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Starting in the Culinary World


MNMoody
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I am 20 years old and have been in the industry since I was 5 practically, working in my parents Catering company and then moving forward sometimes and backwards most times. However, I was interested in how everyone got their start, where, when and why?

As I mentioned i grew up with my parents who owned and ran a catering company in Mobile, AL for a couple of years. They closed it to pursue other endeavors, but the memory of whisking and mixing from 5 to 8 has stuck with me. So, regardless of whether I consciously realized it or not food has always been linked to family and happiness. As such, I have always worked in kitchens and been very comfortable there. It is not until recently that I have realized that this could be a true career and am now making moves towards making it one.

Share your experiences! PLEASE!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Your 2 best bets are to probably go get a job in the best restaurant you can get into in your area. If you want to cook fine dining, then get a job in the best fine dining restaurant in your area. If you want to cook barbecue, then get a job at the best barbecue joint you can. Whatever style of food you would like to cook, find the best place (with a real chef) and learn everything you can.

The other best option would be to go to culinary school--a local, community college program is great, and a school like Johnson and Wales, NECI, CIA or any of the other "big name" schools would work as well. Use the schools intern/externship programs to get some kitchen experience, then repeat step 1.

Expect to not make any money, ever, unless you eventually work your way up to exec. chef of a larger property or get famous.

Its a tough life, so I encourage you to not jump right in without knowing what you are getting into. It sounds like you do, so I won't lecture you. If you search the forum there must be dozens of topic on getting started, culinary school, internships, etc.

Good luck, I'm happy to go into more detail if you'd like.

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I went the culinary school route. Graduated Johnson & Wales with a B.A. in Culinary Arts in '05. But I also followed the other route stated, getting into the absolute best restaurant you can. For me, that restaurant was The French Laundry. I worked for over a year (calling, writing letters, getting recommendations, etc.) to land the first externship there from my school. 3 months of unpaid, hard, stressful work paid off when they asked me stay on. I bounced around from some of the best restaurants in the States + Europe since I got out of school.

Long story short, work you ass off! Like Qwerty said, expect not to get paid much of anything for a long time. Ive been in the biz almost 12 years now, and Ive just now landed an Exec. Sous job that pays extremely well. Well enough that I can finally live "comfortably."

On another note, a lot of people may not speak well about going to culinary school. The way I see it, you get what you put in. School teaches you theory and the traditional way of doing things. It builds a very solid base for what you need to know to get started. The biggest asset, for me, from culinary school was the networking abilities.

- Chef Johnny

John Maher
Executive Chef/Owner
The Rogue Gentlemen

Richmond, VA

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Personally, I'm an advocate of school. It's not absolutely necessary, but I think it helps. And IF you decide to forgo school, try your best to find a good chef who can teach you and be a mentor. And work in several top of the field restaurants you can get into, so you get exposed to different styles, ideas, recipes, methods, etc.

The potential problem with going the mentor only route would be if you have poor mentors. There are a lot of lazy chefs out there who cut corners and have bad habits. If you go to school, you will at least have a base of knowledge so that you, at least on paper, "know" better and can weed out the poor chef mentors. He or she may even tell you that the things they do are "normal" and that all pros do it, though it's not true. Probably just how they learned.

Again, no one way is "better" than the other, I just think school gives you some confidence and a vocabulary, as well as a base of knowledge you can apply to real world situations. It would also, most likely, open up doors for you and get your food into some restaurants.

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I'm a big advocate of school too. Vocational school, though. (GO TRADE TECH!) No need to go into debt to attend a fancy school and then work for a crappy wage. I don't think there is a good ROI for that. A degree in hospitality management is a different matter.

You'll learn a lot more, faster, in a culinary school then on the job. Most restaurants only change their menu 1-4 times a year, and even then it's likely to only be a few items. I think most people advocating apprenticeship are romanticizing things. Sure, it would work 60 years ago in France, and if you were 14 years old.

This is not to say that you won't learn stuff on the job. Indeed there are many many things you can only learn on the job. But the training in the fundamental techniques just isn't the same. I could ask one the dogsbodies with 10 years in to make me a gallon of cream of broccoli, and it's maybe 50-50 he would know how to do it, but the fresh culinary grad would know the general procedure for cream of whatever because he'd have Escoffier drilled into him.

In general, self-edification is the key. Your boss/mentor is only going to teach you enough to serve the needs of the business.

Work for a year in a kitchen before you commit to culinary school, to make sure you want to do this. Also you'll want a cash cushion before starting school.

My first food job was as the night cook at a strip club. Took it in my first year at culinary.

Edited by TheTInCook (log)
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I also think culinary school stifles creativity. You'll learn the most boring white-bread ways to make the most basic food as quickly as the stupidest person in your class can grasp it. And they'll tell you any other way is wrong. The Classics are overrated. For fuck sake, a friend who ignored my advice is learning how to turn veg right now! I'd rather stab my eyes out! He hates it and is considering dropping out.

And, like I said, just read books and apply that knowledge on the job. You don't even need a mentor/great chef. You only need a drive to be awesome.

But I'm, quite literally, a genius - so your mileage may vary.

I know that when I hire a cook I don't care about their resume. I can teach anyone how to cook (you think all those immigrants in our kitchens went to culinary school?). I can't teach you character.

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Do you guys think it's ever too late to start? I'm a 33 year old reasonably successful but unhappy architect and am considering a career change. Ive always had a passion for food but was pressured to go another route out of high school and Ive always regretted it. I'm not afraid of hard work, I worked backbreaking summer jobs in a shipyard growing up and then spent most of my college years working various front of the house restaurant jobs in college, and I really miss the restaurant life. I'm to the point of really being ready to pull the trigger and chase my dream, but I fear it may be too late.

I'm also unsure of exactly how I would go about making the change, I'm guessing going to culinary school would make it easier to get hired on at a starting position at a decent place.

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I became a brewer because I couldn't take one more minute working in a newsroom.

I started in my early 30's. I feel it's saved me from an inevitable mid-life crisis. Now I LOVE going into work every day. I'm never going to get rich doing this. But I was never going to get rich in a newsroom, either.

Hey Twyst -- are you successful enough to take a six-month sabbatical? Three month? If so, DO IT and go work on any kitchen line that will have you. You'll know after a month of working on a line if it's for you. You only get one life (that we know of, at least). Don't squander it working a job that doesn't satisfy you.

I'm of the mind that Culinary school is necessary for some people and completely useless for others. Like any other school, the most important factor is the individual student, and then the teacher. (I've taken several classes because my community college has a good culinary department. Why NOT take the classes, when they're only a few hundred dollars each? Seems silly not to.)

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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It does seem like the best route is to either attend a college for cooking or educate oneself, but with a fundamental base in the hands on, sweating, grueling push of a full working kitchen. It just seems to be getting harder to find people who will take a risk on a college student not even majoring in the Culinary Arts, and in no way do i blame them. But the field has become much more competetive.

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I've found attending school to be very helpful. I am also just beginning my culinary career, and I think that having that degree will be very beneficial. Hats off to those who can learn everything they need to know from reading a few books. My Chef instructors have been very honest about the field, and hold us to the same standards that an employer would. Having a degree of any kind today, I believe, will get you farther than not.

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  • 2 months later...

I'm doing a culinary course and find it really helpful. I'm also working in a restaurant where I'm able to use the knowledge gained from culinary school. Now you all must be wondering how I'm managing studies and work together. Actually I'm doing an online culinary arts program that to from an accredited university. They have provided me all the study materials and also giving online lectures. I really enjoy this course. If anyone else also wants to go for such a course, the following site would be really helpful for them.

http://www.culinaryartscollege.org/

This site has all the information about the culinary arts career and would be really beneficial for those who loves cooking.

After 6 months I would be completing my degree. And I think with this degree and 2 years of experience I would easily get a head chef's job in a restaurant. :rolleyes:

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I find it interesting that this thread, which was a question about how we all got started in commercial food production, has turned into a debate on the relative merits of culinary schooling vs. life experience. There are other threads for that folks - a lot of you have completely missed the point of the OP's question.

Here's my story: I'm 28. I've been around food and catering my entire life (my folks did it as a summertime "job" so that we could travel a bit - otherwise we'd never have been able to afford it). My earliest and fondest memories are of catering the green rooms at folk music festivals across Canada, the most memorable of which took place in the middle of nowhere with almost no kitchen facilities, and our "fridge" was an old concrete bomb shelter bunker thingie. My father is trained in French and Russian service and has his Cordon Bleu and can thus justly be called a Chef (although he mostly works in our kitchen as the saucier), and my mother was the baker in her family from the age where it was deemed she could safely use the wood stove (about 7, I think.) It's in my blood.

I am not formally schooled in cookery, and I have had my own bakery for about 3 years - and that all started because in Ecuador you can't find a chewy cookie to save your life. So I started producing oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies according to my great gran's recipe, my friends started sharing them with their friends, and before I knew it there was such a huge demand that I had to set up shop. I now run one of the most exclusive gourmet bakeries in the country. I should mention at this point that my Master's degree is in Scenography....

I think it comes down to a willingness to work very hard and try new things, regardless of whether you choose to simply build on the knowledge you've picked up growing up or whether you go to school to get a piece of paper certifying you know how to do what you do.

Elizabeth Campbell, baking 10,000 feet up at 1° South latitude.

My eG Food Blog (2011)My eG Foodblog (2012)

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I come from a long line of chefs and cooks in my family. I've tried to get away from the business, but... here I am... a chef! I went to culinary school and I really enjoyed it. I've made a lot of friends and I have been able to network using my chef instructors and others from the school.

Make no mistake about it, in this business you are always show casing your talents. If you aren't worth 2 cents then you aren't going to make it very far. I have seen some people out there who have went to culinary school and they have no talent because they don't have the passion.

No matter what, you have to have the desire and the passion. Just knowing a bunch of kitchen lingo and trying to pass yourself off as a cook isn't enough.

At the end of the day, it's all about good food!

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I had no family history of good cooks or any memories of good food. I knew absolutely nothing but 6 months of the food network back when I was 18 in 2001 before I decided to go to school (11 month program). It gave me a solid foundation before I ventured off to get my ass kicked at some of the best spots in the San Francisco/Bay area. 10 years later I'm pretty established and making a comfortable living. There ya go...

Sleep, bike, cook, feed, repeat...

Chef Facebook HQ Menlo Park, CA

My eGullet Foodblog

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I also think culinary school stifles creativity. You'll learn the most boring white-bread ways to make the most basic food as quickly as the stupidest person in your class can grasp it.

I did it another way. I did a 3 yr cook's apprenticeship in Switzerland, back in the mid 80's. You do work your azz off--4 days a week in a regular restaurant, and you do go to school, 1 day per week.

School is important, as it teaches you the techniques. Yes, classics are overrated, but the techniques they employ are not.

N.America has a fixation with culinary schools and it's not healthy. A culinary school "front end loads" it's curriculum. The students learn all theory and technique, but have very little time to master it and make it part of their repetoire.

An artist is only truly creative when he/she has mastered all the techniques needed in that medium.

Very few kitchens can show an employee the majority of techniques a competant cook needs.

Making emulsions, pate a choux, forcemeats, butchering, and braising are not something done in every restaurant. And even then, there are no guarantees that what is shown to employees is correct. I have known cooks who were instructed to make "ommelettes" on the flat top, to mark off steaks and pop them in the oven to order, to "saute" meat in the deep fryer, etc.

Nothing will change for the better for cooks in N.America until standards and qualifications are put into place. Until then it's every man and every culinary school for themselves.....

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I grew up in my home kitchen, as it was a common ground especially around dinner time where we could all focus on the family and relaxing. My parents owned their own Catering Company in Mobile, AL named Whisked Away. And being around that my whole life subconsciously made the kitchen a comfort zone. I learned from the best, my mother, and have always found my way into kitchen in any place, even at college. Now I am working the line at a breakfast, brunch place and continue to love the work.

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