Want a Food Career?

In an unscientific survey that never really happened, we found that about 85 percent of the people reading this website have fantasized about quitting a job and making pickles, going to work as a line chef in a restaurant, or opening a neighborhood specialty food store. The forthcoming book Culinary Careers (available May 4) is for those who want to take the leap, or at least become familiar with how quixotic it is. About two-thirds of the book is a voyeuristic peek into a broad variety of jobs in the food industry (88 profiles in all, including a few famous people like Thomas Keller). The rest is dedicated to surveys and info about getting into the professional food world. We spoke to author Rick Smilow, president of the Institute of Culinary Education, about what it takes to start a food career, how low the pay really is, and why business skills are probably more important than culinary skills.

Why did you write this book?

Considering how many people work in the culinary service field, there aren't that many books out there that can be guide books. There are people in so many different types of [food] jobs and they pride themselves and enjoy being culinary professionals. Without minimizing some of the difficulties, hopefully people will read it and say “oh I'm just like her or him" and that [might] spur them to enter the field that they wanted to but were scared of.

Were the people you profiled satisfied with their food careers?

What people like the most is the ability to make people happy, that no two days were the same, the instant gratification of immediately seeing the results of their work, and being their own boss. What they don’t like are the long hours, administrative duties, having to be "always on," and personnel issues.

It seems like, as president of a culinary school, you are sort of shooting yourself in the foot by drawing attention to the low wages of kitchen staff?

One needs to be reminded that despite the fact that there is more professionalism and glamor in the field, (and overall there are more people making more money than before), you start at the bottom and you start off very low. Down there at the bottom, at the beginning, it's still $10-$12 an hour. Actually, the more prestigious the place, the lower the pay. We didn't try to overly focus on the four-star chefs, but just on the basis of supply and demand, if you were to take the top chefs around the world there are men and women who will work for them for six months for free for the education and experience.

Did anyone's story stick out when you were profiling people?

Jason Robinson from the Inn at Dos Brisas in Washington, Texas. They have 30 seats, they are open four days a week, they cook from the garden, with a staff of four. He talks about a quality life, spending time with family. He is in a situation where he can be artistic, make people happy, he can meet his customers, cook from the garden. Is he making $300,000 a year? No way. But it sounds pretty nice.

How does someone break into the food biz?

Talk to lots of people in the field. An individual should investigate on their own, whether it's a specialty foods shop, a caterer, try and work in one. There is the whole question of whether you should work before going to [culinary] school…if you ask about that, 50 percent might say it mattered and 50 percent might say it didn't. Other people, love food and cooking and are avid home cooks, but that's different than doing it professionally. 

What skills do people need besides loving food to "make it"?

Broader and deeper business training. When you start thinking about it, it's not surprising. Particularly managers, directors, and owners. You start off as a cook, then a chef, then a chef manager, then a chef owner, as you advance you are getting more involved in the business decisions, yet your training wasn't in those things. It's really linked to the idea of why so many restaurants fail. They are conceived by and run by people with culinary training not business training. A great idea for an aspiring chef who's already risen to the level of sous chef is to go to business school—that may be overkill, but all these places, except for a few non-profits, they are businesses.