I always knew I wanted to become a chef, but there were a lot of naysayers along the way. Part of my family thought that meant slaving in a catfish house behind a deep fryer for the rest of my life. Others had grandiose dreams of me cooking for Queen Elizabeth on her yacht. I was told by many on the pathway to cooking that being a woman would be a problem and yet others felt the industry would lead me down a path of general substance abuse.
The best choice I ever made was to only listen to my heart. I knew that I needed to jump start my education because I did not have any professional experience, so I looked for the best culinary school I could find. I figured I only had a few years and needed to spend my time and money wisely. I chose well and attended the Culinary Institute of America. It was at the time, considered the Harvard of culinary schools, and my career began there.
When I graduated I was really scared because many of my fellow classmates had jobs lined up at well known restaurants with top notch chefs, but I knew I was not ready for that yet. I moved to a small town with a friend from school and found a job at a restaurant that was of a caliber that I knew I could handle and yet learn from at the same time. This decision was a good one and that little restaurant allowed me to grow at my own pace and realize what I had just learned for the last two years.
After a few years of working there, I decided to travel. Being from the South and having just experienced the big apple, I was hungry for more. I traveled through Europe on a student Eurail pass and it truly opened my mind to other foods, the great variety of languages, and the cultures. It also helped me understand how much more I needed to learn and how little of life I had really experienced. I did a lot of soul searching through my travels and decided I needed to get back home, find a mentor, and get to work learning.
Once home, I researched whom I might work for using the Zagat guide and started applying for work. It took me a year to land a job at the restaurant I really wanted to work in, but the wait paid off. After that, it was all about work ethic; showing up on time, being prepared, asking for help, asking for more help, admitting when you were wrong, gracefully accepting praise, and never, ever, missing a day of work.
Over the course of my career, working in very well known restaurants with some very famous chefs, to the dramatic achievement of opening my own restaurant with my husband and finally being able to call myself a chef, it took about 10 years or ten thousand hours. I just had to put my head down and work very, very hard at always improving, just a little bit. Baby steps.
So what are the keys to advance in the career you want to be in? Go to the best school that’s around, travel, find a mentor that you respect, and then settle in knowing you will work harder than ever, for a very long time. What’s the good news? Before you know it, you will look up and you will be able to call yourself a _____. For me, I could call myself a chef.