So You Think You Want A Culinary Career?

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I worked in my first restaurant my freshman year in college. I was at Louisiana State University and, fool that I was, I thought I needed to get a job to prove myself as a man. If only someone had pulled me aside and taught me about life, but alas, I digress. I was hired at Mike Anderson’s Seafood Restaurant, a legendary institution in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

I walked into the kitchen on my first day of work and the manager greeted me by showing me to my station. He assigned me the lowest position in the kitchen, the station where all new workers began. I was to be…the pan man. This pan was just that – a giant, slotted, metal pan into which was dumped all of the fried seafood, right out of the fryer (thus burning hot). My job was to use a towel to pat the hot oil off of the fried seafood, then to arrange it properly onto the plates, after which I carried the plates to the expeditor’s line, where the waitresses would pick it up and take it to the guests in the dining room. So basically, I was a professional seafood degreaser.

It was a humbling, difficult job. I slaved six hours a night during the rush dinner shift, and this restaurant was extremely popular and busy. A six-hour shift may not sound very long compared to the corporate world, but restaurant work is very exhausting, difficult, and fast-paced, so it felt like sixteen hours. Every night at about 11:00pm, I would drive home with burnt hands and grease-stained jeans. My flatmate at the time told me that I constantly smelled like fried fish.

Despite that experience, I decided about a year later to go to culinary school. I chose the Peter Kump’s Culinary School in New York City. Peter Kump was a disciple of the renowned chef James Beard. I graduated from the Savory and Pastry programs in 1995, the very year that Peter Kump died. The school was continued by Nick Malgieri and others as The Institute of Culinary Education. I was quite fortunate to be at the school at its former East 92nd Street location, in Spanish Harlem, at a time when many greats were there, including the aformentioned Nick Malgieri, and famed cake decorator Toba Garrett, among others. I believe that I was a student at the school in its true Golden Age, and I will cherish those memories forever.

After graduating with a degree in the Culinary Arts, I worked in several restaurants around the USA. Two that come to mind are the now defunct Dakota Restaurant, then run by entrepreneur Andrew Houghton, and Verbena Restaurant, run by creative genius Diane Forley. During that time, I was fortunate to get to know several New York chefs, some of whom have skyrocketed to celebrity chef fame, including Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill, who went on to become a household name among foodies. Chef Flay is a really nice guy, by the way. I think back on those years in amazement, because I was unwittingly living and working among culinary greats, in the true burgeoning of the New York gastronomical Renaissance, and I did not even know it at the time. If I had continued my culinary career then, instead of returning to school, who knows what might have happened?

Alas, I decided to take a pause in my gastronomical progress to return to university and finish my Bachelor’s Degree, which I received in Modern Languages. I made several returns to the food world, but ultimately decided to earn my Master’s Degree in Languages, and my teaching certificate, and ultimately, to come here to China to teach and to experience the food. I am very happy with my academic career, and I am currently in pursuit of my PhD in Linguistics at a Chinese university. But I am frequently plagued with doubts and thoughts: did I make the right decision leaving the kitchen for the classroom?

These days, I am quite happy and fulfilled in my teaching career, and in my pursuit of my Doctorate (as well as in my quite-slow Chinese studies). And I am, after all, a food writer as well as a teacher. But I know, in my foodie heart, that I will eventually open a restaurant. I will probably do that once I have several years of professorship under my belt. In any case, when I think of my time in the kitchen, I have only fond memories, which I suppose time has softened. For, let’s be honest, restaurant work is a game of blood, sweat, and tears, and only those who have spent years in pursuit of the culinary dream can really understand what I mean.

People have asked me for advice over the years, on whether they should go to culinary school and pursue a culinary career. While my first reply is always, “For God’s sake, don’t do it!”, I nevertheless do take the time to really ponder the question, and try to give a real answer based on the person who is asking — and that is the purpose of this article.

As I see it, there are three basic types of people who think about going to culinary school, and thus pursuing a culinary career. First, there are people who have other careers, but who love food and love to cook. Second, there are people already involved in the restaurant industry, who want to further their careers. Third, there are people who are maniacally obsessed with food, who know in their hearts that they were put on this earth to be cooks, chefs, and restaurateurs. For the last group, I suppose I can unequivocally say yes, go to culinary school and pursue your fetish. You will never be happy with anything else, trust me. For the other two, please read on.

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