A couple of days ago one of my best friends from back home sent me an email.
He and his wife have a lovely 21-year-old son who’s all grown up and would like to go to culinary school. Did I have any advice?
After writing back I realized I sounded like Tony Bourdain, but at the time I wanted to convey the message that this business is freaking HARD, dangit, and special snowflakes will sometimes melt in the heat of the kitchen… I’m speaking of myself here… So here’s my missive of woe and warning. Please excuse the swears, which I included only for verisimilitude.
Um, 21, culinary school, your kid… my head is hurting, please roll me
over a couple of times so I don’t get bedsores.
Okay, where does he want to go to school? If it’s anywhere other than
Seattle, California or New York, he shouldn’t bother. There might be
schools in La. worth checking out, but the point is that he should be
in an industry town cause it’s where the work is. That means there
will be more internships available, more mentoring opportunities, more
alliances and organizations to belong to, and better networking in
general. So first piece of advice would be to get the fuck outta
Second would be to consider his finances. Think very carefully before
cosigning for a student loan, or encouraging him to get one on his
own. The loans can be great but paying them off is a nightmare,
and-here’s one of the great heartbreakers of the business-the pay is
shit for 90% of us, for at least the first five to ten years of
employment. Imagine paying off 50-60 K at $12/hour. No, really. Even
if there’s money available to him, he can do things like earn
scholarships, get residential status, and maybe even work in a
restaurant to help defray the cost of school. Those things will also
help him land a job after graduating, and make him a better cook.
What kind of school should he go to? Well, my feeling about all the
dingdongs I’ve met from CIA Greystone or Johnson & Wales or the Art
Institute of Seattle is that they’re really broke right now, but they
can either go crying to Mommy and Daddy or go back to work as a CFO at
Microsoft. And not a one of them has mad skills I didn’t learn at my
little community college. The cc’s in Seattle offer damned fine
programs, and they’re affordable. And they’re run like military camps,
which students will either learn to love or get out, which is for the
best in either case.
Um, what else. Don’t be a prick because the food industry is really
small. Read everything that has anything to do with food, even
remotely. Here I’m thinking about Remembrance of Things Past,
but you get the idea. Food is sex, politics, religion, logic, art, and
death, among other things. He’s gotta be into that, I guess. I
recommend starving, cause it makes you very clever with your food.
When eating out, I recommend finding cheap places where the cuisine is
unfamiliar. It’s usually some Cantonese-Vietnamese-Malaysian-Eritrean
dive that will bestow divine enlightenment on an impressionable palate.
Also, if he’s interested in coming here I will hook him up however I’m
able. I’d be very happy to chat with him by email or phone, or put him
up if he’d like to come up here and look at schools.
It can be VERY difficult to make a career out of this. There is almost
no money in it. There are often no benefits or retirement plans at
restaurants or in other food-related businesses. Drug and alcohol
addiction is rampant. The work is sometimes demeaning, often
dangerous, and will take you away from your family and friends during
the holiday seasons and weekends. It can seriously, seriously suck.
GOING TO CULINARY SCHOOL CHANGES NONE OF THIS. In every restaurant
you’ll find kids who did go to school and kids who didn’t. It’s often
hard to tell the difference: you can learn absolutely everything you
need to know about cooking by just slogging away in restaurants. Or
you can go to school and learn fuck all; it has to do with desire and
drive. There has to be an asston of both in any old buttlicking
kitchen monkey. To be really successful takes lots of time,
determination, and a certain amount of luck. Being a white male is a
great hand to start with, for instance.
I sometimes think it takes a complete masochist to say okay to the
things that cooks deal with. I’ve been backhanded by a chef; I’ve been
sexually assaulted on an open line; I’ve had my paychecks bounce more
often than I can count; watched people spit my food out; burned and cut
myself so badly I have permanent scarring; I developed a pretty serious
drinking problem. I would suggest T think seriously about
anything other than cooking as a career-and then give me a call when he
does anyway. 🙂
Love you much, best of luck to T.
I think it is best to be brutally honest with people when they ask your advice, especially when you know what you are talking about – and you do kinds sound like Tony!
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oh my god. if i didn’t know better i would think you were giving (very good) advice to Woodward/Bernstein wannabe aspiring journalist. i couldn’t have put it better myself.
wow. Lesa. This was a great letter. I say very similar things to people on their way to cooking school. I take sadistic pleasure in watching the sparkle in their eye slowly fade away. Is it fear that replaces it? Or just the resigned look of one who knows that no matter what you tell them, they need to experience it themselves and that, ultimately, there is no other path to take. They are the ones who will write the same letter 15 years down the road. Bravo!