Although they've died down recently, I get emails asking me about various things from cuts of meat to restaurant recommendations in cities I've lived in. The most popular themes, though, are about Le Cordon Bleu, Paris and what I've done with myself since.
A lot of people write when they have questions or doubts about going to the school, about its curriculum, about housing, about whether or not it's worth the (substantial) monetary investment. The remaining people ask what kinds of positions are available in the food industry to graduates, with some thinking about restaurant jobs but more often than not, what else is out there.
It's been something I've struggled with for the past 3 years since graduation. My one-week stint at a Parisian restaurant assured me that I was not cut out for restaurant work, at least behind the line. As much as I was fascinated with the whole process and loved the adrenaline rush, the usually low pay and rough hours were discouraging. Not to mention potentially having personal relationships suffer if you have such different work lifestyles.
So what CAN you do? I was lucky that my timing worked well and I got into America's Test Kitchen as an intern. The application process was not difficult, so the tougher aspect was dealing with working full-time for 3 months unpaid. The whole experience, not to mention the notoriety that it has, was totally worth it. I learned a ton on testing professionally, I had 8 hours a day of a wide variety of pure cooking that really honed my skills more than cooking school ever could, and I was dealing with a great group of people who taught me a lot. It wasn't difficult decision to stay on after my internship to see if staff positions opened up, which also helped me to get asked to help with their TV show taping, valuable and rare experience.
When the stars didn't align for open positions, I was a little lost. My whole time in Boston during the internship, I had been teaching at a children's cooking school. I ramped up my hours, got more involved in planning menus for the school year and for summer, and threw all my energy in there.
Then I walked into Stir in Boston, fell in love with the cookbooks and what they do, and asked for a job on the spot. It's really true that in the food industry, if you see something you want to be involved in, you just ask. It's not as formal and you just have to be gutsy and passionate about it. They hired me and I got experience in fine dining / guest services, a little management, and the world of cookbook buying. More experience in things I never thought I'd be doing.
Fast forward to last year, and I moved back to San Francisco with a vague idea that I would consult with menu and recipe planning, hoping that I'd find more to do. The work was there, but not in the volume I had hoped for. Another chapter in 3 years of no to low pay, and sometimes no clear career path.
But the persistence has finally paid off. I cold-called for food positions out here, including for catering companies and a school lunch program, but nothing hit. I almost decided to see if I could find something back in advertising, what I did before picking up the knife kit.
Then it happened - a position that I'm ecstatic about: full-time, with benefits, normal hours - there are so few of these in the food industry! I'm joining the test kitchen at Chow.com next week, cooking with their small group, doing some editorial work, and basically combining a lot of skills I've picked up over the years into one job, plus picking up a few new ones like food styling and prop/grocery shopping. I'm thrilled that I'm not leaving the kitchen.
It feels great and exciting - the team seems vibrant, interesting, and passionate. Looking back, all the jobs I've chosen helped me be the candidate they were seeking. It was a hard and bumpy road, and not everyone has the patience or support from family and friends that I had. But there is hope! Big lesson I learned: take jobs you really are interested in. Only then can you learn and grow, hopefully taking you along a path that ends in where you want to be.