Behind the Scenes: So you want to be a chef
April 22, 2012
This winter I got the bug. No, it was not the flu bug. It was the culinary bug and it bit hard. When I started doing my behind the scenes culinary gigs, I realized I was now living the dream. What home cook with an epicurean passion wouldn’t feel like she’s in heaven to be allowed to cook in some of the finest commercial kitchens in Vail Valley alongside gifted professionals?
So the inevitable questions came from friends who knew this grandchild of a Sicilian woman had a passion for cooking: Don’t you want to open your own restaurant? Don’t you want to be a chef? The first question was quite easy to answer – absolutely not! I’m adventurous and would be fibbing to say I never mulled it over, but I know all too well the struggles of such a venture. The second question was a little harder to answer. At 55, do I want to be a chef?
First, a sidebar to peer into culinary career fantasies so many aspiring chefs hold.
On rare reruns on PBS we find Julia Child in her singsong voice casually chatting about the beauty of a fat duck’s liver with Jacques Pepin. Martha Stewart tried the same soft folksy approach on the Hallmark Channel, a venture that recently ended in failure. Viewers are more likely to glorify Gordon Ramsey’s tirades in “Hell’s Kitchen” and shows such as “Chopped,” where frenetic, hard-working contestants are humiliated and chopped off the show.
We see timed events where secret ingredients must be transformed into three-course menus within an hour in a kitchen stadium while “the chairman” looks on. Other shows feature coiffed and fashionably dressed celebrity chefs (with lovely manicures – oh, how do they do that?) making beautifully styled dishes prepped by underlings. But is this reality? Both good and bad? I found through my research and my personal experiences that reality lies somewhere in the middle.
The likes of Food Network and Bravo, in my opinion, succeeded in promoting cooking and educating the masses, but they also helped promote the culinary industry as pop culture rather than art. Spend a few hours looking at either channel and one would believe that being a chef is all glamour. In truth, working in a commercial kitchen is blue-collar labor defined by exhaustion from the long, adrenaline filled hours on a hot line, sore feet from standing during 12-hour shifts and bad backs from schlepping heavy pots and boxes of produce.
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I’m a Saturday’s child and therefore must work hard for my living. Or so the saying goes. So for me, other than the back pain part, this work was an intoxicating experience. Standing in front of eight flaming gas burners with sweat dripping down my back and time running out was far more satisfying than hours in front of my computer preparing a trial brief.
Unfortunately for many young people, laden with student loan debt and expecting to be the next Rachael Ray or Bobby Flay with TV shows, cookbooks and branded cookware, the back-breaking work becomes their crushing reality.
My query began in the most obvious way – a Google search and chats with a few of the chefs I know and respect. First the Google search about institutionalized culinary education.
On the surface, culinary school is all the rage and the path so many people, particularly industry outsiders, believe is the best way to become a chef, particularly a famous one. Not surprisingly, there is no “best” way for everyone. Financial realities are pushing more aspiring culinary artists into the traditional route of apprenticeships. Both culinary school graduates and successful apprentices have to work their way through the kitchen stations as they ascend the culinary ladder. The major difference is the latter emerges with no debt.
With the advent of celebrity pop culture cooking has come a significant increase in the number of for-profit culinary schools. Renowned schools like the Culinary Institute of America attempt to weed out applicants with visions of celebrity. Chef Todd Rymer, director of culinary education at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards, likens celebrity chefs to pro athletes. Tens of thousands play sports in high school, but only the very best make it to the stratosphere of professional leagues. Thousands of graduates spill out of culinary programs each year to face a stagnant demand for chefs. Although the food industry employs 12 percent of the American work force, second only to the federal government, demand for chefs has been flat, and graduates often find they have to settle for line cook positions, hardly a way to pay off onerous student loans or land your own cooking show on national TV.
And culinary schools are not cheap. Although apprentice-type programs such as CMC’s can be reasonably priced, a majority of for-profit schools with programs from a few months to three or four years can leave graduates burdened with debt of $50,000 to $110,000, equivalent to three or four times their annual starting salaries. Not a good recipe for career happiness. The Culinary Institute of America claims its graduates can double or triple their salaries within five years of graduation. But the difference in starting salaries – usually at or slightly above minimum wage – between students who studied for three years and those who worked alongside talented chefs in that same time is relatively small.
Rymer educated me on how Colorado Mountain College educates aspiring cooks and chefs in its two-year culinary program. Two tracks are available: a European-style apprenticeship culinary arts program and one for sustainable cuisine. The college’s partnership with Vail Resorts allows students to work toward obtaining various culinary certificates and an associate degree while working not only in the rarified air of the high country, but that of highly regarded resort fine-dining establishments.
Rymer is a strong believer in the benefits of experience before and during culinary school. He worries about students who lack passion and drive for the arduous work and don’t discover the harsh realities until they graduate. Experiencing the hard knocks of the industry can help cure misconceptions before one incurs student loan debt.
With a better understanding of the pros and cons of culinary school, I turned to talking with chefs who had put in time both in school and as apprentices as they earned their title “chef.” Since the chefs were so generous with their time and their stories are so intriguing, I’ll save that and a little more philosophizing for next week along with my final decision on the burning question: Do I want to be a chef?
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. For more on her Behind the Scenes series, go to