What Culinary Career Path Is Right For You?
by Collen Engle, CSC, CHE Chef/Instructor
The benefits of a culinary education can be discussed at length, but obviously one of them is to make you employable. Getting a job in a restaurant or bakery by the time you graduate or immediately after graduation is a primary goal. After all, someone is going to have to start paying back the student loans!
Yet I find that most students have not given much thought to the variety of opportunities that exist for them. Many of you take jobs as cooks or servers while still in school for the experience and to pay the bills. I know this because you are the ones that are nodding off in my early morning class after you had to work the night before. Talking to your friends about what they do (networking) or listening to your instructor list the jobs they had before teaching gives you a snapshot of the opportunities that are available. Absorbing the information about the brigade system lets you see all the positions you can have as you make your way up the line in a restaurant. But if you take a few moments to look into the foodservice industry in more depth you may be surprised to see the variety of different paths available to you
What are these other opportunities? After all you thought you wanted to move from pantry to grill to sous chef and eventually, chef. You really had not thought about what else existed beyond that. This article will provide some ideas but you will need to look into your area of interest in more depth. The time you take to do this research will create choices. By knowing all of the opportunities that are available in the foodservice business you will never feel trapped in a dead end job. Choices lead to freedom.
Let's start with the more traditional path. There are countless positions available in kitchens. Hopefully you have given some thought to the type of kitchen you want to be in. What fits your personality? You can reflect it in your choice of operation, from the small independently run to the"by the book" chains. Do you also realize that some of those larger operations need food and beverage managers, purchasing agents, banquet directors, room service directors and planners? Consider where else those management skills or preferences could take you. What about fast food management? Most of you did not go to school for fast food, but there are opportunities within those companies that take you beyond the stigma of cooking for a fast food chain. In fact, by focusing on management, a path can be taken that leads to lucrative careers in many chain and larger foodservice operations. With your culinary degree you obtain the advantage of understanding the food operation. It may mean staying in school for a bachelor's degree in business or hospitality management, but you are already halfway there when you graduate.
"I got into to school because I like to cook", you are saying. OK, consider these other careers - a personal chef for a family or band or TV show; grocery store chef that is producing more and more high end food all the time; country club chef; a delicatessen chef; hospital chef; school chef; cooking for a corporation; preparing food in nursing homes and long term care facilities; armed forces and armed forces contract foodservice; airline meals; mall food; prison foodservice (someone has to be in charge of the food, just ask Martha Stewart); and food to go, both frozen and fresh. Catering is another opportunity that may allow you to exert more control over your hours or days worked.
Inherent in all of these positions is the underlying fact that, given the right circumstances, you can own any of these companies or businesses. You will then be your own boss.
All of the jobs I list above reflect the mainstream. So what if you really just want to try something different? It may take more research, more time and maybe some luck, but consider the following jobs. If you like to travel these opportunities exist - cruise ship cooking; chef on a private yacht; chef in an international resort chain such as Club Med or Hyatt; contract cook for the military (they were recently looking for people to work at their r and r facility in the German Alps); cooking for travel groups or camps; cooking on an oil rig; cooking on a tug boat; commercial fishing boats; cooking on trains; overseas internships and jobs; and helping run and organize cooking excursions (think about all those retiring baby boomers with disposable income). If you like to stay close to home but still want to try something out of the ordinary consider these jobs - spa cook (know your nutrition); consulting (well maybe you need a few more years of experience first); owning or operating a bed and breakfast; food stands, food wagons and food kiosks; shopping and meal planning for those families that are too busy to do it themselves; event planner; recipe testing and/or working in the kitchens of all those food magazines. If you like to stay in touch with nature consider wineries, farming, operating a food outlet from the farm, orchards and home canning.
None of these possibilities sound enticing yet? Perhaps you have more of a penchant for science and chemistry. Try looking into research and development for corporations; with a more advance degree, food genetics and food science. Do you have the gift of gab? Then maybe sales are where you belong. Look into selling food, brokering food and food products or selling kitchen equipment. The latter could lead you into kitchen design, kitchen layout or restaurant design and layout. What about restaurant decorating? Now you are really thinking outside of the box. Do your friends always ask you for help with math? Then consider restaurant accounting and bookkeeping. If you are more into mass marketing consider advertising, food writing (a food critic yields a lot of power), writing cookbooks, articles and informational books. Consider a food travelogue or documentary. Are you more of an artist? I know there are plenty of creative people in school. Try food photography, food styling, creating centerpieces and ice sculptures or even food art (people will buy anything. Have you seen the cauliflower poodle?). What about all those people selling their food inventions on TV? Maybe you have an idea ready to sell. Did the last election get you motivated to make a change? Then consider becoming a food lobbyist.
Still can't seem to find a possible job in all of this? Then consider what got me thinking about all of this in the first place. I am trying to impart my experience and knowledge to my students daily. Does that intrigue you? Teaching in high schools, adult education, community, private and four year institutions, private lessons or giving demonstrations, could be the path you travel. Eventually you could end up in administration of these programs or some of the national culinary organizations such as the American Culinary Federation.
I know that I have not covered all of the possible careers. I know that some of these careers may take some experience and or another degree. I hope that I have opened your minds to the possibility of taking a different path. It is always a comfortable feeling to know that you have choices. You can make those choices more intelligently and confidently when you are better informed and have fit your needs, experience, skills, desires, education and dreams into the perfect job. Don't be afraid to make some choices you end up not enjoying. Chalk it all up to experience and move on till you find that right culinary path.
Many thanks to Collen Engle CSC, CHE- Chef Instructorat Sullivan University.
Chef Engle's Biography can be found here Collen Engle, CSC, CHE Chef/Instructor, Sullivan University