the next guy thinks is "too much work" or is unnecessary, keep learning, keep trying to improve, keep reaching out to others who share your enthusiasm and avoiding those who don't. Keep your dignity and your pride in your work. If some one doesn't expect you to do it well, do it well because YOU expect you to. 

Learn to hate the phrase, "It doesn't matter".

It does matter.

All of it.

All the time. 

Truer words have never  been spoken.

It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude as an individual who sees all of the above examples but still rises above it all

post #14 of 20
Thread Starter 

Thank you all for the advice so far. I have really enjoyed your comments and have taken them to heart in my process of trying to figure out what to do. So after a few days of thinking and talking to a friend of mine who went through culinary school and is now a line cook like me, here is what I have decided.

 

I have decided that I am not going to go to culinary school. I know how to run each station of the line, hot and cold, I have good knife skills and know how to break down chickens, cut beef from sub primal states, filet fish, and all the different ways to apply heat for the various cooking methods. I feel that culinary school would benefit me in learning more about international cuisine and baking, but I hope to learn more about that in new restaurants as needed.

 

I do have my friends text books from his time in culinary school and am presently studying Food and Beverage Operations, and purchasing, cost control and menu management. Is is here that I really feel culinary school would give me the most bang for my buck.

 

So after the summer is over her in Northern Michigan where I work for a European Bistro and love the food, I plan on pursuing a position in a kitchen in the south or somewhere warm, where I can learn more from a chef that is willing to teach and a restaurant that will look good on my resume and possibly open up doors for me in the future.

 

That's my plan, but I would be interested to know what you all may think of this and/or if there are any suggestions you may have to this plan.

 

By the way, if anyone is in need of a solid line cook with a drive to learn and take on more responsibility, and who really loves the life of a cook, feel free to pm me, I would love to talk with you!

post #15 of 20

In my opinion it depends on what your ultimate end goal is and how you see yourself getting there. I went to the CIA in NY and it opened some amazing doors for me. It cost an arm and a leg, but if gave me the foundation I needed to be successful. No one ever asked me "technical questions" in an interview because it was assumed I knew the information because of the school I attended so in that regard, it was the best thing I ever could have done. Although that being said, I was 23 at the time and now I'm 43 and at this point in my life, I would not be as interested in going to school as I was then. The reason being is that based on what I know now, a culinary degree doesn't necessarily mean that you know how to cook or cook well for that matter. Some of the people I graduated school with had 4.0 gpa's and could answer any culinary question you threw at them, but one classmate in particular, set her roux on fire in the last week before we graduated. I think she edits cook books or something now, but I know she didn't last long in a professional kitchen.

 

On the other side of the coin, the most talented and knowledgeable chef I ever worked for in my 15 years never when to school. He was all self taught! This guy ran a 6 million dollar a year operation with a clipboard. No computer, no formal business or culinary training, nothing. Just the desire to learn everything he could about food and food science. I remember we even used to play the "Culinary Quiz Game" on the hot line on Saturday nights just to break the tension and I could never stump the guy. And not to toot my own horn, but I know my stuff.

 

The moral of the story is that if you have the passion and drive to learn, then learn, create and gain as much knowledge as you can to develop yourself as a chef. Culinary school gives you the fundamentals and a little extra distance in a pissing contest but it doesn't make you a chef. Passion and knowledge makes you a chef and that is really all you need to be successful.

 

Cheers and best of luck!

post #16 of 20

I'll suggest you go to New Orleans. I worked there back in the mid eighties for a couple of years. Great food scene. You'll find cooks of every description from all over the country and from abroad. Great fresh seafood. Great food of all kinds. 

     Great hotels and restaurants of all kinds to work in. I never had a problem finding work and once you get there you will find a great grapevine among the hotel and restaurant employees. At the time I was there the Canal St. Pub was a big hotel/restaurant workers hang out. Pretty sure that's closed now but I have no doubt they still hang out somewhere near the French Quarter. 

     And fwiw, I like your career plan. mostly i like it because you have figured out what works for you. The important thing is to keep learning and you will most certainly be doing that. 

post #17 of 20
Thread Starter 

Thanks Chefwriter. New Orleans will be on my list of places for the winter. I'm still wrapping my brain around figuring out how to find work in a place that I haven't been yet. Nor will I have the chance to go there first to check things out before I actually make the move. My best idea so far is to use Craigslist and have a pocket full of money for first and last for an apartment which I will seek out once I get there.

post #18 of 20

A couple of thoughts. 

     Just before graduating from culinary school I ran into a former classmate who had moved there and offered a place to stay for a week when I arrived.

    Got a job first day by walking in and explaining who I was. I had written letters of introduction to various restaurants I was interested in explaining when I would be in NO and what I was looking for. This was obviously before the internet. Some of the letters arrived long after I got the first job. 

 Got my second job by dropping in applications (it didn't take many-two, three?). Got my third by a fellow cooks connections to another hotel kitchen. 

You will find many of the cooks you work with or meet are doing the same thing you are so the industry down there is used to cooks from all over coming for the experience. That may partly explain the great grapevine and the easy hiring. 

Arriving with some cash is a good idea. I had some but not a lot. 

      It took me about five days to find an apartment near Tulane U. in a boardinghouse. Got a better one a year later. Mostly because I had no idea what various neighborhoods were like and had to investigate on foot. Now you have the advantage of the internet and Google maps so you can look for likely apartments before you go. I had no car so I relied on the trolley. A car definitely expands your horizons. The Garden District and the area around Tulane U were pretty good areas for apartments but with a car you can look in further areas. 

Magazine St. in the Garden District seems to have developed quite an array of shops and cafes (google maps) so if I went back I'd probably start looking for apartments there. there were some places when I was there but it was still a great neighborhood to live in.

     In summer it's HOT and MUGGY. As a northerner you will be struck at first at how sloooow everyone walks. Eventually you will to. Best way to stay cool. 

Expect big bugs and plenty of roaches. Buy some boric acid. The locals will explain it to you. 

I would reach out to your FB friends and any acquaintances to see if anyone has access to an apt. you can use for a week or so. And as I mentioned, the general internet. 

So… I don't expect you will have much trouble finding a job or an apartment. Just remember virtually every place has great food. You will most likely gain weight. It's tough not to. 

post #19 of 20


If you are a lead cook in a restaurant, that has no sous chef, and you seem to have the work load of a line cook and a sous...you just might be sous without title I would work towards getting your employer to upgrade your title. then when you do leave on good terms. you have sous chef on your resume... it will be easier to get that next sous chef gig, but you will have to nail the interview/stage! don't settle on getting a position at a mediocre place, your at an age where you don't have time for that bullshit anymore, do your homework, focus on establishments that take pride in creating great food from scratch. Once you get into your new gig give it a year, up date your resume and start looking, for a better sous chef, or even chef de cuisine gig, but when you do start interviewing, and your asked about how much your salary as at your present employment you tell them 15-20% more than what you where making... don't leave your present gig if they cannot meet your money needs. The reason you want to get with hip establishment is that food scene is a great place to network your next gig. 

post #20 of 20
Photojonez ... The post before yours was a year ago.
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