Last week, I quit a relatively posh winery job in order to resume my career as a professional chef. This transition was a long time coming, and perhaps a bit foolhardy, but I ultimately had to remain true to my own aspirations. For me, there was just no way around it anymore. After three years of selling $50 Chardonnay and $100 Cabernet, my sudden return to the kitchen had caught some people by surprise, but I had been contemplating this move for well over a year, perhaps even longer. Deep down, I felt as if I still had unfinished business in the culinary realm, so many more skills that I still wanted to learn, and quite frankly, I had never been completely at peace with the fact that I had left the kitchen. The fact is, I left professional cooking three years ago for all of the wrong reasons, the main reason being money.
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There is a growing debate these days about for-profit universities and trade schools, and whether or not these institutions are acting responsibly. I’m not a complete expert on this subject, but I am quite familiar with the gist of the argument: For-profit schools can secure easy federal funding in the form of student loans, only to saddle the students with burdensome financial debt upon graduation. Basically, it’s one thing for a student to fork over $40,000 for an engineering degree, quite another thing for a student to fork over that same amount for a culinary degree. In the latter instance, a culinary student can expect to make between $10 to $12 per hour upon graduation. And with such low starting wages, paying back $40,000 in student loans becomes difficult, even laughable. As it is, many for-profit schools are little better than diploma mills, and these institutions deserve their scrutiny.
Despite what the common perception may be, graduating from a culinary school will not transform anyone into a chef. Far from it, actually. In the best scenario, a culinary degree might open some extra doors, but a new culinary graduate will never waltz into a kitchen and become the executive chef or even the sous chef. There’s just no skipping ahead, at least not in any respectable, high-level restaurant. In my own case, I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America with honors, and upon graduation six years ago, I sent out resumes to about 70 restaurants within Napa and Sonoma. Of those, I received just two call-backs, but was incredibly fortunate (as I only realized later) that one of those restaurants was Auberge du Soleil. The downside, of course, was that Auberge offered me just $11 per hour to start. Before attending culinary school in New York, I had been earning $10 per hour as a short-order cook in Los Angeles, so the return on my newly-minted culinary degree was negligible and dubious.
To make a long story short, I quickly learned the real-world value of my CIA degree when I moved to the Napa Valley. I discovered that the CIA had taught me just enough not to embarrass myself in a Michelin-star kitchen, but that was about it. As it turns out, my real culinary education began on the job at Auberge du Soleil, and quite honestly, $11 per hour was about all that I was worth back then. At the end of the day, it really didn’t matter if my two-year degree from the CIA had cost me a cool $40,000 or not, since it really didn’t prove anything. A diploma, after all, doesn’t mean much if you still need to learn how to cook in a bona fide professional setting. Luckily, I did learn, but I also went heavily into debt that year. I had lingering credit card obligations, mainly from being an out-of-work culinary student for two years, as well as some hefty student loans, which kicked in six months upon graduation. The honeymoon was over.
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Having made a pretty decent salary for several years during the dot-com boom, it was deflating to spiral back into debt. I didn’t take it very well, and I was determined to do something about it. When I left Auberge to take a slightly higher-paying job at Martini House, I also took on a second job pouring wine at Grgich Hills. It was a crazy schedule: I poured wine from 9am until 3pm, then I worked the pastry station at Martini House from about 4pm until midnight. Under these circumstances, money did become less of a problem, but I was also working a 75-hour week, which burned me out after about nine short months. Working two jobs is one thing, but when cooking is one of them, it becomes extremely taxing. Frazzled, and at the end of my rope, I decided I had to cut back to just one job, or else I was going to become seriously unstable and unhinged. Naturally, I kept the job that paid the most, which was the tasting room job. I soon found a position at another winery that would pay even more.
Fast forward to the present day. After my three-year departure into the wine business, I’ve now found myself at another crossroads. My credit card debts are finally gone, although the student loans remain. The way I see it now, at least I’ll be returning to the kitchen much better off than I was six years ago. Luckily, I’ll be making more money in the kitchen than I ever have before, though I’ll definitely be earning much less than I was earning at the winery. On the surface, this transition back to the kitchen makes very little sense, at least financially, except that it’s what I really want to do. I had become bored with being a talking head, repeating the same exact thing every day at the winery. For better or worse, I want to cook, and to keep writing in the meantime. I feel that it’s now manageable, so I’m optimistic. Still, it would’ve been nice if I didn’t have as much student debt as I do.
The moral of the story: Instead of spending two years in culinary school (money out), I recommend just spending them in the kitchen (money in). Cook in a couple different restaurants, maybe enroll in a junior college cooking program, but don’t pay $40,000 for a culinary degree. At Auberge, I cooked alongside folks who earned their culinary credentials from Napa Valley College, and who started off just the same as I did, but without all the ridiculous student debt. That said, I don’t have any pride in the fact that I have a degree from the CIA. The diploma is practically meaningless to me, and the degree only impresses people outside of the business. Sure, I did form lots of great friendships during my time at the CIA, but I also encountered plenty of deadbeats who coasted all the way through to graduation. Basically, if you can qualify for a student loan, then you can attend culinary school. But as a chef — a real chef — a diploma means nothing, and cooking means everything.