Q: I'm considering making a career change also....how's it going for you? Are you glad you did it?
A: I feel very fortunate to have the ability to follow my dream. I'm still extremely glad I did it, 3 years into it. However, it is really hard work!!! This is a profession where you are on your feet all day, there's lots of heat at the stove, lots of pots & pans clanging away in the kitchen, and lots of cleaning up. So, forget the glamorous image that celebrity chefs can give...in reality, you're gonna sweat & run around a lot!
Another factor to consider is age. It's recognized that this is a "young persons profession"....it's very true. The average age of the people preparing food in fine restaurants is probably around 25 (and generally under 30), if I took a guess. So, have I experienced any age discrimination? Well, maybe. It's hard to say. A lot of people find it curious that I wanted to start this in my 40s, and they think that maybe I won't have the stamina for it (but they don't know the genes I inherited from the Rabideau-Manderfield clan where working like a dog is considered normal!)... I know that others seem to think it's almost courageous (their words, not mine) to do this at my age. My point is this: age is a factor in this game....just like Lance Armstrong is considered ancient for Le Tour de France at the age of, OMG, 37! Just like Nadia Comminich was done with her gymnastics career at something like 30! (Anyone remember Nadia?) Obviously, there are exceptions and some "old" people do just fine, and maybe even great. I'm just saying that don't have rose-colored glasses on if you're considering making a career change at the age of 40, 45, or 50....Make sure you're fit, it helps if you're athletic & coordinated (yes hand-eye coordination is important here as well), and don't even consider it if you have joint pains already!
Here's something else to consider: working in a restaurant kitchen is still a male-dominated profession. (Here in France, that is...I have no idea what it's like in the U.S. since I never worked there in this profession!). The number of male chefs far outweighs the number of female chefs...which means you can run into lots of testosterone, ego...and such. So be ready for some hot tempers. I was told once by someone I was trying to get hired by, 'women cooks are just plain calmer'. I think this loosely sums up what I'm trying to say about a kitchen full of guys.... Please understand that this is a general point that I'm trying to make. I did have one male chef welcome the idea of having a female enter the kitchen as he thought it'd change the dynamics nicely...which I suppose also supports the general point I am trying to make here!
Another point of consideration: I would add that it's not an easy profession to learn because the training format is very much in the style of military training. It's hierarchical, male-based (still), and there's little room for opinion when you are a student. That's OK if you understand that this is only a temporary stage....of learning. While working in a restaurant as an intern, I had a sous-chef (2nd in command) explain to me, "I must be critical of everything because this is the only way people improve". (OK, but did he also need to display signs of a stark, raving-mad lunatic, at times??!!) Yes, working in a kitchen can feel like a "negative reinforcement" environment instead of "postive reinforcement" one. If you're not used to that, it will crack you in a second. Having thick skin will carry you far! Or you must quickly learn to get thick skin to stay sane! I guess there are enough reality cooking shows on tv now to give you an idea of the stress that can exist in the kitchen...
Final point to consider: the starting pay is virtually minimum wage. The working hours in a restaurant are very long (typically double shift services from 8ish in the morning until midnight or beyond, with a short 1.5-2 hour break before dinner, multiple days in a row). It's a lot of work, for little financial reward (initially anyway....I guess there's always hope to become the next Charlie Trotter...).
Wow, there are a lot of not so nice things here. Well, trust me, there are also some really great things...otherwise I would've gone back to the office by now. I simply wanted to share with you a slice of reality that I didn't have available to me at the time I was considering a career change. Sure, I did my research, but I didn't really understand what I was getting into until I got there & experienced it first-hand. Therefore, I thought I'd write about it with the hopes that it helps someone else better understand the game. And therefore, play the game better.
Let me finish the question with the things I love about this profession....I love learning how to handle "raw materials", be it celeriac, a whole fish, artichokes, a rack of lamb....etc, etc. I love learning which cooking technique is best for which cuts of meats or ingredients. I love demystifying french cuisine, which appears at first glance to be snobbish at its base, but it turns out to be very approachable (hearth & home). I love learning to respect the codification of the french cooking techniques & all the prior generations who figured these things out & documented it. These are the starting blocks of countless other world cuisines. I love the challenge of putting together a well-balanced menu (tastes, textures, nutrition, portion sizes, colors, etc). I love trying which wines taste best with what menu. I love what food represents -- it represents bringing people together, no matter what culture you are from. It represents tradition and the passing down of information from generation to generation. It also represents taking the old & mixing the new. It means playing around in the kitchen trying to figure out why something works or doesn't. I love building on what I've learned or tasted and trying to come up with my own twist on it. I love reading what others are doing because it's constantly evolving and ever-changing. I love to see the free spirit of american cooking and I also love the long held traditions of french cooking. I see a place for both of these esprit. Sometimes together on the same plate! I love the fact that this is a life-long learning profession....there is absolutely something new to learn each day...I love to see reactions on people's faces when they taste something good....and I also love to see people's reactions when I can demystify the techniques ("is that all there is to it?? This is so good...and that's all it takes"? some will say!) - I love that! I love working with generous people & generally speaking, people working to prepare food for others will tend to do it from their heart. OK, getting back to the question. It's a tough road, but the rewards can be rich. So, the answer is yes, yes & yes!