The Great Beige Holiday is once again upon us. Thanksgiving across the Scenic City means thousands of kitchens will be buzzing with the sounds of frazzled home cooks cranking out their finest dishes by the melamine trough full. Holiday kitchen warriors will be presenting their “signature” dishes while veteran kitchen heroes pull together the biggest meal of the year using only four burners and grandma’s blue graniteware roasting pan.
This is also the time of year when I get cornered between the dessert table and pepaw’s favorite chair by someone who believes that watching “Master Chef” combined with an ability to follow Internet recipes somehow translates into qualifications for being the next Food Network Star. It usually starts with something like, “I’m thinking about going to cooking school,” and ends with them looking at me like a 13-year-old girl who just had her dreams crushed by Simon Cowell.
According to a statistic I just made up, 90 percent of all bad ideas have their inception during the Thanksgiving holiday, so before you run off to buy a set of Mundial knives and a pair Mozo’s take a deep breath and make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.
If you are seriously considering becoming a chef you need to understand that being a professional cook is not something to be taken lightly. In reality, working in a professional kitchen is less like an episode of “Master Chef” and more like being backstage at a Gwar concert. Working in a commercial kitchen is repetitive, sweaty, very fast paced and very stressful physical labor. You will most likely spend some time working in an environment where heavy drinking, drugs, casual sex, profanity and the occasional knife fight are not uncommon. If you’ve got a pile of money to play with, culinary school may seem like a good way to hone some skills to impress your friends at dinner parties, but if that’s your goal please just stay home and watch Alton Brown. None of this is to say that being a chef is not an exciting, rewarding or fulfilling career choice; it’s just not the kind of job that a “normal” person can or would want to do.
One of the first things to think about before signing up for a culinary program is cost. You could easily incur $20 to $50,000 in debt while training for a career that may pay $10 to $12 dollars an hour for the first few years—if you are lucky. Virginia College here in Chattanooga recently began offering a culinary arts certificate (not a degree) for about $15,000. With rare exception this will land you a glamorous position as a prep cook or line cook at a hotel or country club making an average of $9.25 an hour—if you are lucky. If you aren’t so lucky you’ll end up as a lead cook at Applebee’s trying to pay off the debt while making just above minimum wage.
If you are 35 years old or older you are too old to start a career as a chef (I’m sorry to be the one to break the news). You will be standing 10-12 hours a day in excruciatingly hot and humid kitchens, continually moving very heavy things, and you will be mercilessly taunted by much younger and faster co-workers if you show any sign of weakness. Look at the kitchen staff of most high-end restaurants and you’ll find mostly lean, sleep-deprived millennials with Steve Buscemi eyes and fresh burn marks: they look like the transient kids hanging out by Walnut Street Bridge, but can perform like a culinary Cirque du Soleil.
If you’re young, healthy and have a desire to learn, I recommend traveling, sleeping on floors and figuring out how other people live, eat and cook. Consider that taking out a loan to travel and work in good kitchens may be a better investment than a student loan at this point in your life. A culinary degree can be of great benefit, but only to a point. A year working at ABaC Barcelona or L’Olivo in Capri can change your life and become a route to other great kitchens.
If you are like most people, these are unacceptable lifestyle choices. But again, if this is something that appeals to you in spite of the downsides, the rewards that come from doing a job you enjoy are far more valuable than sleep or money. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Mike McJunkin cooks better than you and Guy Fieri (although that’s not saying much). Visit his Facebook page (Sushi and Biscuits) for updates and recipes.