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Thursday, June 15, 2006 12:21 am

Wannabe a what?

So you think becoming a chef is easy?

It was 4:30 a.m. and pitch-black, and a nasty, chilly drizzle was falling as I pointed my car toward the CIA. I peered through the windshield, the monotonous rhythm of the wipers luring me back to the sleep from which I had been so rudely and recently dragged. But the litany of self-doubt that had nagged me for weeks was enough to keep me awake. Could I measure up? At least not totally embarrass myself? What could I have been thinking — and at my age? Pulling up to a tollbooth, I stuck a handful of coins out into the predawn gloom. The attendant turned, and a big smile broke across her face. “Oh,” she chirped, obviously having been awake a lot longer than I, “I’ve always wanted to be a chef!”
Apparently so do many other people. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported a 40 percent increase in enrollment in culinary education in the last four years. But many quickly become disgruntled and even angry about the grueling work, low pay, and long hours. Note: It’s important here to say that I’m not a chef. I have some professional training (the scenario above is from my time at the Culinary Institute of America, considered the “Harvard of culinary schools.” It was intimidating, but I didn’t disgrace myself; my only embarrassing moment involved an improperly stored knife and a nasty cut.) I’ve spent some time in professional kitchens and done some catering, but that doesn’t make me a chef. This isn’t necessarily bad: As someone who teaches and writes about food and cooking but isn’t a professional chef, I’m in the company of — though certainly not in the same league as — people such as Julia Child and James Beard. What most people don’t realize from watching those fun shows on the Food Network is that professional cooking is hard work — really, really hard work. I don’t want to trash all TV food shows. True, some are pretty silly. Even so, most bring an awareness of the value of good ingredients and the vast and varied world of good cooking to the general public. But even the best of those TV chefs rose from years of low-paying slave labor. They didn’t just magically show up on a kitchen set and start making big bucks. As an aspiring chef, my nephew Max has prospects better than those of most. His family lives and works in a converted warehouse in one of Chicago’s trendiest areas. Growing up in a professional photographic studio/event site, Max gets to rub shoulders with the famous and powerful (Michael Jordan, Aerosmith, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley). But he’s also the most capable 12-year-old I’ve ever known: He’s a better photographer than many professionals and handles expensive, delicate, and oftentimes heavy equipment with ease. He can set up and break down events for hundreds of people and hang drywall like a pro. Max understands the satisfaction of hard work, unlike a pampered young woman I know. She’s never worked a day and thinks she might like to be a chef because she enjoys making salsa. For anyone considering becoming a chef, here are a few pieces of advice from the fringes of the profession: Read Kitchen Confidential, by the undisputed bad boy of chefs, Anthony Bourdain. Warning! This book is R-rated — maybe even NC-17. The subtitle is Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, and Bourdain means it. It’s not for the young or easily offended, but every chef I know says, “Yeah, that’s exactly how it is.”
Read The Making of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman. This account of his experiences at the CIA is a fascinating look at the rigors and rewards of culinary education.  Work in a restaurant in any capacity, but especially in the kitchen. I mean a real restaurant where they make the food on premises, not some place where cooking means opening Cryovac bags from Central Processing. If you do all the above and still want to be a chef, go for it — and if not, you can always have fun making salsa.
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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