Tuesday September 18, 2012
Stick in the Mud
About once a week, someone sends me a love letter.
Not a letter confessing to me, but confiding in me. A letter from someone thinking about quitting their job to become a chef. Thinking about dropping out of college and going to culinary school. Thinking about opening a bakery. About buying a food truck.
The stories differ but the common thread is love. They love food. Love baking. Love discovering recipes from other cultures and cuisines. Love ingredients. Love learning new techniques. Love sharing something homemade with others.
I struggle with my reply because the letters don’t make it clear whether they want encouragement or advice. I wind up writing these huge emails, then deleting half before I hit send because I don’t want to be a party pooper.
Most of you probably don’t want to quit your job to become a chef, but apparently some of you do. At any rate, we all have that friend who always talks about opening a restaurant or running off to culinary school, so maybe someone out there does need to read the things I usually delete.
What I always want to say is this: it’s not good enough to love the perks. You have to thrive in the circumstances that make them possible and those circumstances do not exist in your kitchen.
When you bake at home, you work on your own terms and timetable, without anyone standing over your shoulder. You make whatever you want. When it gets hot, the air conditioning kicks on. If you get tired, you hit the couch. If you mess up, you can try again tomorrow or move on altogether. You can clean up later, or maybe someone will do it for you. People ooh and ahh over your creations.
In a professional kitchen, you work on your employers terms. You work on a timetable that has nothing to do with a clock, but whether or not you’ve got the job done. You make what’s on the menu. You work as part of a team, sharing equipment, space and ingredients. It doesn’t get hot, it gets hotter. You don’t have a lunch break. If you mess up, you have to find a way to fix it now. You clean up knowing the health department can drop in at any moment. You don’t share your work, you sell it. And once money changes hands, everyone’s a critic.
The critics themselves, in kitchen memoirs or reality shows, frame the issue in romantic language as if they can taste the passion, or lack thereof, in a chef’s work. The chefs too fall back on this trope, “well, I’m certainly not doing it for the money…” On and on we hear, you’ve gotta do what you love. Put your heart in it. Love what you do.
But however much you love it, let’s be clear: this career will never love you back. It can’t. It’s not a person or a puppy, it’s a job.
I don’t mean to say you can’t, or shouldn’t, love your job. Only that love is a feeling and a shaky foundation for a career. You don’t feel love after a seventy hour work week, when a stranger tears you to shreds on Yelp, or after losing everything in a power outage. If love’s the only fuel you’ve got, those moments will defeat you. When I get to the restaurant to face some fresh disaster, my love for homemade sprinkles doesn’t well up inside and lift me above the fray. What gets me through is an ability to set my emotions aside and say, “I don’t mind.”
I don’t mind the heat. I don’t mind the hours. I don’t mind starting over. I don’t mind standing. I don’t mind washing dishes. I don’t mind feeling tired. I don’t mind working on holidays. I don’t mind the madness. I don’t mind repetition. I don’t mind not having a lunch break. I don’t mind scrubbing. I don’t mind getting critiqued. I don’t mind getting yelled at. I don’t mind staying late. I don’t mind the stress. I don’t mind burns and cuts and scrapes and pain.
I don’t love my job despite those things, I love it in the midst of them.
For whatever reason, I have more focus in the chaos of the kitchen than here in the quiet, on my computer. I have more energy on my feet. I work better with my hands. In a hundred ways, the work itself suits me, even when I don’t always want to admit it.
When people send me their love letters to baking, I don’t doubt their sincerity. But to give up a job or an education, you owe it to yourself to ask more than “what do I love?” You need to also ask “where do I thrive?”
71 comments and counting
Sep 19, 2012 · 12:57 AM
I have often felt the same way, whenever someone comes up and says “I should quit my 9 to 5 and bake cupcakes” and I remember all the times I have struggled with the circumstances that come up unexpectedly in a pastry kitchen. How many new recipes are found because a disaster happened and you have to make do with what you have (and it ends up being great as well)! My family doesn’t understand the joy I get in the whole process, the stress, the hunger, the pain… I feel like a thrive in chaos, and I don’t know how to explain it to the people surrounding me. But, at the same time, I’m not as lucky as you, in finding a place where I can bake to my heart’s content, for in my country, the only job for a pastry chef lies in hotels, not even restaurants are hiring pastry chefs, and I’ve been struggling with a catering service of my own that never quite pays the bills for over two years. And I find myself in the opposite situation of the people that usually contact you, in that I’m thinking on quitting pastry altogether, although I’m good at it and I enjoy it inmensely, because I can’t support myself anymore. Do you have any advice for me? should I continue to struggle, to try and find a modest baking job at least? or should I quit it all and go back to either waiting tables or to an office job?
Sep 19, 2012 · 8:43 AM
Love you share the view from inside the kitchen. I´a former pastry cook. When someone ask me why I don´t go back to the kitchen, I tell them that people wants to eat everyday of the year, late at night, holidays… Everyone who´s thinking about to enter the cooking business should see what a cook´s doing while they´re eating in a restaurant.
· Julieta · philosophyofflavour.blogspot.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 8:49 AM
So well said. Lots of TV shows now about the “glamour” of working as a chef/baker and everyone sits on their couch watching thinking they could have so much FUN doing THAT! The reality is different and that’s why I started my blog. I get to do what I want, when I want, share it, and continue on my day. I would never have that working in the professional bakery environment, but it’s still tempting to look in the window and dream…?
· Sweet Teeth · sweet-teeth-at-magalies-garden.blogspot.com/
Sep 19, 2012 · 8:58 AM
Stella, this is authentic, straight to the heart of the matter and brilliant. Knowing where/when you thrive and making the most of those strengths is an excellent formula for finding your passion! Thanks for your honesty and for giving us a glimpse of what it’s really like. <3
· Iris · www.know-your-greatness.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 9:25 AM
@terya, thank you!
@Denise, you’ve brought up the other “ugly side” of the issue: Love doesn’t pay the bills. Of the group of students in my graduating class, only a handful of us are still cheffing. A huge number jumped sides, because the money is just better front of the house (all of the servers at our restaurant make more than me). A lot of my friends have gone back to college, or started a new career.
I have a loooong running fantasy of getting an office job. Air conditioning? Sitting down? Health insurance? Cute outfits? I think there have to be other jobs, aside from kitchen work, that would satisfy our desires (highly organized, under pressure, slightly creative) but it may take some thinking to figure out what those are. I would say, don’t be a martyr but keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities (my current job was totally unexpected, unsought).
@Tee, but those babies will love you back!! And cuddle you! I know a lot of pastry folk who’ve made the same decision. I’m excited to be a mom someday, it seems like it has so many of the hallmarks of the kitchen: long, thankless hours, organization, under pressure, pain and cleaning up $#*&^. But with snuggles!
@Julieta, amen! On Labor Day everyone was tweeting “woo hoo long weekend!” and I literally had to google it to find out what they were talking about.
@Sweet Teeth, oh yeah. Window shopping a career is awesome (me: I’m a secret lawyer) but there are so many bajillions of culinary school grads, a lot of shoppers seem to become buyers…
@Iris, thank you so much. I really, really struggled to decide if I should post this or not. But it’s true. I’m glad something in it resonated with you.
Sep 19, 2012 · 9:26 AM
Spoken like a woman far wiser than her years! My own mother often says – “whoever said you are supposed to love your job?” A job is for making money and because you’re good at it, and maybe even because it needs doing. Nice if one can enjoy it sometimes and appreciate or love the results or the process. But loving the job itself is mostly an unrealistic expectation.
· MotherWouldKnow · motherwouldknow.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 9:27 AM
Thanks for writing this. People do need the whole story, just like they do when they plan to get married, or are entering parenthood.
I inwardly roll my eyes when people get excited about my job. “You get to bake CAKES all day? Ooh, what’s your favorite kind?”
And don’t get me started on the people new in the industry who want weekends off to make plans to be with friends and family and take off holidays.
This job is a lot more like parenting in the worst circumstances, and not like “following your dreams,” queue romantic strings.
Anyway, I won’t ramble on. Thanks again. And if you do lose followers, it’s only because they can’t handle the truth.
· Mochene · mochene.blogspot.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 9:27 AM
You have great perspective and insight, Stella.
I always tell peeps to start small… starting/running a business is not just decorating cupcakes. You have to be in it for the long haul. If you have a regular job and are thinking of quitting, I would say think about part time hours in a bakery and see if it is really for you before going all in. : )
· Michelle Jaffee · www.sweetandsimple.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 9:32 AM
Your post has inspired me! I support small business. People often think that they can quit their day job just to make life easier, to operate a small business. It isn’t always all that easy, and it isn’t always their cup of tea. It is about, “Where do I thrive?” The idea behind your blog post fits into so many aspects in life.
· Mary · www.penandinkspot.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 9:47 AM
Nail on the head Stella! People always tell my boyfriend, “Wow your boyfriend is a chef?? You must eat really well.” He smiles and nods knowing we had rice, frozen vegetables, and hot dogs last night because I was too exhausted to cook a full meal. I bake and I’m trying to start a baking business because it makes sense to me – it’s the way I know I can survive. And if one more person says I should bring samples or donate cupcakes…
· Jason S · www.TheAubergineChef.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 9:48 AM
Thank you, Stella! This post pretty much sums it up perfectly. No glamour, but just reality without the whining that’s heard from a lot of food industry people. I agree with you 100%.
And thank you for the fabulous desserts we had the other night at 310. It was a perfect night cap. We need to meet sometime! ~ Toa
· Toa Green · www.thaiorchidcafe.net
Sep 19, 2012 · 9:52 AM
@MotherWouldKnow, your mom sounds like my kinda lady. YES! Wish I could just retweet all o’ that.
@Mochene, yeeesssss! I mean, I know I’m guilty of playing the “I get to bake cookies all day!” card from time to time, but it’s frustrating when people think I just goof off all day. Friends always want to drop by and visit me at work, and it’s like, um? Did I stop by your office to chat while you wrote that report? I’m working!
@Michelle, absolutely. That is the one part of my email that never gets deleted: get a part time job. You have to taste this industry before diving in.
@Mary, maybe it’s because I have 0 entrepreneurial spirit, but I always think it’s so crazy! QUIT YOUR JOB? In this economy?! To start a small business?! Obviously, many people make it work. But it’s an astonishing amount of work.
@Jason, hahaha, Mr. BraveTart knows that story! Dessert in this house is scarce!! Only the broken bits I bring home from work, poor guy.
@Toa, spoken like a true chef/small business owner! We seriously do have to cross paths in real life one of these days.
Sep 19, 2012 · 9:55 AM
Great post! It’s fun to fantasize about such things, but I’m definitely old enough to know better.
Happily, California is about to pass it’s first Cottage Food Law (AB1616) which will enable home cooks/bakers to sell their goodies without having to rent a commercial kitchen or open a shop. Best of both worlds for the little people who love to bake and are good at it!
· Bonnie · www.bakecookeatmove.blogspot.com/
Sep 19, 2012 · 9:58 AM
Outstanding post! I have to admit that as much as I love cooking I have never once wanted to work in a professional kitchen. I’ve considered some culinary education just for the expertise, but never to work as a chef. I worked in a bakery for several years and had a taste of professional kitchen work in my undergrad classes. It was enough to know that I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) cut it. But this also leads me to why I have so much respect for people in your field of work. I know it’s damn hard, and you prevail with amazing results. Cheers!
· Lori · www.fakefoodfree.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 10:09 AM
That was me 6 years ago. I gave up long service leave and benefits and became an apprentice chef. I loved and hated it but was determined to complete my training. 9 months in, I fell pregnant. I lasted to the end of my first trimester before leaving with my head chef’s blessing. I don’t regret the decision b/c I would have always wondered what if? I love being a mum and know I don’t want to work in a restaurant again. I dabble in baking and making cakes to order but I’ve come to the realisation that I love my weekends too much to honestly go into business for myself.
Thanks for writing this. It’s so true. I hope more aspiring bakers read it to get a reality check.
· Di-licious · lifeisdi-licious.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 10:18 AM
I help people pick medical specialties fairly often, and I always tell them—the cool part of EVERYTHING is cool. For every big elaborate sexy surgery there are a hundred bog-standard gall bladders. For every big internal medicine mystery to solve there are tons of regular old high blood pressure and diabetes patients who don’t take their meds.
Ideally you have to love the grind, but that’s a lot to ask. At a minimum you have to love the successes and the cool parts so much that the grind is worth it.
Someone tells me about once a week that I should open a restaurant. I know for a fact I don’t have it in me.
· wmmtcooks · www.whatscookinnow.org
Sep 19, 2012 · 10:23 AM
Great post. Call it ‘tough love’, ‘the truth hurts’, or whatever. Every job has pros and cons, but the kitchen life is more grueling than most people think. ‘Professional’ people can reschedule appointments, work late if neccessary, etc. to get the job done. When a customer comes in to pick up a birthday cake for their childs party, however, they are rarely willing to rechedule because you woke up with a headache!
I left the world of computers, and have been a professional baker for 20 years now. I spent 6 years ‘apprenticing’, then bought an existing bakery and ran it for 11 years. The last Christmas I owned it, I worked 36 hours STRAIGHT leading up to Christmas day. That was after working 18 days for the 3 weeks leading up to that, and despite having 20 employees!
Even if YOU understand that holidays dont exist in the food industry, your family probably wont, so you’ll constantly fight that battle, too!
Customers always say:‘Why can’t you make just ONE more?’. Family always says:‘Why don’t you just hire more help?’. Idiots always say:‘At least you’re rich…after all, you own your own business.’ Right!!!
I would suggest anyone contemplating opening their own shop read ‘The E-Myth’. It explains why just because you’re good at something, it doesn’t mean you’ll be good at owning a business doing that something
Sorry If I ‘hijacked’ your post People need the truth!! lol
· Alan · www.cookedwithluv.blogspot.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 10:29 AM
Thanks for your post bravetart! I am in a similar situation but not exactly as what you talked about. I’m a stay at home dad by choice (meaning I can easily get a good job that pays well, but not one that I wake up wanting to go to work) and thats what I want, to find a career that I wake up on Monday and not dread going to work like I see on so many of our friends on facebook. I want TFIM, not TGIF. And I think being a pastry chef may be that career. The military is paying for my culinary school. So really I have nothing to lose except time, and baking is a lifelong skill that I could use even if I’m not doing it as a profession. I do sometimes think about the repetition of baking the same thing over and over again. But then again, that’s what I do at home. I mess something up and I make it over and over til it comes out great. And when it comes out great, I make it over and over again for all my friends and family. So, who knows. But I do hope this is the career I’m looking for.. it certainly would make my family of sweetaholics happy! (PS: I’m from cincinnati, but living in DC. Can’t wait to visit your shop when I come back in town!)
Sep 19, 2012 · 11:12 AM
Thank you so much for the insight from one who works within the food industry. I know it takes a lot of hard work, but I am confident that I will love what I plan to do. It’s nice to hear the encouragement and the reality at the same time. Thanks!
· Stephanie · munchimunch.blogspot.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 11:15 AM
I had dreams of becoming a chef. Not taking my husbands advice. He warned me
it’s not glamourous. He went to culinary school worked in the kitchen. After four years he packed up his knives and changed careers.
So I signed up for culinary school. I quickly came to my senses when the heat from the hot kitchen felt like the Arizona desert. By the end of the day my feet and back killed me. This isn’t what I thought it would be. On TV people aren’t sweating.
I will take what I learned from school and cook at home for now.
Thank you for telling it like it is.
Sep 19, 2012 · 11:44 AM
I went through Culinary School so I could tie food stylist in with my food photography business. I spent almost a year doing that and you know what? I’m currently in grad school for a position in a completely different path. Love doesn’t pay the bills, do your marketing, deal with clients, or find the perfect piece of cilantro to fit on top of that enchilada either. I’m tired of living the dream, and an office chair, steady paycheck, and free weekends sounds so nice right now. Thank you for being so blunt about this. Someone needed to say it.
· Jessie · Www.jessiekaufman.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 12:16 PM
But if I’m being patient and finishing my PhD before I experiment with pastry, and if I know that I’m not thriving in the lab and am constantly thinking about recipes instead of experiments, then don’t I owe it to myself to try it out and see how it goes? I fully understand a career in pastry would be just as hard as a career in science and the financial benefits would be much less, but don’t I owe it to myself to see if it would mean that going to work every day wouldn’t be so depressing? And if it doesn’t work out, I have the PhD to fall back on. I don’t know, just something I struggle more and more with the closer I get to graduating and deciding my next step in life.
Sep 19, 2012 · 1:25 PM
The grass is always greener, isn’t it? At least in people’s minds. Very thoughtful – and truthful – post. Your message could be applied to any variety of “quit my job to…” scenarios.
· Dawn | KitchenTravels · www.kitchentravels.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 1:34 PM
@Rachel: I agree with you. I don’t think our careers are just something that we do because we need money or because we are good at it. I think we should choose a career based on what we like and will keep us happy. That doesn’t mean it has to be easy..an easy job wouldn’t keep me happy. We all still do have responsibilities and I’m in total agreement with Stella about not dropping everything and running to bake cupcakes like “georgetown cupcakes”..(even though it sure did work for them…hah!) But, I dont see nothing wrong with pursuing pastry after you finish your phd as long as you can still take care of your financial responsibilities. I know no LESS than 6 lawyers who now work in a career that has absolutely nothing to do with law. Especially if you think going to work is depressing. I never hated my job. But I never enjoyed it either. I just enjoyed the people I worked with. So 5 years ago I started the search for the career that is going to be “the one”.. and I’ve got it down to two now. So good luck with your endeavors!
Sep 19, 2012 · 2:06 PM
I love how honest a perspective this piece is. It is very hard to tell someone “don’t do what I’m doing, it really is the pits” because unless they understand the sacrifice, hardwork and dedication against all odds…they will just think you are crazy ; )
· Kelly · www.facebook.com/TartsDesireBakery
Sep 19, 2012 · 3:06 PM
A Poignant post Bravetart,You have a talent for writing, As a Chef myself, There is no glamour, when one person does not pull their weight the the whole kitchen suffers. It is hard and often dirty work. The industry is filled with addiction of all types. Having said all this the people who make the food we eat deserve the utmost respect. 2 Phrases work magic, “Please”, and “Thank You”. They are the lubricants that keep the engine running to me. God Speed and best of luck.
Sep 19, 2012 · 4:20 PM
Oh, you’ve nailed it! I get so many people telling me they want to give up everything and go to school, or start from the bottom in a pastry kitchen. All because they LOOOOOVVVVVVEEEEE to bake-ALOT!
Heh, then they come in for a 3 day trial and…you don’t see them no more.
They can’t take the heat, the long hours standing on end, the washing, the irregular meals(or the lack of time to eat… . They just don’t understand that working in a commercial kitchen is WAY different from working at home.
The next time I hear anyone telling me something like this, I’ll direct them to your post, Stella.
· chefpinky · www.facebook.com/strictlypastry
Sep 19, 2012 · 4:22 PM
I’m a happy home baker with a corporate day job. I LOVE baking almost as much as I love eating… but I know that a lot of the love is because its something I can decide to do when I want to and make what I want and share it or not. I think making a job of it would – for me at least – remove the joy.
· Tanya · intermittentblogger.wordpress.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 4:35 PM
sure enough, great article!
passion, love of food, willing to serve the others, put some smile on others…. that what good cooking all about.
people often forget that to become a good chef de cuisine has to go through all the little potato post, peel ing potato for months, peeling onion ( i mean baby onion)…
peoples often forget that famous cookbook author, hot blogger, popular web-writer etc need months and years to build up
me and my husband are both work as chef, couldn’t agree you more….
Sep 19, 2012 · 4:49 PM
Great honest post. Just what I needed at the right moment.
A month ago I was still an architect, spending half the time at the office desk and half the time traveling to construction sites. I spent 7 years of education to be an architect and it was the obvious path to go. The reality is that I got to go to construction sites to inhale dust and toxic fumes (not good when I have asthma), stay up late and spend weekends at the office without getting paid. That’s why I have put my profession to a pause and explore if there are other opportunities out there. Your post have covered what had gone through my mind in the past weeks. I mean, I had been selling cakes and sweets occasionally to fund my love of baking, but deep down I know it will be a totally different story if I decided to make it into a full time business.
I haven’t decide what I want to do at the moment, but your post provided a reality checklist for me to think about before I make my decision.
· Cherry · www.doublecreamsinglesugar.com
Sep 19, 2012 · 4:57 PM
I cannot express how this resonated with me as to why I’ve chosen my career path. Although as a teacher I actually get vacation days the concept of how the ins and outs of every day add up to-“I can’t imagine doing anything else.” is truly an expression of my own experience.
Sep 19, 2012 · 10:32 PM
I love everything about this post. I’ve had the same conversations with people that watch these fluffed up cooking shows and think its this wonderful lifestyle of creativity. My family started inviting me to things with the sentence “we know you cant come but”… because even my family have to come 2nd. It is tough, and I think there is a certain “type” of person who can deal with this situation, not every one has that ability,
Love this Post! Hope you dont mind if I share!
· missladybirdy · www.missladybirdy.blogspot.com
Sep 20, 2012 · 9:25 AM
OMG, while I’m off to work all the comments come pouring in! Wish I could respond to everyone, but then I’d just have another blog post.
Alan brings up a huge point to consider along with everything else: your family will not understand!!! Even after ten years, my parents are still filled with crushing disappointment when I have to leave their house after visiting for Christmas because I work the next day. I don’t have a magic week off in between Christmas and New Years, I have one of the busiest weeks of the year!
fitchef also mentions something wonderful: having someone else pay for culinary school. If you’ve got a scholarship or no-strings attached financial aid, it makes it so much more reasonable. Paying of a $50k education at $8/hr is daunting.
@Rachel, whatever you do, you will always have a happy place where your mind wanders during work. Absolutely finish your PhD but as an experiment, call around to some bakeries or restaurants and ask them the starting wages for a pastry chef. Bluff. Pretend you already are one. Prepare to be deeply disappointed in the number they give you.
Thank you to everyone who shared their story too. xoxo
Sep 20, 2012 · 10:36 AM
I Agree sooo Much.
I’m a 30 year old professional chef and I have been working in kitchens from the age of 14.
I love it when I see some cowboy leave the industry.
the standard of chefs these days is ridiculous. Government schemes such as Appreniships and NVQs dillute the standard and make everyone feel like they are chefs. you want to be good go out and do it.
I am constantly finding our head chef taking short cuts and cowboying techniques to make more mise en place faster to feed more people faster to send out any old crap just to make his targets so he can achieve his bonus at end of year.
I love the kitchen it’s all I know if I could find an employer who could give me a roof over my head and plenty of food for my family i’d work for free I work 15 hour shifts and when a customer comes up to the pas and tells me they loved their food the weight of that 15 hour shift is lifted.
you want to be a chef? Money needs to be the last thing on your mind, 15 hour shifts at 30+ degrees centigrade, occasional complaints, vericose veins, working christmas, NYE, easter, missing every family wedding, birthday and Anniversary is what you need to think about.
if you can get used to those things go get a Commis chef job
Sep 20, 2012 · 11:26 AM
Love your blogs. Love your passion.
A few months into studying for my medical college admissions test, I began having serious conversations to myself about whether I wanted to go into cooking or go to med school.
Along some of the same lines as you, I found that it wouldn’t good for me to give up everything and start that life..though I believe I would enjoy it.
I will continue to be passionate for food, creating food, serving food, tasting food. I am thinking about volunteering at restaurants I frequent on a committed 1-2 times a week basis just to get that life experience. I’m pretty sure the chefs at these restaurants would appreciate the help.
Do you have any advice about that?
Thanks for your insight into this new phenomenon.
Sep 20, 2012 · 12:05 PM
Thanks for writing this. As a former pastry chef and line cook, I’m frequently trying to explain to my office the reality and “non glamour” of the culinary life (and how I could possibly stay slender! I don’t tell them the most physically demanding job I’ve ever had was a Cupcake Decorator). I don’t regret leaving the industry (neither do my back, my lungs, my feet, my fingers, or my liver!) but I can’t walk by a professional kitchen without feeling homesick. I assume it will be like that for a long time—you can leave the kitchen, but the kitchen doesn’t leave you.
· Cowen Park Kitchen · cowenparkkitchen.blogspot.com
Sep 20, 2012 · 3:09 PM
After reading this several times since yesterday, I really want to thank you for sharing this Stella! You have managed to articulate what I could only vaguely conceptualize in my head. And your writing is as beautiful as your desserts.
You struck at the heart of the matter, with such honesty and confidence in your prose, that it felt like I was listening to you and not just reading. Thank you for being amazing. Please be my life coach.
Sep 20, 2012 · 5:12 PM
@Rekra, wish you were in my kitchen!! We’re always short on savory staff because despite the bajillions of culinary school graduates, none of them are qualified. Ugh.
@Joe Kim, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad idea. Sometimes we kitchen folk feel bad making a customer work because it’s hard to break out image of you. I had a lady want to come help me, but I didn’t let her because I didn’t think I’d be able to “boss” her effectively because of her status. But your chefs may not feel that way! It wouldn’t hurt to ask; I’d definitely frame it in terms of “experience” rather than “help” too, a chef may not mind letting you get a taste of the kitchen in the right circumstances, but may be dubious as to how much help you’ll actually be. Hope you can get your hands dirty!
@Cowen Park, omg, the lungs. I worked at a bakery for 2 years and had the worst cough from all the flour I was constantly inhaling. Yeah, everyone asks me how I stay so skinny and it’s like, um you have no idea how physically hard I’m working. Also: cupcakes aren’t fun to eat when you’re sweating. Haha!
@Waldo, thank you so much. I have a very hard time saying things like this, and am glad I did not misfire. And, as your new life coach, I say: go enjoy some ice cream before it gets too cold!
Sep 21, 2012 · 4:53 PM
I couldn’t agree more. Loving to bake is when you are cooking whatever you want whenever you feel like it.
Loving being in the bakery business is going into the shop with a smile on your face after you’ve worked 5 twelve hour days.
· Brandon · www.bearmakerbakery.com
Sep 25, 2012 · 9:24 AM
I love this, and I love you! Haha, okay that was a little much. I really, really love your realism.I appreciate it so much. I am a graduate of a two-year pastry program where I loved every minute of it. After school, I tried my hand at working at a few different bakeries, and have found one that I love. Even with my love of cookies, cakes, pastries, and all things born from an oven—something was missing. This fall I began a new adventure and have began my Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. It is not that I do not love to bake, because baking is what makes me feel alive. I love to make things for people I love, and love their encouraging responses, but the thought of practically living in an industrialized kitchen—isn’t really my “happy place”. I DO mind the stress, and I DO mind the late hours, and missing holidays. I do not regret for one moment going to pastry school, I am thankful for taking the time and dedication to hone my skills, and knowledge of my first love, and favorite hobby. I hope some day to work for a large newspaper or maybe even a magazine in the food department, working on recipes, writing, and critiquing, where I am not sweaty, and pressed for time before a 7pm dinner rush or getting 5,000 cookies made for one day’s worth of Christmas orders. Thank you, thank you again for being honest, and real.
· Rachel · lifeinbatches.com
Sep 25, 2012 · 9:37 AM
If I just change all “chef” to “floral designer” and “kitchen” to “workbench”, you would be ME thinking about MY job! So many would-be party planners, brides, garden clubbers rhapsodizing about chucking it all to “play with flowers. . .” You chefs are not alone in this—if it makes you feel any better, you have the company of another group of overworked, under compensated, sore-footed/shouldered, burned, scraped, cut and sleep deprived cadre of the proletariat! Thank you for your perspective, you are frank without snark or smugness, lovely and refreshing!
· Nancy · theflourgardiner.com
Sep 25, 2012 · 6:44 PM
@Rachel, oh, having a culinary background in journalism sounds like you’re setting yourself up to hit a home run someday. Nice combo.
@Nancy, omg, I believe you! I read an incredible essay once by a florist detailing the 24 hours before Valentines Day and Mothers Day, and it sounded like a nightmare, and yet oddly familiar.
Sep 29, 2012 · 2:22 AM
i just love to play with mud. i m young enough to play with other things but loved it .
· Maria Jones · http://www.vitiligoguide.com/
Sep 30, 2012 · 2:04 AM
Great post. I think anyone thinking of a career change because of a guiding passion should read your post, culinary or otherwise. The dark underbelly away from the glamour is what one has to push aside and say, as you do simply but truthfully, “I don’t mind.” The fact is I DO often mind, but I move on because I’m so busy. (My second career is a being a physician – lots of dark underbellies. Cooking is my cozy kitchen hobby with which I will never pay the bills, only fill stomachs!)
· story · www.storyofakitchen.com
Sep 30, 2012 · 12:19 PM
You couldn’t have put this in any better of a way, Stella. I often think of my decision to start over and go to culinary school after I got done with my Biology degree. I learn more and more every day that I believe I made the right decision. It’s a different kind of stress in a kitchen… one that I do think I “thrive” in, and one that I do love, at the same time. =)
· Peggy · feedingandy.blogspot.com
Sep 30, 2012 · 11:25 PM
@story, oh, woah. I bet your industry is plagued with the same thing. There’s a lot of idealization and glamor in medicine thanks to all those tv shows. I’m sure after a day in your work, baking is a piece of cake in every sense.
@Peggy, I love hearing that, I hope people reading through the comments will balance what I said against the fact that for some taking that risk pans out! Thanks for sharing.
Oct 03, 2012 · 4:46 AM
Beautiful post. You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head. I recently encountered someone who forked over a ton of her parents’ money to go to pastry school, only to quit a month after graduating because it was too hard and she wasn’t making money. All I could say was “I don’t sleep, and I’m not rich, but I’m happy.” Thanks for the great post!
· Cakeballlove · Www.cakeballlove.com
Oct 03, 2012 · 9:31 AM
Cakeballlove, we had an intern at the restaurant who would pull a bar stool up to her station so she could sit down while chopping herbs. I could just see her parents money swirling down the toilet; that girl will never make it if she can’t even stand up through one shift… Oy!
Oct 08, 2012 · 7:13 PM
YES YES YES. So incredibly thoughtful and insightful and right.
Working in a kitchen means that you will spend much of your time on your hands and knees, scrubbing out pots and refrigerators and toilets. Working in a kitchen means when everyone else in the world is celebrating their evening or their weekend or their holiday, you are the one throwing the party. Working in a kitchen means disposing of dead mice and mopping floors and spending twelve hours on your feet all day, every day.
Working in a kitchen means firing people who sit down to chop. (Stella, I did that just the other month! The poor bastard, he thought that quitting his “real” job for a kitchen job would be “easy”.)
Saying “you have to love it” is a cliche, and only partially the truth. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t so much love but a dogged determination, the brutal realization that you simply can’t do anything else. Or maybe it’s just sheer stubborness.
Anyway, wonderful post, really powerfully written. It should be required reading for anyone submitting an application to culinary school.
· Sara at The Cozy Herbivore · http://thecozyherbivore.blogspot.com
Oct 09, 2012 · 9:32 AM
Hi Sara! Oh my gosh, one day in culinary school I made the mistake of sitting down at my station and my chef tore me to pieces. I never made that mistake again; but I also learned something about sitting down: it makes you more tired. You don’t want to get back up. It dampens your willingness to stand. But once it’s out of the equation, you keep moving and get stuff done!
Oct 19, 2012 · 5:24 PM
Wow! I think I might print this post out and hand it to people. I’m a Pastry Chef with 10 years in and I get this all the time. I am a career changer so I can relate to both sides. But I try to prepare people for the harshness of a professional kitchen. Usually it’s the no lunch break that gets them. “When do you eat then?” You take about 4-7 minutes to inhale something of nutritional value, and then you get back to work. “There are labor laws!” Not in a professional kitchen. But I have to say ten years later I don’t want to do anything else. Thanks for a great post!
· Mama Cocoa · www.mamacocoasdelights.com
Oct 24, 2012 · 10:08 AM
Hey Mama! After ten years, I always tell people I’m not fit to do anything else. Restaurant work has corrupted me to its unique lifestyle. I don’t know how I’d survive in pretty clothes with a lunch break, haha. I’m happy to hear from a career changer who liked the switch, I don’t ever seem to hear those stories as much as the flip side. Thanks for stopping by!
Dec 04, 2012 · 10:05 AM
Such an excellent post. I’m a culinary school grad and as such when someone says “I want to be a chef!” I am always torn between encouraging them and tempering their enthusiasm. I saw sooo many dropouts in school, and they didn’t even make it to a “real” kitchen. I myself jumped to a related field (food science) because while I LOVE food, I did not thrive in the unrelenting pace of the kitchen. I was too slow and methodical – GREAT for a scientist, bad for a cook. I still have had fantasies of having a little place of my own, but I equate it to running away and joining the circus. It’s mad – but it’s totally right for some amazing people.
Dec 05, 2012 · 9:18 AM
Hi Claire! I am so glad you found the right place to use your skills, even if you had to jump from one field to another. I know exactly what you mean; I can’t shout out a rant this size every time someone says they want to be a chef. Finding a good short answer is hard!
Dec 12, 2012 · 6:30 AM
I love reading your blogs. I appreciate your honesty on this one especially. I LOVE to bake, but haven’t got a clue how create my own recipes. I often think about how great it would be to have a little bakery in a sweet little tourist town in the mountains of the west. I have been a high school art teacher for a long time. I let my fantasy of having an office job take me out of the classroom about 5 years ago and put me into a very cold office as the curator of a small local art museum. It was a terrible mistake for me. There is nothing about me that makes me a match for a quiet little museum job. Teaching kids has ruined me for quiet. I can’t take quiet unless I’m driving home from work after a particularly noisy day. Lucky for me, my old job came open after the year at the museum. How I mourned for my old job from the start of the new job. I learned a valuable lesson. I can enjoy having my fantasy of being a baker/pastry chef and know it is pure fantasy because I know now that my job is what I love doing in the midst of all of the chaos and noise.
Dec 13, 2012 · 10:21 AM
Hi Cynthia! It’s funny how that “grass is always greener” way of thinking will plague pretty much any profession. I love to fantasize about an office job, but I think I’d go crazy sitting down all day, despite how much I imagine I would loooove it.
Jan 25, 2013 · 2:16 PM
Hello Stella !
First i have to say you are amazing baker , writer and above all you are realistic and from what i understand you are not scared to grab life by the hair and just make things happen with your great wittiness and sincerity !
I adore your blog , the way your write and your deep commitment to what you love and do!
well i am one more patient of the pastry chef dream syndrome ! and yes the recent trend on all things food do help reignite peoples forgotten or forbidden passions ! we tend to forget what we love due to the pressure of life and all the things that we suppose to do and not what we love and what we are willing to sacrifice alot for!
I grew up in a loving home watching my Whole family forever baking cooking having large family dinners and mainly me standing on a chair helping out cooking but especially baking ! age 4 it was my first pizza which made a point of eating it all bymyself to show that was perfectly edible ( although the dough was like cardboard so it was more like baked bruchetta i would say LOL ) and since then it has been non stop by spending nights sitting with my mum drawing with choco ganache on christnas cookies , making dozens upon dozens christmas cookies ( blame the czech christmas tradition for this blessing) . baking numerous easter buns , plaints and little lamb shaped vanilla cakes for all my fathers relatives ! Age 19 i was ready to leave greece to study in London , that was when i realised that apart from my history books and literature books i was obsessively studying cookbooks in any language possible, and i would bake obsessively at nights ! so at age 19 i asked almost begged my mum instead me going to London to train as pastry chef at the only at the time school in Thessalonikh Levh. She said simply are you crazy ? i will disown you if you do , we bake as a tradition that is not a job ! well i have to confess one thing , i am now age 33 and both of my parents have agreed that i should have actually chosen what was and is my true passion. Over the years i have always pushed it aside as i hadto earn money and live ! i loved london and i spend the best years of my life there! although working hard ina corporate 9-5 job baked all the time and always was on the lookout for the new gadgets , cookbooks etc etc! Now back in the Med and living in a rather bizarre and surreal situation there is a daily virtual banging on my head liek a massive church bell telling me .. heeyyyy you know what you were meant to be doing…so what r you doing sat where you are letting others telling you what and how to do it … i also see your point about the professional aspect of things and as i had the honor the least to say to see a restaurant being made from scratch and who it works and how much hard work it is , plus having been very close to a professional chef and watche dhim in action plus learned so much more from him , and having had manytimes offered to bake freelance for restaurants and individual … i still wonder .. what am i doing here / have not an official job and that is just bubbling inside me ! quite literally in my unorthodox household .. i have been banned from baking … well for the time being… which i think for any passionate baker is a cruel thing! so .. what would someone advise me to do …regardless to say i have been also offered apprentiships yet i cannot yet accept before i make drastic changes in my life ! so sometimes is not that we maybe so passionate that maybe factors we do not consider … but we are so passionate and decided yet if we act upon it … our decisions will affect deaply others ..but then again .. shouldnt we always follow our true dreams ???? ;0) ps i feel like walking through treacle… quite literally !!LOL
Feb 06, 2013 · 11:29 PM
One fall I decided I wanted to provide baked goods for order for Christmas – while I worked full time at my stress-filled job. I learned quickly that I didn’t like all aspects of filling orders and I was too much of a perfectionist, I was sleep deprived, and I LOST money because it’s impossible to charge what ingredients really cost. I had never spoken to my husband the way that I did during that time. He took my stress in stride, but only because he’s that understanding. Since that time, people have often told us that we should be doing something food related, but I know better. I don’t ever want to be on my feet that many hours or have to make a schedule or make a payroll or order the right quantity of whatever. My husband and I always notice the eateries that go out of business after we’ve tried them. It’s a tough business. The closest we ever come to living that life is saying, “I would have this on my menu.” And we’re happy to leave it at that. This was a great post for buffering the unrealistic expectations of an aspiring culinary/pastry student who thinks they will be the host of their own cooking show.
Apr 25, 2013 · 10:19 PM
I admire those people who have quit their job and still have a comfortable life. But they would lose enthusiasm and just live in the world. I also want to be a boss but life can’t allow. Even thought that, I still enjoy everything!
· windysmith · http://www.flightinthecases.com/news/
Apr 26, 2013 · 9:25 AM
Hi windysmith! Yeah, I think some people really need to consider the difference between earning a living and living the dream. Living the dream doesn’t always let you earn a living!
Nov 30, 2013 · 5:23 AM
Well said! My father is a baker and has his own business. First, it was a two man band in our cellar. They did everything by themselves, from baking to delivery, meeting with clients and making new contacts. Sometimes they roped my mom to help out (she’s a had and still has her own job). I have spent countless nights in the bakery when something broke down or things just didn’t go as it was supposed to go (yes, imagine what social workers or health department would say nowadays).. The bakery is 30 years now. It’s not just my dad and his best friend anymore, nowadays it’s kinda a big business. Hard work paid off. And it really was hard at times. Holidays anyone? You can’t have those with your own business. It’s work 24/7. Everybody told me I should be like my dad and go to Culinary institute. My dad denied it. We’ve spent long ours in the bakery and I’ve got a lots of good memories from those times. However, I think I understand why he said no at the time. Well, that was a long and boring post but I wanted to share it. If you’re ready to work for it, then do it! But know what you’re getting in to
Dec 02, 2013 · 12:53 PM
Hi Baker’s daughter! Oh my goodness, not boring at all! Thank you for sharing, I think the more “insiders” share their experience, the more “outsiders” can get a feel for whether or not they truly would enjoy entering this line of work. Giving up your holidays is a HUGE part of it. Most people are not ready to give up such a precious time.