I have always professed that everyone should have a long-term plan regarding his or her career – a plan that would allow an individual to balance every decision with its impact on that career goal. I still am convinced that this is essential, but I am also fully aware that life may take you in a different direction – a direction that was never part of the initial vision. This is what makes life interesting, but also challenging to map out. What is always relevant is the knowledge of what essential skills will set the stage for consistent growth.
That early inkling that the food business is interesting and exciting is a great starting point. Finding something that feeds that feeling of “fit” is a platform on which to build a career that can go in numerous directions. I can never emphasize enough the importance of starting at the bottom, maintaining an open mind, seeking out the foundational skills that can be applied in various areas of a business, working on those attitudes and attributes that are universal, and being willing to move in new, exciting, and somewhat un-nerving directions when opportunity knocks.
I offer advice to anyone who is taking that first step in the food business and to those who express their frustration with their current role in a food operation – be vigilant, be patient, be ready, and always build on that foundation, have a plan but be willing to take a different fork in the road – you never know what opportunities will appear.
I started, like many of the chefs I know, as a dishwasher during summers and holidays while just starting out in high school. That summer/part-time job gave me a bit of spending money, introduced me to kitchen life, and became the spark that flickered for a few years while I was faced with “What are you going to do with your life?” When rock musician was crossed off my list at an early age – that dishwashing job took on new meaning as I transitioned to assistant breakfast cook (building a few skills along the way) and a decision to pursue a degree in hotel management. From summer breakfast cook I moved on to evening line cook, bartender, and occasional server while working on that degree. My skills were improving without really making that a part of my plan.
My time in the military was made more comfortable when it was discovered that I had some cooking skills – leading to a full-time assignment in the kitchens at Fort Jackson. Luck of the draw found me in the National Guard allowing ample time to continue working in kitchens around Buffalo, NY including the Statler Hilton where I found myself in their cooks apprenticeship program. Classical skill development in a traditional kitchen brigade gave me the opportunity to test the waters with butchery, banquets and catering, garde manger, sauces and soups, and more formal experience on a full-service hot line. By the age of 21 I was pretty comfortable around a kitchen, but needed to learn much more about the other side of the restaurant business. I fell into an opportunity to work as an assistant manager in college feeding operations – my first opportunity to apply some of the skills gained through that college degree. The food was much different, the atmosphere less like what could be described as “Kitchen Confidential” and more like a congenial nine-to-five environment, totally defined by a union contract and standardized to the hilt. I developed a new set of skills that focused on people management, compromise, and consistency. A few years in college feeding led to movement from assistant manager to senior operations manager where I acquired skills at budgeting, financial management, contract negotiation, staff training, and special event planning and supervision.
This management experience combined with the skills developed in the kitchen led to my first chef/manager position at a resort with multiple restaurant outlets including bar operations and fine dining. My skill set continued to broaden as I designed bar and kitchen facilities, enhanced my menu planning skills, became a more effective operations manager, and even took a stab at marketing. Ninety-hour work weeks, six months without a day off, and 24/7 responsibilities led me to begin a search for some type of balance.
Out of the blue came a chance to step into the field of teaching when a local college advertised for a hands-on foods instructor. Winning the position they explained their desire to build a separate degree in culinary arts. With my understanding of what was needed in the restaurant business I helped to develop a curriculum and received approval to begin offering a two-year degree in culinary arts. This position grew from instructor to Department Chair and eventually Dean of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management. After 26 years in the position the program had grown to the largest in the college, grew from two-year programs to baccalaureate, and earned accreditation status from the American Culinary Federation. I embraced every opportunity that came my way: earning a bachelor’s degree and eventually master’s in hospitality management, earning certification as a chef instructor from the ACF, serving on national committees including chair of the ACF National Education Committee, being selected to join the New England Culinary Olympic Team and successfully competing in the 1988 Culinary Olympics, and being recognized as the National Culinary Educator of the Year in 2001. Keep in mind – this all began with that first job as a dishwasher when I was 15 years old.
I returned to industry as an Executive Chef at a Four-Diamond Resort, was invited to cook at the James Beard House, and earned the 4th diamond with distinction from AAA for the resort. In 2008 I returned to education as Vice President at a prominent culinary college and in 2012 collected my various experiences and formed a consulting company that works with restaurants, resorts, and culinary schools across the country.
My point is simple – “You never know”. Like many chefs I had a loosely developed plan – I wanted to make a career out of the food business and knew that to do so would require staying power, a commitment to constantly building on my skill set, patience, and a willingness to take a leap into the unknown now and then. “Unless you know where you are going – any road will take you there.” This quote from Lewis Carroll has always been at the core of my beliefs – but time has also shown me that sometimes, even with a well laid out plan, you will be compelled to collect your bag of skills and take the road less traveled.
To those starting out – the world truly is your oyster, stay the course. To those who may be impatient with where you are and what your future holds – work on those skills that will give you the opportunity to step in different directions – take responsibility for your own opportunities. Don’t complain – take charge of your future. Anything is possible.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
A couple GOOD READS for those pursuing a career in food:
THE RECIPE by Chef Charles Carroll.
THE EVENT THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING by Chef Paul Sorgule.