If You Can't Stand The Heat...

Former execs find a chef's life rewarding--but tough

After 40 years as a television-programming executive, Robert Goldfarb got to live his fantasy. A lover of fine food and cooking, in 1998 he completed the culinary arts program at the French Culinary Institute (FCI) in New York, then landed an unpaid internship in one of the city's most celebrated kitchens, at the three-star Restaurant Daniel. There, the 62-year-old chef-in-training happily spent his time whipping up asparagus and prosciutto canapes and dicing onions and carrots. Goldfarb finished his internship at the end of September and is now trying to work out a permanent arrangement. The sticking point: He would prefer not to work the usual 12-hour shifts, six days a week.

Many successful people dream of chucking their current careers and becoming the next Daniel Boulud or Wolfgang Puck. Indeed, "50% of the people who come through our doors are career-changers," says Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder and president of the FCI. She says the school has attracted everyone from corporate dropouts to former U.S. Navy SEALs to a reggae musician who taught his classmates rhythms on pots and pans.

But for those brave enough to give it a go, the reality of the business quickly hits them like an ice-cold granita in the face. Becoming a chef is an expensive, time-consuming process. Culinary schools--where students sharpen their knife skills, learn basic cooking techniques, and hope to catch the eye of an instructor who will recommend them for a job--take most comers, experienced or not. But they can cost a small fortune (table, page 176E4). And few grads get rich. The average starting salary for a chef is $22,000. That jumps to $50,000--after 10 years. "The first five years out of culinary school for most people is like being a graduate student receiving a stipend while pursuing a doctorate. They'll be paid subsistence wages to learn their craft," says Brian Polcyn, chef/owner of Five Lakes Grill near Detroit, who also teaches butcher techniques at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Mich.

HARD WORK. If you want to become a chef, expect long hours and tough working conditions in a hot, noisy kitchen. What's more, people used to calling the shots in a different world have to swallow their egos in the presence of the resident culinary artiste. "Restaurant kitchens are very militaristic and undemocratic environments," according to the FCI's Hamilton. The biggest adjustment career-changers have to make, she says, can be summed up in two words: "Yes, chef."

Who adapts best? Boulud says Christine Patton, who came to cooking after a 22-year financial-services career, was a hard worker with a great palate and an even better attitude. From 1984 to 1992, she ran Manufacturers Hanover Trust's global-currency business. "By the end," she says, "I was supervising 27 trading rooms in which 650 people generated $250 million in revenues. It was extremely demanding--basically 24 hours a day, seven days a week--and there were other things I wanted to do with my life." When Manny Hanny merged with Chase Manhattan in 1992, Patton walked away. She went through the FCI, worked as an assistant instructor immediately after graduating in 1995, then--like Goldfarb--did an unpaid underling stint at Restaurant Daniel.

From the moment she entered the kitchen, she felt at home. "It was the closest environment I found to a trading floor," she says. "Lots of information was being passed verbally, people were screaming in a densely populated area, and two people (Boulud and executive chef Alex Lee) were trying to coordinate a group of people to achieve a desired goal."

She, for one, had no problem going to the bottom of the totem pole. "I had tremendous respect for the guys at the top. It was so easy to recognize the superiority of their skills," she says. Although Patton loved her two years at Daniel and a sister establishment, Payard, she knew becoming a head chef or opening a restaurant was not for her. "I quickly saw how enormously repetitive the work was, how long the hours were, how constrained the work was in terms of time and product. But I wouldn't have traded that experience for anything," she says.

Unlike Patton, another former currency trader, Karen Williams, made the switch to full-time chef work. Currently head chef at the Bay Harbor Yacht Club in Bay Harbor, Mich., Williams worked in financial services for 10 years in California before she heeded the siren call of clattering pots and pans. When she and her husband moved to the Detroit area so he could return to the family business, Williams spent a year managing a portfolio for Ford Motor before working for a caterer. She then enrolled at Schoolcraft and went to work for Brian Polcyn for $8.50 an hour, with no benefits. After two years at the Five Lakes Grill, she was earning a salary in the mid-twenties. Now, two years later, she's a head chef, has opened a gourmet store, and is still making way less than six figures. "Money can't be the reason you do this," she says. "Passion is what drives you."

NEWCOMER. A passion for cooking is what drove Tom Rapp to give up a 25-year architecture career to open an eclectic American restaurant called Etats Unis in 1991 with his then-22-year-old son, Jonathan, a newly minted art history graduate. He did so without having worked in a restaurant or taken a cooking class. "I'd had a passion for cooking ever since I was an architecture student at Yale. I'd bought Julia Child's book Mastering the Art of French Cooking and made a study of it page by page," Rapp explains.

The two found a tiny space that could seat 28 in a former bakery on Manhattan's Upper East Side. They designed and rebuilt the place themselves with $200,000 of their own money, and shared the cooking chores. Six months after it opened, food critic Ruth Reichl awarded it two stars in The New York Times. When asked what allowed him to try such a risky endeavor, Rapp thought for a moment and replied, "It was chutzpah, blind faith. We were just two guys, a kid filled with the optimism of youth and a silly old man risking everything." It was the stuff dreams of becoming a professional chef are made of.

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