My So-Called Culinary Life

I remember when Graham Chase, Angela’s father on <i>My So-Called Life</i>, quit his job to pursue his real passion, cooking. It was the first time the thought of jumping into the restaurant biz and leaving a desk job behind seemed like a reasonable...

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11 October 2013, 3:00pm

I remember when Graham Chase, Angela’s father on My So-Called Life, quit his job to pursue his real passion, cooking. It was the first time the thought of jumping into the restaurant biz and leaving a desk job behind seemed like a reasonable idea to me. That was 20 years ago. Since then, a cultural shift in the perception of the food industry has given a bunch of people who don’t know any better a romanticized idea about working in a restaurant. According to a study in 2011, for-profit culinary schools have seen a 20 percent increase in enrollment each year since 2009. Today, making moves like Graham’s seems totally cliché.

I never had the chance to walk into my boss’s office and tell him to take this job and shove it, I’m going to braise pork or whatever for a living, because I didn’t have a career before food. Like most people with liberal-arts degrees, I left college without a clue or a job to speak of, but I had a distinct obsession with cooking. By the end of college, the only things that I really cared about were throwing barbeques and watching Iron Chef. So I went ahead and applied for a kitchen job on a whim. I spent the next six years working in food, until I stubbornly admitted that cooking for money is a terrible way to make a living. On average, line cooks make anywhere from $9 to $10 an hour. 

Years deep in the scene, I grew tired of the late-night kitchen lifestyle. The day-to-day work began to feel like a chore, not an adrenaline rush. Being poor went from feeling cool to feeling pathetic, and most of the perks—like getting wasted on a Tuesday and sleeping until noon—lost their luster. Now I have a "real job" where I frequently encounter people at the office water cooler toying with the idea of enrolling in cooking school, and confessing their fantasies about the restaurant industry. They're bored. They’re “huge foodies,” and they’re desperate for a change of scenery. But for most people, I think that going into cooking is a terrible idea. 

If you feel that you just have to make other people food for a living, definitely don’t go to culinary school. If you work in a restaurant afterward, you’ll probably start somewhere around $11 an hour—if you’re lucky. You’ll work at least 50 hours a week, and your employer may or may not consider overtime pay to be mandatory. Unless you’ve stumbled upon a lucrative idea like the recent Cronut craze, you’ll barely make rent. There’s no need to compound things with debt. You might actually have to move back in with your parents, but hey, you’ll be doing what you love, right?

The best way to learn, whether the long-term implications involve quitting your desk job for the kitchen, or keeping it at a Top Chef-level hobby, is to find a good mentor and win that person’s favor with your immutable enthusiasm. Figure out whatever it is that excites you about cooking, and read everything you can about the subject. Seek out the person who’s doing it best. If, for some reason, you love making jam, visit Lena McCarthy, the owner of Anarchy in a Jar, a Brooklyn-based jelly company, and beg her to let you become her apprentice. (That means work for free.) You could also read a good book on making jam, and just make it. If you want to try your hand at the salami trade, write a meat love letter to Scott Bridi, the guy who left the publishing world for a life filled with cured meats at Brooklyn Cured, a charcuterie company (these suggestions are assuming you live in the magical foodie wonderland that is present-day Brooklyn). Prove that you’re serious, not a foodie poseur, and you might even get hired. The pay will suck, but you’ll be getting a free education.

Getting a job in a restaurant isn’t rocket science, either. Take a quick peek at any industry blog and you'll find many celebrated chefs complaining about how hard it is to keep their kitchens consistently staffed. Andy Ricker, chef-owner of Oregon and New York’s restaurant empire Pok Pok, says he spends $1,000 a month on job postings. Every restaurant always needs another cook, even an inexperienced one, so long as they are willing to show up every day, learn, and pay their dues in the kitchen. If the chef tells you to get lost, just keep showing up until he or she gives in or files a restraining order. You may end up having to prove yourself with an unimaginably tedious task (a friend of mine got his start at Per Se sorting white pepper into shades of gray), but at least you’ll have your foot in the door.

While restaurants are great spaces to learn techniques for a long-term career, I’d avoid them altogether. David Chang, chef-owner at Momofuku, estimates that 50 percent of cooking-school graduates leave the industry within five years, and that’s because almost everything that you have heard about restaurant kitchens is true. The hours suck, the pay is terrible, and the pressure is insane. And even though you’ll spend ten to 14 hours a day sweating through your polyester chef pants, you’ll probably get fat from stress-eating late-night tacos and drinking cheap beer.

Many of the people I know who continue to work in the food industry have left restaurants to create new companies, or join like-minded startups. Fed up with the trappings of restaurant life, I started my own sandwich venture in 2011 known as i8NY, a stand at the Brooklyn Flea market. It lasted for a year, and was hands-down the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. It felt incredible to control my own destiny, and even better to sell something that I personally created. In the end, though, it was a brutal hustle. When you’re the chef, dishwasher, and accountant in the same day, it’s hard to keep perspective.

I started cooking because I liked the idea of connecting with people through food. Running my own company, I got closer to that than I ever did working in professional kitchens, but I found that I was still losing sleep over paying rent and prepping the right amount of food. Eventually, all of the little details got to me and I stopped enjoying the day-to-day work. I decided that there had to be a better way to make a living that doesn’t involve burning pots and pans, working on holidays, or working while feeling under the weather. 

I swapped the cook’s life for advertising, and I’m much happier these days. That said, I don’t regret the time that I spent cooking in professional kitchens. It was back-breaking labor and stressful as hell, but I’ll be a great cook for the rest of my life thanks to my former career. There are a lot of people who are still doing their own thing in the food industry and embrace all aspects of the lifestyle. I certainly don’t recommend it, but if you’ve got the right mix of creativity, tenacity, and masochism, you might just find your quarter-life crisis or calling.

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