©photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman (click photo to visit her blog)

[Note: Shuna, aka eggbeater, has covered this subject well and honestly in many posts, notably the culinary school question.  I address it in the intro to the new paperback of Making of a Chef and on my FAQ page. But when I read Bourdain's take in his most recent book, Medium Raw, I wanted to make sure it reached as many people as possible.  The kind folks at Harper Collins rarely give away more than 500 words of a book they're charging money for; I'm very grateful to them, and to Tony, for letting me reprint it here (I've bold-faced piquant ideas in lieu of call-outs to keep the unmotivated enticed). I'll review the book later in the week.  But this chapter is for all the people ... thinking.  Moms and Dads of young cook wannabes, you need to read this, too, and you need to make sure your kid does too.]

So You Wanna Be a Chef

by Anthony Bourdain

(from Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook)

I am frequently asked by aspiring chefs, dreamers young and old, attracted by the lure of slowly melting shallots and caramelizing pork belly, or delusions of Food Network stardom, if they should go to culinary school. I usually give a long, thoughtful, and qualified answer.

But the short answer is “no.”

Let me save you some money. I was in the restaurant business for twenty-eight years—much of that time as an employer. I am myself a graduate of the finest and most expensive culinary school in the country, the CIA, and am as well a frequent visitor and speaker at other culinary schools. Over the last nine years, I have met and heard from many culinary students on my travels, have watched them encounter triumphs and disappointments. I have seen the dream realized, and— more frequently—I have seen the dream die.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you that culinary school is a bad thing. It surely is not. I’m saying that you, reading this, right now, would probably be ill-advised to attend—and are, in all likelihood, unsuited for The Life in any case. Particularly if you’re any kind of normal.

But let’s say you’re determined. You’re planning on taking out a student loan and taking on a huge amount of debt. In many cases, from lenders associated with—or recommended by—your local culinary school. Ask yourself first: is this culinary school even any good? If you’re not going to the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson and Wales, or the French Culinary Institute, you should investigate this matter even more intently, because the fact is, when you graduate from the Gomer County Technical College of Culinary Arts, nobody hiring in the big leagues is going to give a shit. A degree from the best culinary schools is no guarantee of a good job. A degree from anywhere less than the best schools will probably be less helpful than the work experience you could have had, had you been out there in the industry all that time.

You’re about to take on $40,000 to $60,000 in debt training for an industry where—if you are lucky—you will, for the first few years, be making $10 to $12 dollars an hour. In fact, if you are really, really lucky—one of the few supremely blessed with talent, ability, and great connections deemed worthy enough to recommend you to one of the great kitchens of Europe or New York for your post-school apprenticeship—you will essentially be making nothing for the first couple of years. You will, once living expenses are factored in, probably be paying for the experience.

Should you be fortunate enough to be among the one-in-a-million young cooks taken on at a famous and respected restaurant like Arzak, in Spain (for example), this will truly be time and money well spent. If you perform well, you will return home never again needing a résumé. In this case, the investment of all your time and money and hard work will have paid off.

But the minute you graduate from school—unless you have a deep-pocketed Mommy and Daddy or substantial savings—you’re already up against the wall. Two nearly unpaid years wandering Europe or New York, learning from the masters, is rarely an option. You need to make money NOW. If that imperative prevails, requiring that you work immediately, for whomever will have you—once you embark on a career dictated by the need for immediate cash flow, it never gets any easier to get off the treadmill. The more money you get paid straight out of school, the less likely you are to ever run off and do a stage in the great kitchens of the world. Time cooking at Applebee’s may get you paid—but it’s a period best left blank on the résumé if you’re planning on ever moving to the bigs. It may just as well have never happened. Country clubs? Hotel kitchens? These are likely employers straight out of school—and they promise a pretty decent, relatively stable career if you do well. It’s a good living—with (unlike most of the restaurant business) reasonable hours and working conditions—and most hotels and country clubs offer the considerable advantage of health insurance and benefits. But that sector of the trade is like joining the mafia. Once you enter the warm fold of their institutional embrace, it’s unlikely you’ll ever leave. Once in—rarely out.

If it matters to you, watch groups of chefs at food and wine festivals—or wherever industry people congregate and drink together after work. Observe their behaviors—as if spying on animals in the wild. Notice the hotel and country club chefs approach the pack. Immediately, the eyes of the pack will glaze over a little bit at the point of introduction. The hotel or country club species will be marginalized, shunted to the outside of the alpha animals. With jobs and lives that are widely viewed as being cushier and more secure, they enjoy less prestige—and less respect.

You could, of course, opt for the “private chef” route upon graduating. But know that for people in the industry, the words “private” and “chef” just don’t go together. To real chefs, such a concept doesn’t even exist. A private “chef” is domestic help, period. A glorified butler. Somewhere slightly below “food stylist” and above “consultant” on the food chain. It’s where the goofs who wasted a lot of money on a culinary education only to find out they couldn’t hack it in the real world end up.

How old are you?  Nobody will tell you this, but I will: If you’re thirty-two years old and considering a career in professional kitchens? If you’re wondering if, perhaps, you are too old? Let me answer that question for you: Yes. You are too old.

If you’re planning on spending big bucks to go to culinary school at your age, you’d better be doing it for love—a love, by the way, that will be, almost without a doubt, unreciprocated.

By the time you get out of school—at thirty-four, even if you’re fucking Escoffier—you will have precious few useful years left to you in the grind of real-world working kitchens. That’s if you’re lucky enough to even get a job.

At thirty-four, you will immediately be “Grandpa” or “Grandma” to the other—inevitably much, much younger, faster-moving, more physically fit—cooks in residence. The chef—also probably much younger—will view you with suspicion, as experience has taught him that older cooks are often dangerously set in their ways, resistant to instruction from their juniors, generally slower, more likely to complain, get injured, call in sick, and come with inconvenient baggage like “normal” family lives and responsibilities outside of the kitchen. Kitchen crews work best and happiest when they are tight—when they operate like a long-touring rock band—and chances are, you will be viewed, upon showing up with your knife roll and your résumé—as simply not being a good fit, a dangerous leap of faith, hope, or charity by whoever was dumb enough to take a chance on you. That’s harsh. But it’s what they’ll be thinking.

Am I too fat to be a chef? Another question you should probably ask yourself.

This is something they don’t tell you at admissions to culinary school, either—and they should. They’re happy to take your money if you’re five foot seven inches and two hundred fifty pounds, but what they don’t mention is that you will be at a terrible, terrible disadvantage when applying for a job in a busy kitchen. As chefs know (literally) in their bones (and joints), half the job for the first few years—if not the entirety of your career—involves running up and down stairs (quickly), carrying bus pans loaded with food, and making hundreds of deep-knee bends a night into low-boy refrigerators. In conditions of excruciatingly high heat and humidity of a kind that can cause young and superbly fit cooks to falter. There are the purely practical considerations as well: kitchen work areas—particularly behind the line— being necessarily tight and confined . . . Bluntly put, can the other cooks move easily around your fat ass? I’m only saying it. But any chef considering hiring you is thinking it. And you will have to live it.

If you think you might be too fat to hack it in a hot kitchen? You probably are too fat. You can get fat in a kitchen—over time, during a long and glorious career. But arriving fat from the get-go? That’s a hard—and narrow—row to hoe.

If you’re comforting yourself with the dictum “Never trust a thin chef,” don’t. Because no stupider thing has ever been said. Look at the crews of any really high-end restaurants and you’ll see a group of mostly whippet-thin, under-rested young pups with dark circles under their eyes: they look like escapees from a Japanese prison camp—and are expected to perform like the Green Berets.

If you’re not physically fit? Unless you’re planning on becoming a pastry chef, it is going to be very tough for you. Bad back? Flat feet? Respiratory problems? Eczema? Old knee injury from high school? It sure isn’t going to get any better in the kitchen.

Male, female, gay, straight, legal, illegal, country of origin—who cares? You can either cook an omelet or you can’t. You can either cook five hundred omelets in three hours—like you said you could, and like the job requires—or you can’t. There’s no lying in the kitchen. The restaurant kitchen may indeed be the last, glorious meritocracy—where anybody with the skills and the heart is welcomed. But if you’re old, or out of shape—or were never really certain about your chosen path in the first place—then you will surely and quickly be removed. Like a large organism’s natural antibodies fighting off an invading strain of bacteria, the life will slowly push you out or kill you off. Thus it is. Thus it shall always be.

The ideal progression for a nascent culinary career would be to, first, take a jump straight into the deep end of the pool. Long before student loans and culinary school, take the trouble to find out who you are.

Are you the type of person who likes the searing heat, the mad pace, the never-ending stress and melodrama, the low pay, probable lack of benefits, inequity and futility, the cuts and burns and damage to body and brain—the lack of anything resembling normal hours or a normal personal life?

Or are you like everybody else? A normal person?

Find out sooner rather than later. Work—for free, if necessary—in a busy kitchen. Any kitchen that will have you will do—in this case, a busy Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s or any old place will be fine. Anybody who agrees to let your completely inexperienced ass into their kitchen for a few months—and then helpfully kicks it repeatedly and without let-up—will suffice. After six months of dishwashing, prep, acting as the bottom-rung piss-boy for a busy kitchen crew—usually while treated as only slightly more interesting than a mouse turd—if you still like the restaurant business and think you could be happy among the ranks of the damned? Then, welcome.

At this point, having established ahead of time that you are one fucked-up individual—that you’d never be happy in the normal world anyway—culinary school becomes a very good idea. But choose the best one possible. If nothing else, you’ll come out of culinary school with a baseline (knowledge and familiarity with techniques). The most obvious advantage of a culinary education is that from now on, chefs won’t have to take time out of their busy day to explain to you what a fucking “brunoise” is. Presumably, you’ll know what they mean if they shout across the room at you that you should braise those lamb necks. You’ll be able to break down a chicken, open an oyster, filet a fish. Knowing those things when you walk in the door is not absolutely necessary—but it sure fucking helps.

When you do get out of culinary school, try to work for as long as you can possibly afford in the very best kitchens that will have you—as far from home as you can travel. This is the most important and potentially invaluable period of your career. And where I fucked up mine.

I got out of culinary school and the world seemed my oyster. Right away, I got, by the standards of the day, what seemed to be a pretty good paying job. More to the point, I was having fun. I was working with my friends, getting high, getting laid, and, in general, convincing myself that I was quite brilliant and talented enough.

I was neither.

Rather than put in the time or effort—then, when I had the chance, to go work in really good kitchens—I casually and unthinkingly doomed myself to second-and (mostly) third-and fourth-tier restaurant kitchens forever. Soon there was no going back. No possibility of making less money. I got older, and the Beast that needed to be fed got bigger and more demanding—never less.

Suddenly it was ten years later, and I had a résumé that was, on close inspection, unimpressive at best. At worst, it told a story of fucked-up priorities and underachievement. The list of things I never learned to do well is still shocking, in retrospect. The simple fact is that I would be—and have always been—inadequate to the task of working in the kitchens of most of my friends, and it is something I will have to live with. It is also one of my greatest regrets. There’s a gulf the size of an ocean between adequate and finesse. There is, as well, a big difference between good work habits (which I have) and the kind of discipline required of a cook at Robuchon. What limited me forever were the decisions I made immediately after leaving culinary school.

That was my moment as a chef, as a potential adult, and I let it pass. For better or worse, the decisions I made then about what I was going to do, whom I was going to do it with and where, set me on the course I stayed on for the next twenty years. If I hadn’t enjoyed a freakish and unexpected success with Kitchen Confidential, I’d still be standing behind the stove of a good but never great restaurant at the age of fifty-three. I would be years behind in my taxes, still uninsured, with a mouthful of looming dental problems, a mountain of debt, and an ever more rapidly declining value as a cook.

If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel—as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them—wherever you go. Use every possible resource you have to work in the very best kitchens that will have you—however little (if anything) they pay—and relentlessly harangue every possible connection, every great chef whose kitchen offers a glimmer of hope of acceptance. Keep at it. A three-star chef friend in Europe reports receiving month after month of faxes from one aspiring apprentice cook—and responding with “no” each time. But finally he broke down, impressed by the kid’s unrelenting, never wavering determination. Money borrowed at this point in your life so that you can afford to travel and gain work experience in really good kitchens will arguably be better invested than any student loan. A culinary degree—while enormously helpful—is only helpful to a point. A year working at Mugaritz or L’Arpège or Arzak can transform your life—become a direct route to other great kitchens. All the great chefs know each other. Do right by one and they tend to hook you up with the others.

Which is to say: if you’re lucky enough to be able to do the above, do not fuck up.

Like I said, all the great chefs know each other.

Let me repeat, by the way, again, that I did none of the things above.

It’s a little sad sometimes when I look out at a bookstore audience and see young fans of Kitchen Confidential, for whom the book was a validation of their worst natures. I understand it, of course. And I’m happy they like me.

But I’m a little more comfortable when the readers are late-career hackers and journeymen, like I was when I wrote the book. I like that they relate to the highs and lows, the frustrations and absurdities, that they, too, can look back—with a mixture of nostalgia and very real regret—on sexual liaisons on cutting boards and flour sacks, late-night coke jags, the crazy camaraderie that seems to come only in the busiest hash-house restaurants—or failing ones. I wrote the book for them in the first place. And it’s too late for them anyway.

But the young culinary students, thousands and thousands of them—new generations of them every year, resplendent in their tattoos and piercings—I worry that some of them might have missed the point.

At no point in Kitchen Confidential, that I can find, does it say that cocaine or heroin were good ideas. In fact, given the book’s many episodes of pain, humiliation, and being constantly broke-ass, one would think it almost a cautionary tale. Yet, at readings and signings, I am frequently the inadvertent recipient of small packets of mysterious white powder; bindles of cocaine; fat, carefully rolled joints of local hydro, pressed into my palm or slipped into my pocket. These inevitably end up in the garbage—or handed over to a media escort. The white powders because I’m a recovered fucking addict—and the weed ’cause all I need is one joint, angel dust–laced by some psycho, to put me on TMZ, running buck-naked down some Milwaukee street with a helmet made from the stretched skin of a butchered terrier pulled down over my ears.  Smoking weed at the end of the day is nearly always a good idea—but I’d advise ambitious young cooks against sneaking a few drags mid-shift at Daniel. If you think smoking dope makes you more responsive to the urgent calls for food from your expeditor, then God bless you, you freak of nature you. If you’re anything like me, though, you’re probably only good for a bowl of Crunchberries and a Simpsons rerun.

On the other hand, if you’re stuck heating up breakfast burritos at Chili’s—or dunking deep-fried macaroni at TGI McFuckwad’s? Maybe you need that joint.

Treating despair with drugs and alcohol is a time-honored tradition—I’d just advise you to assess honestly if it’s really as bad and as intractable a situation as you think. Not to belabor the point, but if you look around you at the people you work with, many of them are—or will eventually be—alcoholics and drug abusers. All I’m saying is you might ask yourself now and again if there’s anything else you wanted to do in your life.

I haven’t done heroin in over twenty years, and it’s been a very long time as well since I found myself sweating and grinding my teeth to the sound of tweeting of birds outside my window.

There was and is nothing heroic about getting off coke and dope.

There’s those who do—and those who don’t.

I had other things I still wanted to do. And I saw that I wasn’t going to be doing shit when I was spending all my time and all my money on coke or dope—except more coke and dope.

I’m extremely skeptical of the “language of addiction.” I never saw heroin or cocaine as “my illness.” I saw them as some very bad choices that I walked knowingly into. I fucked myself—and, eventually, had to work hard to get myself un-fucked.

And I’m not going to tell you here how to live your life.

I’m just saying, I guess, that I got very lucky.

And luck is not a business model.

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141 Wonderful responses to “So You Wanna Be a Chef
— by Bourdain”

  • craigkite

    Medium Raw is a compelling read. His short entry regarding his first marriage and the similarities to Bob and Diane in Drugstore Cowboy explained a lot. It amazes me how popular he is for the narrow audience that can truly appreciate all the crap and glory from the food world. I am glad he found a typewriter when he did. I wish him all the success that a middle aged smart ass can get.

  • David

    As per usual, AB is on point and brutally honest. Really good read, but I guarantee that pie-in-the-sky 22 year-old kids will just see it as a challenge, not a warning.

    That’s life though.

    • San

      I’m one of those 22 year-olds that saw it as a challenge. I worked my way into an upscale kitchen in DC, and “succeeded” by most standards (being mostly accepted and considered a full employee/cold appetizer line cook), but I have recently decided to leave the business. Bourdain is absolutely right that loving the job doesn’t mean you will love the business. The hours and lifestyle can really wear a person down.

      • Jeddrick

        Anthony Bourdain is right on point. I started a culinary degree when I was 22 and finished at the age of 25, now at the age of 27 I am back in Hotel Reception where I think I belong. I couldnt take the life of the kitchen anymore. It was either me killing someone or going crazy. The hours and the mess that you have to take as a Commis Chef and at the age of 27 by those who cooking was the only thing they know, and besides they were much younger than I am. The kitchen is a stressful job and it indeed can wear you down. But there are those who are born for it and they love it. To those lucky few, I wish you all the best.

    • Julie

      I loved this excerpt, but disagree with you. Last year, I was that pie-in-the-sky 22-year-old, seriously debating whether to pursue professional cooking or medicine. Reading Kitchen Confidential (and a whole bunch of Ruhlman books) gave me a huge respect for chefs and placed me firmly on the path to med school. I’ll always cook for fun, but the pro chef’s lifestyle is not for me. Thanks for the heads-up, AB!

      • Lauren

        Julie,
        Unfortunately there is no such written word for medicine… I am a resident and I wish that someone had given this to me and changed the words around to meet the medical needs. The hours and lifestyle are no different from being a chef. If you’re smart, you’ll take whatever loans you have now and move on.

  • Abigail @ Sugar Apple

    A few years ago, I flirted briefly with the idea of going to culinary school. But I decided my knees couldn’t take it. And a steamy restaurant kitchen, hot flashes and me armed with a big knife didn’t seem like a good mix. Definitely too old and keeping myself happy cooking for family and friends.

    I’ve also always wondered if those chefs who went into the business with a passion for food came out the other end with that passion intact. Or does cooking professionally for 20 years suck the love and does cooking eventually becomes just another job? (I hope not.)

  • Paul

    My son dropped out of one of the very best (read expensive) liberal arts colleges in the nation. After the obligatory backpacking tour of Europe (on his hard earned dimes) he wanted to go into a baking program. The cost for 15 weeks was more than a year at that college he went to. Luckily he went to a program that gave him a great start (SFBI) and he has continued to work for great and well known bakers (among them, Michael, was Didier Rosada who was also his chief instructor at SFBI). He can now pretty much work where he wants to work. But the quality of one’s preparation and who one works with/under are everything.

  • Britt

    Rather smart of them, actually, to allow you to publish this on your site. I am now strongly compelled to read a book that I very likely would have passed over. Thanks for sharing. I think this passage has the potential to be both a motivator and reality check for everyone–with or without culinary ambitions.

  • Tags

    Must be a “c” thing; cooks, cartoonists, and comedians have about the same delusional attraction and the same dismal prospects.

    BTW, you have until September 30 at 5 pm EDT to submit your essays to http://bourdainmediumraw.com/ although it’s not a good idea to wait that long. There’s a reason that the rules stipulate that they’re not responsible for lost transmissions. It’s called “last minute overload.”

  • Nick (Macheesmo)

    People always tell me I should become a chef.

    I usually tell them to take a hike.

    I could never hack it and I know it. I’m perfectly comfortable just cooking and learning at my own pace.

    Besides, we don’t need any more restaurants in this country (in my opinion). We need a home-cooking revival.

    Great post.

    • Nick (Macheesmo)

      A follow up question while I’m thinking about it:

      Do you trust people who write about food that DIDN’T go to culinary school?

      Are we cheating somehow?

      • Abigail @ Sugar Apple

        I do, Nick. Cooking and writing about cooking (and teaching cooking to home cooks) are very different skills.

        And I think many chefs who put out cookbooks have a limited understanding of what it is to cook at home. At the least, they don’t get that the average home cook doesn’t have a cadre of dishwashers cleaning up behind them (except maybe that 18 kids and counting family).

        And a lot of the chef cookbooks don’t seem to have done a good job of scaling down recipes for a family.

    • Patrick R

      Amen, Nick. I feel I’m a competent and ambitious home cook, and people like to flatter me by asking when I’ll be opening a restaurant. I’m usually not shy about answering truthfully: I have no interest in it. There was a time when I daydreamed about it, maybe, but at this point in my life (29, married, home-owning) it’s just not happening anymore — and I’m totally okay with that. I’m pretty sure I would be miserable working in a professional kitchen.

      • JW

        I get that line sometimes about “you love cooking, when are you going to open a restaurant” (usually from people who are impressed by the use of fresh garlic).

        My response to my saltier friends is — well, I love sex too, but I haven’t considered a career in pornography …

  • Krista

    Wow. Just brilliant. Have always loved his honesty and candor, and this is one of his best pieces yet. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Dan

    Fascinating piece, and I can’t echo enough how important it is to “get out there” and travel as far and as wide as you can. Ages ago, a buddy of mine graduated culinary school, and got a pretty decent gig. But, one of the gnarled elders of the kitchen told him that if he didn’t travel to learn the difference between what it is people in different cultures want to eat as opposed to what they have to eat, and how they reconcile those differences, he’s going to be pretty useless as a chef.

    I always found that interesting.

  • Thomas

    I met Tony at the CIA when I was a student. I fell prey to the issues he speaks of in this chapter: graduated to an $11/hour job with $500/month student loans. I moved to the FOH immediately and never cooked professionaly another day in my life.

    I have some friends who are still behind the stove here in NYC. One buddy went to El Bulli for a season, another went to Robuchon in Vegas. Another works at L2, and another still is almost-chef at a Danny Meyer place. I consider them all fools.

    Many of my classmates went on to very successful FOH positions as well: Oceana, Frankies, DB, etc. These individuals, I too consider fools.

    I work in Healthcare putting my hospitality skills to good use. I have an excellent job, excellent benefits and excellent pay. My student loans persist, but now I can afford them (and then some). I am developing skills that I can utilize outside of one day opening a restaurant. My future is bright, and has many more options (even more then the promotional videos for the CIA would suggest if I stayed on the hospitality career path).

    Success is not scalable in hospitality. You can only make more money, by doing more work. The bottom line is: restuarants are for eating at, not working in.

    • Stecky

      Fools! Fools! Fools!

      Listen to you. You make your choice, other people make their choices. You sound like a fool.

    • John

      Thanks for telling many people that read this blog that they are irrelevant. If restaurants are just for eating at, who the fuck do you think is working there? Elitist idiot.

    • Martha

      Do you want a medal or a chest to pin it on?
      One man’s fool is anothers sushi!

    • Jeddrick

      I have to agree, how can you eat at a restaurant with no one working there?

      That is one stupid piece of advice.

    • Solution

      Your exactly the type of weakling Bourdain refers to.
      There’s more to life than security.
      Very few things worth doing involve security..
      Maybe yer just mad cause you couldn’t stick it out.

      I’m sure you’ll get some world-class training at the hospital though.lol

    • Jd

      Healthcare isn’t for everyone either. I know a lot of nurses that are stressed out and depressed from the demand of hospital life. Your opinion is absurd.

  • James

    Harsh/ But true

    ‘Are you the type of person who likes the searing heat, the mad pace, the never-ending stress and melodrama, the low pay, probable lack of benefits, inequity and futility, the cuts and burns and damage to body and brain—the lack of anything resembling normal hours or a normal personal life?’ >>>> Yes. But 1 month away from 34 and a private chef? Oh dear ha ha. As long as you enjoy what you do that’s all that matters. Good job I’m not infatuated with money though.

  • rockandroller

    Just one small part of a great read, I really enjoyed the book. (I also entered the essay contest mentioned above, lots of fun!)

  • Bob

    An instructor once said, “You can be job happy or money happy. It’s rare that you’ll be both.”

    Bourdain’s dash of cold water in the face is refreshing. Still, even having devoured Ratio/Elements of Cooking/Making/Reach/Soul and then onto McGee, I’ve no illusions about changing careers or mistaking myself as a chef. Talented amateur at best. Enthusiastic hobbyist is closer to the mark.

    • Jeddrick

      I agree with you. I was fortunate enough to receive a full scholarship to Culinary school. Thinking about it now, I realise that I enjoy cooking as a hobby rather than a career because working in the kitchen and putting up with all of the shouting and shit took the LOVE out of cooking for me. So I too consider myself an Enthusiastic Hobbyist. I read just about all of Anthony Bourdain’s books and was afraid to come to the conclusion that I am right now, but I am glad that I did come to it before it was too late.

  • corey

    this was a really timely article for me. i’ve been a graphic artist and IT most of my adult life, and after being laid off last december i decided to give cooking a try. i skipped school and used my unemployment checks as an excuse to try staging around town (Chicago) at different restaurants. i got offered a job at the first place i tried, and a very respectable place at that. it was daunting and one of the most challenging things i’ve ever done, but i freaking loved it.

    however, after about 6 months things got a little sour, they let go of the head chef (basically for having food that was “too complicated”), started dumbing down the food, and that combined with the toll night shifts and low wages were taking on my marriage, i opted to get out and go back to having nights off, health insurance and being able to pay my bills on time.

    i’m not entirely happy with my decision, but i don’t think at my age (29) and marital status i could sustain that lifestyle. i wish i had started a little younger, if nothing else. i truly, truly loved it. it was the hardest i’d ever worked in my life but i’d also never been so happy at a job. i don’t like the “normal” lifestyle and would much rather be in a kitchen full of miscreants listening to metal and butchering pig heads. but alas, making $10-12/hour for the next few years when the wife and i are considering starting a family isn’t too appealing.

    i still think i need to be in the kitchen and to work with food though to maintain my sanity. i’m going to try to keep on staging around town maybe once a month or so, just to keep that feeling going. it’s like a drug! need to chase that culinary dragon…

    • Matthew

      Hey, Corey, I’ve done almost the exact thing you describe, in Chicago no less. We should get together sometime over a beer and talk about trading office work for the fry station.

    • Jd

      That’s the mentality that a lot of people don’t understand. The kitchen life can be very addicting. Trust me, I’ve done it for 20 years. I’ve just been fortunate now to make a decent salary, free benefits, and a great schedule still cooking, rare. But keep staging once in a while, very rewarding. And I love blackbird and publican

  • Valerie

    Making of a Chef convinced me not to go to culinary school. Now I live vicariously through books and blogs: I love it, and my feet don’t hurt.

    • ChefMI6

      There is some great advice here on the school of hard knocks in the kitchen. I visited an unnamed Culinary School in the northeast part of the united states (not CIA) not only do they charge through the nose but the equipment and facilities are circa 1983. and instructors are still using technique from the dark ages. In the end its experience and passion and desire that count. Not every restaurant kitchen has psycho’s in it.

      • Solution

        Only most of the ones worth working at.
        If the chef did’nt go psyco somethings wrong.

  • Forme of Cury

    I am a recovering culinary school student (finished my externship last year). And I wrote a post about the pros and cons of culinary school, called “Should I go to culinary school from someone who has been.” So if anyone wants the behind-the-scenes story from someone who has attended culinary school, here you go: http://bit.ly/9cRQpN

    Whatever you decided, best of luck to you.

  • Serene

    Excellent advice, and because I followed it (got a catering job shortly after high school to see if I wanted to do restaurant work — I didn’t), I got the life I wanted instead of spending tens of thousands on one I’d hate.

  • Liz @ Butter and Onions

    My friends and spouse have inquired whether or not I should go to culinary school, and I always say no way, for many of the reasons Tony listed. I already work in the food industry, but not a restaurant. I already stand on my feet all the time and lift heavy things and do a lot of repetitive motion. After 5 years of it, I am done. I do love to cook, but I have no desire to be a chef.

    • Carri

      Oh, it’s fun alright, just the super hard kind. If it weren’t fun, in some masochistic way, many of us wouldn’t be here!

    • Cali

      I’m a bit confused. Is Bourdain your boyfriend or his? Either way it could be a rather kinky sort of fun. ;-)

  • Camille

    I agree with the grand majority of this piece, but am offended by one phrase: “Unless you’re planning on becoming a pastry chef…”

    It’s both demeaning and untrue (in context). I’ve been working as a pastry chef (mostly in bakeries/pastry shops) for seven years, and never have I thought that it would be acceptable to be fat and out of shape. In the course of my day, I lift 50-lb. bags of flour and sugar, 20-kilo boxes of chocolate, and stacks of sheet pans. Not to mention stirring 10-liter batches of pastry cream and carrying the 60-quart mixer bowl. All that, plus a typical day involves about 4 miles of walking, sometimes up and down stairs.

    Whatever happened to “Never get in a fight with a baker?”

    • Paola

      Amen to that! Baker and pastry maker here, and it’s no piece of cake (ha!) even not counting the early hours (which is a whole another chapter…)
      It’s true, though, that, even as a baker, I would think it twenty times before accepting to move to the restaurant business. So, wholeheartedly agreeing with AB, I’d say enthusiastic home cooks should think one thousand times…

  • Maven

    My son started in the dish pit of a busy restaurant when he was 15 and worked his way up to cooking by the time he was 17. I wondered if he might want to continue after highschool but the experience apparently cured him of any further desire to become a chef. Bourdain is always a great read but I particularly like this because it provides a hearty serving of reality for would be chefs with stars in their eyes.

  • Chris

    I love to cook, but knew a long time ago that I wasn’t a lifer. A dishwashing job at a mid-scale restaurant long before I was really into cooking was a lesson learned early.

    It did supply me with a great deal of respect for all those with the dedication and love to work their way from the scalding burns of the dishwasher, trying to avoid sliding into the stove top when running to grab dirty pans, and leaving at night covered in burnt fish skin and filled with hope that my fingerprints would eventually grow back.

  • Susan

    Excellent read, and scary! I never had a notion to even be a waitress when I was going to school, because it looked like too much work and too much flac from inside and outside the kitchen. Viewing an open kitchen from the dining room told me all I needed to know about the stress of cooking at a restaurant, as well. But I love that there are those who thrive under the challanges they face in that the business. God bless them one and all!

    I’m learning more than I ever imagined possible from industry professionals, like yourself and others, right here online. It’s enough for an interested. curious outsider and home cook, and has enhanced my skills plenty. I thank you all for what you share with the rest of us.

  • Cajun Chef Ryan

    I am one of those chefs who worked in all types of kitchens, including the hotels, country clubs, even hospitals. And there is a certain level of respect with each, but in different ways. Did I always put all my cards in gaining the respect from the restaurant four star chefs, no, but I did admire them for continuing to grind it out in 21+ day stretches, 12 hour days, and no insurance. I too went to culinary school, and all places are different, but ours was an apprenticeship, where you worked 5-6 days a week and went to “school” 1 day a week. The hands on work proved successful. I lasted 21 years in the restaurant biz!

    Bon appetit!
    CCR
    =:~)

  • Fucked Up

    If the frequent use of the terms “fucking” “fucked up” etc. is any literary indication then this is a completely fucked up commentary on the use of the English language. He may wash his hands before going into the kitchen – but he should have his mouth washed out with soap.

    • Andra@FrenchPressMemos

      I have to disagree. Bourdain’s writing is stellar- well-thought-out, informed, entertaining, and honest. That honesty includes language that may seem inappropriate to some, but, by most accounts, it simply fits perfectly into his message.

    • lq

      Oh, heavens, grow up. This isn’t Sunday school. Surely the adults reading the book can deal with it without getting the vapors (and if you think there isn’t swearing in kitchens, you’ve never worked in one).

      Also, the word “fuck” has a rich and extremely long history in English. Do a little linguistic research before getting your knickers in a twist.

    • Michael McCullen

      If you don’t like the language used, don’t fucking read it. Never read Tony. He speaks the truth. Unvarnished. People in kitchens swear, it is one of the few outlets still available that is legal and harms noone but those of tender sensibilities. If you can’t take it, you don’t belong. Period.

  • James D Kirk

    I was, at 45 (ugh ;) ) smack in the middle of working for free at a local restaurant, when I read Medium Raw. I had befriended the chef/owner and he allowed me to work in his (extremely) small kitchen (for no pay; just dinner). While it had only been a few months, I wasn’t concerned about the physical aspects of the work, but started looking at the finances, earning power, etc. Ironically, the chef suggested I read Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential during a meal I was having there (prior to interning). It was that book that made me want to get a more intimate feel for working in “The Life”, as AB puts it.

    When I saw Medium Raw come out, I of course grabbed it right away. And it was this chapter, posted here, that helped me make my decisions about discontinuing the pursuit. Like many, I’ve long had the desire to go to culinary school, learn more about food, and possibly become a great chef.

    Now, however, I’m content with simply learning on my own (I read a ton of food related books. Almost done with Making of a Chef right now, in fact.) I do a lot of cooking at home, and through it all have learned a greater appreciation of what is plated for me when I do go out to eat.

    Personally, I’m hoping to take this appreciation for the extremely hard work and sacrifice restaurant folks make and combine it with a desire to bring more attention to locally grown and produced foods. Some time next year I plan to start touring the country bringing in depth articles and video segments to my website that reinforces how incredible and yummy local foods can be cooked and enjoyed.

    This concept I’m very passionate about. And I don’t know that I’d have ever felt the same way about life in the kitchen. Anthony Bourdain is really who I have to thank for that.

  • Chris

    I worked my way up from dish washing to line cook and worked in a bunch of places over the years. Northern Italian to French to House of Ribs BBQ to tourist seafood menus.

    Reading Kitchen Confidential, it was _so_spot_ on it actually made me miss the business at times. It felt like I was back in the kitchen again, drinking too much, blacking out in August smaking my head on the line in 130F temps with the head chef shoving me away from the fryers.

    There is NO way at 42 that I could be doing that today.

    Medium Raw was a good read as well. Honest enough that the struggle with middle-agedom, family and the reality of leaving The Biz behind really hit home. Maybe not as ‘exciting’ as Kitchen Confidential was, but as a post-script to it, the honesty hits home.

    I’ve talked so many people out of culinary school over the years and it’s essentially what is outlined here in this snippet. I basically tell people to go burn themselves for a year in a kitchen first and then decide if they want to blow the money on school.

    The most interesting places to work have the most grueling conditions. Bad ventilation, cramped lines, lousy supplies etc. The survivable, comfortable kitchens are just jobs, hospitals, corp cafeterias etc., places someone with a love for cooking would just hate anyway.

    I’d rather hate my job in an air conditioned office.

    • Emilie

      Like you, Chris, I worked in kitchens for many years and read KC with nostalgia.. I can attest to AB’s description of The Life. It was what it was — hot, crazy, drug-riddled and more fun than anything else I ever did.. I contemplated culinary school but refused to settle for less than the CIA and couldn’t afford that. So at age 34 i got out. I still miss it but I’m no fool.

  • Rhonda

    Tony is truly a great and talented writer.

    “Medium Raw” is my favorite book of his to date, with the possible exception of Typhoid Mary which I have yet to get a copy of.

  • dharmagal

    Thanks. Now I’ve got to get the book and read the rest!

    I find cooking fun, fulfilling and I really enjoy it. But doing it full time, for money, has never sounded appealing. It’s a lot like sex, that way.

  • Natalie Sztern

    I read this book cover to cover and was so sad the day I hit the last page. I missed that book and I still do. It was a fantastic read.

    For aspiring cooks, how do you write a better chapter than this one?

  • Betsy

    Medium Raw is Tony’s best writing yet and this piece is a perfect example of why.

    Both Making of a Chef and Soul of a Chef are two of my other top cooking-related reads, ones that I have gifted to many and books that informed my cooking. Delighted to hear there’ll be a new issue out.

  • luis

    The wisdom of Anthony’s words aplies to restaurants and many many other fields as well.

    I recently wrote a letter to my nephew upon his graduating high school and starting his college career saying much of what Tony rants about but applied to the specific career choices down to working in goverment vs working for private industry.

    I concluded that he must FIRST choose the life he wants to lead. Marriage and family vs..adventure etc…. that’s first. Then I advised him to consider the family strength (where his family makes their living from…) so he can have the support needed as he runs into the tough spots…Then and only then he is ready to choose his career path.

    The thing Rhulman has taught me is to cook great food with the best ingredients and when I do 90% of the restaurants out there I can afford can not compare with my food in quality, freshness and healthines. Although they may win on flavor due to sugar fat salt overkill.

    You can seriously affect your health and your longevity by eating out frequently. Folks that do this develop serious colesterol and heart disease. You need to learn to like food that is healthy and fresh and screw the presentation thing.

  • Elizabeth

    Beautiful execution as always and a very real and raw take on the reality of what working in kitchens is really like.

    Off to get this book.

  • Natalie Sztern

    The unsung heros are always behind the scenes…what I know best is theater – this because it is what my daughter does best: being an actor….when you go behind stage at any major theater be it Broadway or Toronto or Chicago…the beauty in front is the exact opposite in back…you can’t find more dirt, more unfinished unglued wood, the dingiest of dressing rooms and bathrooms that everyone shares….believe me the John Lithgow’s and the Nathan Lanes or David Hyde Pierce’s don’t get the star treatment behind the curtains – and you know what…when they are at work they don’t want it.

    When my daughter announced she was going to acting school I vomited all weekend and kept crying why couldn’t she just want to be a cook, where she could have a salary….

    everything is relative.

  • Ben Orenstein

    To the Harper Collins folks: I just went and ordered this book after reading this excerpt. A shorter version might not have convinced me.

  • Sam

    When in high school, and the first year of college, I worked in kitchens. I LOVE to cook, so I was leaning towards going to culinary school, but also considered going into engineering or computer stuff. The weird hours, hard work, and cursing in the kitchen never really bothered me, as it felt like a new experience each night, and at the end of the day, you could almost celebrate. As nasty as some of the jobs were, I really enjoyed it.

    As time went by, and was talking about my future with one of the chef’s, he kinda looked at me funny, and pretty much told me I was an idiot if I went to culinary school instead of engineering. He was right.

    Now, almost 30, I like normal sleep patterns, and having a fairly sure job, and having a fairly normal family life. And I can still cook. In fact, I think my wife married me because I was willing to do all the cooking :)

    But really, AB is right on here. I’m living on the other side, and glad I did. I still get the day-dreams about opening a restaurant, and all the glory and pride that comes with it. I can see the look in a chef’s eyes on TV when people sample and enjoy his/her work. But that life is not for me.

  • Mike

    All of Mr. Bourdain’s writing is stellar. I cooked but got out before I had any delusions of grandeur. It is a great job for the young and single but if you have little or no self control don’t do it. Sex drugs and alcohal are everywhere and can bring even the most talented to thier knees.

    By the way, Mr Ruhlman, you have my favourite food blog at the moment… I just wish we had a CSA in our ‘hood

  • JW

    Bourdain has the right message but he’s the wrong messenger for the people who would listen to him. As has been said, people will take his words as a challenge, not a warning.

    A better messenger is Daniel Boulud. He wrote a book called Letters to a Young Chef a few years back. It says in a much firmer, more fatherly and constructive tone what Mr. Bourdain is saying here. I recommend it to all the young bucks out there, in addition to taking the well-stated advice above.

  • billb

    I’ve never wanted to be a professional chef (especially after reading Ruhlman and Bourdain’s books), but I still want to cook like one! Is there anywhere that offers classes for yuppies that just want to be able to throw a fantastic dinner party for friends and family? There seem to be places around me that will let me watch a pro chef cook some fancy food, but I want a hands-on experience.

    • Mantonat

      Where do you live?
      In Denver, there are two places – Cook Street and Mise en Place – that offer hands-on cooking classes, many of them led by professional chefs from area restaurants. They offer stand-alone classes in specific cuisines (French, Italian, etc.), classes on technique (knife skills, bread making), and series classes as well. In addition, Cook Street offers actual tuition-based curricula for those willing to drop some serious money. I’m guessing they are what Bourdain considers as the “not worth the money” kind of school, but for a serious amateur with a few extra bucks, it’s probably a pretty good thing. I’d bet most larger cities have similar programs.

      • billb

        I haven’t found anything in Austin that fits the bill, but I’m going to keep looking.

  • brianna hoffner

    thanks for the excerpt — went out and immediately bought the iBook version after reading this. what i REALLY want to know, is when is Ruth Bourdain’s book coming out ;)

  • Randy

    I think Tony sometimes loves the sound of his own voice, but this is one time where he hit it right over the fence. I think Michael’s book also gave a very clear objective view of the chef’s life. I think this should be required reading for everyone thinking of this lifestyle…and it is a lifestyle. For the ones that don’t make it, maybe then can work at the Food Network (sarcasm intended!)

    • Michael McCullen

      Amen, absolute home run. Tony just described my life. I’m 43, a ’91 CIA grad, and I have skills. I made awful choices coming out of school, because I needed to get paid, and now. Those choices have haunted me, because I know that I have more talent than my resume speaks to. I am now unemployed, questioning my existence, and wondering what happened. Unlike Tony, I never got hooked on Coke or Heroin, I just smoked a lot of weed. I’m allergic to alcohoI, otherwise I would be in a 12 step from what the Life did to me and make no mistake, I am a lifer. I worked in Hiltons for 5 years before school, so I knew what I was getting into. I was far more advanced than many of my fellow students who looked to me for help and explanations when they hit a rough patch. I could rattle a pan, and make a 30 yolk hollandaise with my eyes closed. I knew nothing of chemistry or wine, or butchery, or finesse, and school put me on the path to those things.
      I chose the hotel, country club, golf resort life, and the benefits and the cushiness of it, instead of going to NY, living in a sewer and being devastatingly poor. It would have been better than what I chose. I never traveled in Europe, never worked in a top flight kitchen, and eventually ended up in corporate chain restaurants churning out awful food that I detested, and hating every minute of my existence. Now, I am unemployable. I have a litany of health problems, no insurance, no paycheck, and any Chef running any kind of decent restaurant looking at my resume sees CIA, and where I ended up, and says..thanks, we’ll call you. We called in Cash In Advance back in the day, and it remains the same today. If you can afford it, yeah, they’ll take you. A few of the chefs will be honest with you and tell you, this is not what you wan’t for a life if you like the idea of children, family, holidays spent with loved ones. You’ll never see them, even working in the shitty places I put myself into. People ask me all the time, was going to school worth it? I can’t answer them in a yes or a no. It was an amazing two years in my life, both harder and easier than I had thought it would be. The CHOICES you make when you get out, make all the difference. Two roads diverging in a yellow wood, if you will. I wish for the life of me, that I could do it over. I wouldn’t have the family that I have now, my wife and my daughter. But for me, the sacrifices I made, the blood, sweat and tears shed along the way to where I am now? Absolutely not. Don’t go to school unless you are ready to commit 30 years of your life to pain, suffering and disillusion, because there are very few Thomas Keller’s and Ferran Adria’s in the world. You are likely not one of them. I’m not.

  • Elizabeth

    I grew up in a multi-generational family restaurant business and know first hand how complicated the business is. My son is 23yr, passionate, super athletic and about to go into debt for culinary school. I did send the article to him to “fuck with his head” a little.

    One thing that is for sure, there are many different types of jobs in the food industry. This is one path.

    My niece is going to school at Schoolcraft in Livonnia, MI and you both know how much that school rocks. From Dan Hugelier to Brian Polcyn to teach her a few things. It will be all paid for by the “Kalamazoo Promise”. Now that rocks.

    Anthony and Micheal keep pushing our buttons! Bravo! Always your truth! Love it.

  • Ken Albala

    I hate to say this, but I could substitute most of what he says with the story of anyone seeking higher education. Huge costs, little payback, long hours in the trenches. Drugs and sex and serious perversion. And if it’s not Ivy, it’s part time adjunct at McU for you. Trust me, I could write a much scarier Academic Confidential and reveal far more death and destruction and use the f word with much more panache too. Any publishers listening?

    • luis

      Exactly. I totally agree with you. The thing the young need to do early on is decide what type of life they want to live and what sort of talents and support system they have and take their best shot.
      But sucess is NOT guaranteed by any means.

      • TedJ

        I’ve lived in both worlds, and I agree with you. The brutal honesty of the kitchen is, ironically, truly equal, while the other is full of those who desperately seek power almost always under the guise of equality and truth.

        Of all the drunks, losers, former- (and current-) cons, the neglected, demoralized, and generally fucked up people I’ve worked with in the food world, both front and back of house, nothing comes close to the higher vices of the academic world.

    • Mantonat

      I had a choice early on too and I chose to get away from the professional kitchen. I have fond memories of my restaurant jobs, but I wouldn’t want them back. But, as you say, my life at that time would have involved illegal substance, bad choices, and odd hours even without the restaurant jobs. The difference is now, I may not be the Thomas Keller of my profession (closer to the aging hack that Bourdain claimed to be), but I don’t have physical health problems, I don’t have trouble keeping up with my younger peers, I have health insurance and retirement savings, and I have a fairly good inkling that my salary can continue to rise, even if modestly. If I were still cooking at my age, I would probably have none of those things but I might have a bad back, a dead-end job, and the prospect of living off a miniscule SS check once I am too old to be of service in the industry. Sure there are other industries where the prospects are similar (acting, pro sports, music, etc.) where you can toil away, be talented, work for next to nothing, and never have anything to show for it but memories, but for most who go to college for professional careers, this really isn’t the case.

  • Sharon

    Brilliant. In my 20s I did as Bourdain suggested and after one day in the insanity, I left and never wanted to work in a restaurant again. Over the years I wondered if I missed out. Now for many reasons, including the ones Bourdain points out, I know I didn’t. Being a home cook for people I love is bliss — chaos, heat and stress are not. A friend told me once, “For you, cooking is a prayer.” I never thought of it that way before, and I’m so grateful that being in the kitchen has always been and is, a source of nourishment for body and soul instead of a chore. My friends and family would rather eat in my home than just about any restaurant around and truth is, so would I. The glamour side of being a chef has the same attraction now that the music and movie businesses have always had. There will be people who aspire to be stars, but the benefits to those of us who don’t aim for celebrity are the things well-known, respected chefs have championed since Julia Child’s first TV lesson: knowledge of good technique, access to great ingredients and desire to confidently explore culinary traditions different from the ones we grew up with.

    • luis

      I don’t doubt your comment about your fam loving your food is true as the day is long. But for me the journey to find health and happiness with food is and was a search for something different.
      I can make a wonderful pie full of health and swetness and folks in my family will say it’s crap… never sweet and fat and sugary enough.
      Fresh, healthy and locally grown ..they could give a…you know what.
      I could defat a pork roast shoulder and braise it on low heat and crisp it up under the broiler and come up wiith something worth eating but… no one in the fam would compliment me on it.
      I am resigned to be the last one left standing even though I would rather be the first to go. My point is that there is a right way to cook and eat and there is a wrong way and it comes down to hearding cats in the kitchen.
      I am not totally bummed out though because plenty of folks love the way I do cook fish and pizza and other things… even though I don’t have everyone on board just yet.

  • Mo_PETE

    Very interesting, thanks. Can we get someone to go in and clean up all his fucked up grammar and things? I kept getting distracted by the “whether or not” and the “$12 dollars an hour” and the millions of instances of “planning on” in this excerpt. Still, I enjoyed it tremendously.

  • Felisha Wild

    I’m very glad that you posted this.

    I think that Anthony states his case very well that working in the culinary arts is madness. I’m certainly above that 32 year old mark. I’m trying hard not to drink the cool-aid.

    I too am looking for that niche that I can be in and still be considered normal. Doubtful that normal will ever really apply.

    Thanks for sharing,

    Chef Felisha Wild

  • MJ Harbage

    Wow! My first job was cooking for a chain restaurant back in 1970. I knew then that the commercial kitchen was no place for me. It was a brutal 6 mos.. My career after college put on a technical expert path.

    Anthony has an incredible ability to go straight to the point & usually with his unique wit. It can be brutal truth or sarcastic wit. One can rely on his ability to share his perspective with an audience that loves his wit. I will never get to eat his cooking or go to the Far East, but his writings & tv shows will get me through the night.

  • MJ Harbage

    Ruhlman is wonderful by allowing another chef to use his blog. I live on the West Coast for 30+ years & always used fresh local ingredients. For a multitude of sins I ended up back in central OH where I grew up. When I started my campaign to eat & cook with fresh local ingredients, most of the folks looked at me to say “ah, just that West Coast thing”. Thank you, Michael, for showing all the way to cook & produce a quality product. Now if I only could find some fresh Alaskan red prawns, halibut & salmon in OH. By fresh, I mean still quivering from the boats!

  • Salty

    Just when I thinkl AB has gone to the dark side he nails one. Been chefing for over 35 years. I liked the part about the Country clubbers and hotel chefs being looked down upon by the “alpha animals”. It’s so true.

  • Kleinperson

    As a joyful consumer and ever-happy-in-the-kitchen home body this along with Ruhlman’s and Bourdain’s full library raises my level of appreciation for great cooking yet another bar. Thanks Michael for all!

  • Barbara | VinoLuciStyle

    I’ve enjoyed Kitchen Confidential and will most like buy and read Bourdain’s book. For fun. Like my cooking.

    I’ve been cooking for a very long time (I’m older than you Michael and starting helping in the kitchen in my teens) and love to entertain and feed others. I have heard on regular occasions; you should be a chef or you should start a catering company. Yeah, right.

    Without those books, without this article, I’ve said, ‘You have got to be kidding.’ more times than I can count. Thanks for the validation and I’ll just send the romantics to read this article in the future.

  • Dan

    I worked as a line cook through college and loved it. It was grueling work. I made some of my best friends in my entire life. I worked my way up to saute’ and we were a very tight night group.

    I’m glad I don’t have to do it any more.

  • Wayne

    I think it great and commendable that Mr. B tells some truths which may be unpopular to the dreamers out there. It may dash some ambitions or give pause but should be considered a great service to any of those contemplating a formal culinary education .

  • Mari

    I’ve always had the thought of culinary school in the back of my head, but the prospect of working the long, late hours on my feet day in and day out, with no sick days, have kept my feet on the ground. I’d much rather enjoy the food and appreciate the people who do get into the business, rather than burn out and end up jaded and poorer for it. I’m already having a hard enough time making ends meet with my degree-requiring desk job!

    A friend’s girlfriend just started culinary school this month. I bit my tongue when my friend bragged about it … I’m not about to squash anyone’s dreams, especially as I barely know the girlfriend, but I’m honestly wondering why she did it. Of course she likes food, but that seems like an awful amount of debt to rack up when there are cheaper resources out there if you want to learn to cook at home. I have qualms about her potential in the industry; she has a minor disability and has a hard time making it up a small set of stairs by herself. Running around a kitchen for hours on end seems, well, unlikely. I’m hoping for her success but hoping it doesn’t turn out to be a mistake.

  • Chuck Shaw

    I bought Tony’s book and was saving it for my trip to Hawaii in November. I may break down and read it before then. As for going into the business, I luckily got to learn at age 15 about the shittiness of the restaurant business at my father’s restaurant in D’town Cleveland in the mid-70′s. Long hours, flakey staff who will rob you blind as soon as look at you. Additionally, it’s a hot and dangerous place if you don’t know what you’re doing. No thanks. I completed a local culinary program in San Francisco twenty years ago and as I like to tell people I learned one thing – don’t go into the restaurant business.

  • Leslie

    It is interesting that Bourdain still thinks of himself as a chef first, instead of a writer.

    He’s glorious to read.

  • SBS

    I LOVED this book! AB’s writing style is so brutally honest. Chapter 8
    aptly titled Lust is beyond inspired.

  • Chris

    While I enjoy cooking immensely, I’m in the music business. You know you only have to replace “chef” with “engineer” and CIA with IAR or SAE in this article and you pretty much have the audio industry in a nutshell.

  • Tony Spagnoli (aka: chef4cook)

    I was 39 when I went to culinary school. I had always wanted to cook professionally but, my Father and my Grandfather both talked me out of it. My Grandfather was a chef, My Mom and Dad were waitress and bartender respectively. Almost all of my cousins, uncles, aunts were chefs of one sort or another. So, when I lost my first career, due to allergic reactions to chemicals of my business, I was in a position to make a change and I did.
    I made myself a promise that, I would, graduate on the deans list (I did) and either, own my own restaurant or be running my own kitchen as a Chef in five years or I would find something else to do. I knew I had a time element. In four years I was running my own kitchens.
    Fast forward 15 years………….Do I regret doing it? No. I love cooking. But, more to the point, I love the atmosphere of working on the line. Am I as fast as I was? No. But, I can still keep up with my boy’s and girl’s and, still have fun doing it.
    I resent it when people assume that, because you reach a certain age you are no longer useful in a given career. You are as young as you feel. Barring any major health issues, I think, a person can very well continue far past any assumed age of being useless in a position.

  • Rhonda

    These comments are fantastic but Tony forgot to include the “Happy Side” of this vocational choice.

    …Like when a young Chef – let’s say, Marco Pierre White goes into the kitchen at 16 without a formal culinary education and then goes on to become the youngest Chef ever to be awarded 3 Michelin Stars.

    He then turns around, realizes that he never had a personal life, cannot read, does not hold a drivers license and fucked up three marriages because he did not have personal time.

    All of this was accomplished without drugs and alcohol!

    Then, in 1999 he gave back the Michelin stars that cost him his life.

    Come on Tony! Where is the Disney happy story in you, you dark bastard.

    Cautionary tales aside, as a Chef, I am very proud to wake up every morning and feed people. Maybe not as much for the next few days after the excerpt from Tony’s book but proud, nevertheless.

    • Cali

      And you should feel proud!!! Feeding people is serious business. Doing it right isn’t easy, either, and doing it wrong can (and sometimes does) kill people. But there are certain nights, special nights when you get it all exactly right. It may only be one night in a hundred, but that “high of perfect service” makes it all worth it.

  • Kimber

    AB type positive, in words “well-done” rich in flavor with his special ingredients make his reads a pleasure to devour. Good use of salt. These heartfelt stories and realistic revelations should spur a reaction and inspire a choice to go the food route or not. Just remember some kind of wonderful can come from the process and struggle on vocations path and the realizations gained there can lead to pinnacles of success such as Anthony:))
    BTW, thank you chefs,cooks,and all involved in the dining and food service experience, while I’ve had good and bad, I appreciate the effort,service, and great food creations you provide!

  • Solution

    I can tell you this is true 100%
    Except maybe that if you have to pick1 just go apprentice at a great restaurant and skip school altogether..

  • Hubert

    You say the kitchen is the last meritocracy, but you mention things that has nothing to do with cooking, yet will hamper the wanna be cook. That’s not meritocracy. The last true meritocracy is software. We don’t care if you’re 10 or 50, if you’re 90 lbs or 300 lbs. Straight, gay, undecided, indeterminate, conservative, liberal, we don’t care. If you can code the right way, you’re in. (Of course, “right” depends on your industry, game industry people won’t like the enterprise environment, and vice versa.)

    • Russ

      Seven years working back-of-house, from dishwasher to “utility” (this means, guy who does every dirty job plus, if he’s not a moron, gets taught how to do prep-work) has backed up 90% of everything I’ve ever read in Bourdain — and taught me UNEQUIVOCALLY that I did not want to do this for a career.

      Now, in deference to Hubert, above, there’s also Sales. Sales doesn’t care, either. You can code, you can cook, you can sell — or you can’t.

      • craigkite

        Sales (commissioned) is the TRUE meritocracy. You screw the pooch and you earn NOTHING. You do it well and your earnings increase on the spot, you don’t have to wait for someone to recognize it.

  • Art

    OK, that was a little disappointing to say the least. Not because Tony’s not correct (I’m sure), but because I’d been contemplating a career change, and thought cooking might be the direction I’d go. I guess not.

  • Jason

    With all due respect to Mr. Bourdain, if I listened to his advice, I wouldn’t be following my dream right now.
    When I was 22 years old, I started working in kitchens. I fell in love with the lifestyle, and knew this was what I wanted to do. At the time, Johnson & Wales had a campus in my hometown of Charleston, SC. I had the opportunity to go, but like a fool, I listened to what others thought best for me, my family, & my financial future. So I missed that opportunity, & I’ve regretted it ever since.

    Now, I’m 36 years old, I have a family. I’m also a diabetic. I can keep up with anyone half my age in the kitchen, and I will graduate near the top of my class in the Spring. I’m not attending any of his “top 3 schools”, and I know I’ll probably never work in any of his “great” kitchens. I also don’t care. I, and my wife beside me, happily gave up a secure career, with excellent pay, retirement accounts, & comprehensive benefits when the economy crashed. We gave it up because I was absolutely, soul shatteringly, fucking miserable. I hated my life, & I hated my job. When my company eliminated my job, we took advantage of a program that would send me to school to pursue my dream. If I didn’t need student loans to pay living expenses such as rent, I’d graduate debt free.
    I’m sorry if my school, my age, or my health aren’t good enough for Mr. Bourdain. They’re good enough to let me achieve a dream I thought was lost years ago.
    Maybe instead of trying to discourage people, Mr. Bourdain should use his position to build them up.
    But of course, according to this excerpt, I’m not good enough to say that.

    • Art

      What school did you attend, if you don’t mind me asking. I’ve looked at a couple in the Indianapolis area.

      • Jason

        Currently attending a Culinary program at a tech school in SC.
        Specifically, The Culinary Institute of The Carolinas at Greenville Technical College.
        Incidentally, 2 of my instructors graduated from CIA, 1 from Johnson & Wales. (He also taught there.)
        I’m not sure if links are appropriate here, but it’s easy to find on the wed.

  • Kim Graves

    I didn’t go to cooking school because I realized I didn’t want to cook the same thing day-after-day. Even at the highest end, people want “the dish” to taste exactly like it did the first time they had it. As a pro cook it’s your job to do that, never mind the vagaries of season, source, or the night before. I’m just not interested in being that anal. I positively want tomorrows meal to taste different that today’s. I want the veg I pulled out of the ground today to be a different expression than the one I’m going to pull out tomorrow. Good god! One side of the apple tastes different than the other if you’re paying attention.

    • luis

      OOh.. bullshit!, that does it Kim… I can barelly begin to appreciate fresh and organic from frozen…..aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!!! I am so NOT worthy!
      fresh clean crisp veggies from frozen, limp… factory grown crap… That much I think I can do….After that all bets are off.
      And how do you guys feel about the genetically engineered Salmon? I hope Michael Rhulman weighs in on this issue at some point….. They sure look good to me…

  • T

    Thank you for posting this! I’ve been mulling for days, weeks, months about whether or not I should give up what I have and go to culinary school. Not that I want to work in a restaurant kitchen (I already know that I wouldn’t last a day and even if I did I probably wouldn’t enjoy it), but because I want to learn everything I can in a disciplined, full time, intensive setting with real feedback from pros. I want to absorb knowledge.

    Everyone that I’ve talked to so far has been nothing but supportive of the idea, but none of them are in the business so this is some very refreshing insight and provides a good balance to the “Do it while you’re young!” enthusiasm. (It’s also good to know that at 27, I’m no longer considered young. Not in a kitchen’s eyes anyways!)

    The only thing is that it’s something that I fear I will regret never pursuing (and you know how the saying goes about regretting more the things you did not do than the things you did do).

    I’ve found a few ways to start to make cooking a more regular and fun part of my life without the risk, commitment and potential heartbreak of dreams crushed. And they’re looking like mighty good options right now while the battle rages on in my mind.

  • Bon

    You gotta be kidding me. That was the biggest load of BS I’ve heard in a long while. Bourdain’s latest book is yet another forum for him to wax philosophical about his drug use and ‘wild’ lifestyle, simultaneously romanticizing and denouncing it so he can seem both BADASS and WISE. And on the subject of school… excellent chefs are just like any other human being who seeks greatness in his or her profession. It’s a long, hard, grueling road with any life you choose, it doesn’t matter if you’re Daniel Boulud or Ernest Hemingway. Schooling in any facet IS and always WILL BE a personal (and expensive) decision; what you gain from it and how you implement it is entirely up to you. I’ve been a chef for nearly a decade now, and I’ve learned that there is NO definitive guide to who thrives in a kitchen and who doesn’t. I’ve dealt with old, young, fat, thin, student, non-student, rich, poor, drug-addicted, sober… it really doesn’t matter. Listening to Anthony Bourdain ‘tell it like it is’ as if he’s the shithead poet laureate is pathetic and insulting. Don’t listen to this guy. Be who you want to be. Remember that he gets paid lots of money to perpetuate this persona.

    • baker_bear

      Thank you for pointing out that the “Emperor” has NO clothes. Not everyone goes to Culinary School with the intention of becoming a Chef and education of any sort has many life benefits far beyond the skills one acquires.
      Food Stylist, Country Club or Personal or Private Chef are all valid career paths, no different from that of Food and Travel television personality. Mr. Bourdain’s experience is ONE man’s experience and it does NOT have to be your experience.

      • luis

        Correct, but give Bourdain credit for what he has accomplished and though he generalizes and has to on this type of topic.

        Foks beware, It is what you make of it. The combination of elements that decide you succeed and someone else doesn’t is varied and fluid. And of course as everyone has pointed out this type of thing applies to every field of endeavor.

        Finally you can be fucking retired and still attend culinary school to enjoy yourself keep your mind active and kick that Alzheimers gene in the ass for another decade. Maybe volunteer to cook for charity or something….

    • Jack

      You have to do a lot of sifting to get to the root of his message. Unfortunately, people tend to love him for what he writes at face value. He is very bluntly not recommending his life choices for others, even though he words in a manner that could easily be misconstrued. He is absolutely correct about going for the high quality education, making the most of it, and then following it up by working in the absolute best kitchens that will take you. Someone earlier posted that there can be only so many Thomas Kellers or in the world. The reason that is that people are too afraid to get out of their own way and actually strive to attain that level of success.

  • SlobDog

    Whilst I’m a big fan of AB, his comments here I have to disagree with. Perhaps it’s just the difference between the east coast and the west but folks here in san francisco are already sweating on the floors and not trying to create a food resume anyway. We have built a food culture in us that can cook well – hotel – minivan door – or – m-star rated OR in our families. In fact a few people are finding ’boutique’ food as a new way to make a little money and gain notoriety on the street and food blogs. The idea that those in the top don’t respect others is ridiculous. Civilization needs more people who simply cook not more returning to conventional jobs worrying about food competitions and show offs. Maybe being on FoodTV and living in Manhattan has left AB a bit jaded towards the powers that be – verses good respectful food and what makes a chef special – hotel – apples bees’ or el bulli.

    I find this opening negative and insulting. A dead end rather than an opening to a new American food culture.

    Still love the guy! :) Controversial but should bring us all back to the point – the state of American Food.

    Get real, get honest and appreciate locally crafted food no matter where it came from.

  • Ruth Alegria

    All of it true and applicable to any career choice to be made – either you have the frevor and intense passion or you don’t, be it office work, park ranger or sweating it out in the “back of house” hell!

    And here I am “retired” in Mexico City after 40 years in the business from Greenwich Village/SoHo to Princeton NJ/ back to SoHo and then here. Twice two ** New York Time mentions, from New York magazine to New Jersey Life, a James Bread House apperance/ first Chef’s Night out midnight party ……

    And from having “no life” as some “normal” people would put it I look back and find myself nostalgically roaring at some of the things that I’ve lived.
    From having Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin as guests, Maya Angelou asking me please for a table, Donald Sutherland having a few changes made to his dish, having Julia Child sign a cloth napkin when I forgot my book becuse I’d been working with Didier Rosada all night, the young crazy Russian sous chef I so loved working with because he knew what he was doing, the young and equally as passionate apprentices that I dissuaded from staying and the ones who listened and did travel and learn and now own their own places….

    Now what do I do? I tell my friends I’m devoted to just eating …. as well as I can in as many GOOD restaurants as I can knowing I don’t have to do it!

  • Andy

    The great part of Anthony’s genius is in his balls. He says things that we all think but rarely have the guts to say out loud. Having been a former Culinary Arts School instructor, I have often felt that many of my students would never last beyond a year in the industry. I would try to dissuade them and talk about some of the points Anthony mentions, but sometimes the only way for people to learn is to make the hard and costly mistake.
    His advice to new graduates is almost word for word the same I gave my new graduates. Some heeded the advice and their career paths have grown accordingly.
    Anthony is an amazing writer and I can hardly wait to read his latest contribution.
    Thanks for sharing this chapter.

  • Alain

    As much as I appreciate Chef Bourdain’s candor about his experience and feedback on Culinary Schools throughout this country, I feel he missed a huge point in not mentioning the Apprenticeship option.

    A little background on me: I am one of these European chefs that came to a food-deserted America in the late 70s. I was a young and ambitious pastry chef and although I never became as famous as another Roger Verge alumni, Daniel Boulud, I am not bitter about my career in the food business as some people I read in these postings. We all have to deal with our choices and decisions and with what life throws at you on your way up and down. My name is Alain Braux and I am a Certified Executive Pastry Chef, a Certified Master Baker and have a degree in Holistic Nutrition and am Macrobiotic counselor. If you have time to waste, feel free to Google my name and see what comes up.

    I came from and trained in such houses as Roger Verge, Jacques Maximim, Gaston Lenotre as well as Wittamer in Brussels. When I told my chef, Mark Debailleul (the youngest master pastry chef at the time) that I accepted a job in New York city, he dishoned me and refused to talk to me for the next 20 years. He told me at the time that I was going to waste my talent and in a way, he was right.

    Although I worked as an executive pastry chef in some of the finest establishments at the time, I never stayed in the restaurant business long enough to make a name for myself the way younger pastry chefs do now. The Food Network did not even exist then. At the time, European chefs were only starting to make their mark on the American culinary landscape. Forget about pastry chefs. That came only a few years later… too late for me. By then I was married and had a child and family to support. No more of these crazy hours, no benefits without Holidays and vacation time.

    After working in New York, Houston (for Lenotre), Austin, TX, Sarasota, FL, my wife and I opened our own shop called Amandine French Bakery and Cafe. The only authentic French shop like that in Austin at the time. After 10 years of hard work and untold frustrations (mostly caused by unqualified help), I folded my business. It was a hard decision but I did not have a choice. Who said a good chef makes a good businessman?

    All through my career, one thing that kept on infuriating me was the undue influence of the Culinary Schools in this country. It is a huge business and a highly profitable one at that. I know, I used to work for one. They seem to have a lock on “training” the up and coming new generation of chefs. What they don’t tell you is that there are millions of pour souls out there straddled with huge student loan they cannot afford to pay back on the $8.00 to $10.00 an hour they earn when they come out. While in school, they are lied to and told that when they come out, they will make tons of money. My foot! (sorry but my French is not as colorful as Tony’s). It is not only a big lie but a disgusting way to take advantage of poor (literally) suckers that believe everything they see on the Food Channel. Every time a mom would approach me and told me her son/daughter wanted to go to culinary school I would ask her to send them to me before they made their decision.

    What I would tell them is “don’t go waste your time and your money in this place. You’d be better off finding a good and reputable chef and sign an apprenticeship contract with him/her for 2-3 years. You get to learn what the REAL LIFE in the kitchen is and are getting paid while doing it. What a deal! You come out with real kitchen experience and, if you’ve done a good job with that chef, a good recommendation. From then on you could make real money without having to pay back enormous loans or decide to further you kitchen education by working for even more knowledgeable chefs up the ladder.

    One of two things would happen: they could find out really fast how hard this work is and quit right away or love it and found a new career with their eyes wide open. When you have to pay back big loans you make bad choices based on MONEY. You will take any job that pays a decent amount because you have to pay your bills and your loans. Usually not a good combination. Personally, after I passed my apprenticeship exam in Nice, France, I decided to further my pastry education and started to seek out reputable chefs and learn from them for almost nothing for another 10 years. But I did not care. I loved my job, I learned a lot, and I did not need to earn a lot at the time.

    How can anyone expect to learn how to be productive in the real world of cooking or baking when all they have been taught is how to do ONE thing ONCE and then move on because there is so much to cover. Believe me I know for two reasons: when I had my own business a lot of applicants came to my door to work for me. They’d been told they would make this or that amount of money. Bull! Any boss or chef worth it’s salt know very well that the VAST majority of culinary student are worth NOTHING. I also know because I was a pastry/baking instructor in one of these schools (needed to get a job at the time) and as hard as I tried to teach my students as much as I knew, I only had 6 months to prepare them for the real world of production. I never lied to them and drove them hard. Some of them quit, some of them became professionals and I am proud of them but they still have to pay off their loans.

    What I believe needs to be done in this country is what has existed in Europe for centuries, a decent apprenticeship program supported by chefs willing to teach eager kids that do not have the money to spend on a wasteful Culinary School. Not having money does not mean you are not talented or eager to learn Most likely you will work HARDER because you know how tough it is to be poor and you want to succeed even more than some kid whose parents are paying for school and don’t care that much. What also needs to be done is to pry the culinary/pastry education from the greedy hands of these culinary schools’ CEOs. They control this industry and not enough is done on the local or state level to encourage apprenticeship. When a group of pastry chefs within the American Culinary Federation tried to create such program they were shut down by the head honchos of the ACF, which happened to be the head of the largest culinary schools in this country. I know because I was one of these chefs. I do feel sorry for all these kids that could have but don’t have a chance at learn our beautiful and creative trade.

    After I lost my business, I was completely burned out and wanted nothing to do with food production. So I did odd jobs for a while while I started to study nutrition. I believe that nutrition is one of the future of this country’s food business. We chefs are NOT trained in nutrition and that is why this country is slowly killing itself through malnutrition. Not the kind that kills famished children in Africa and India, the kind that kills Western people by stuffing them with the WRONG kind of food: Fats, Sugar, High carbohydrates and so on.

    I am now lucky to have found a job as a chef and nutritherapist (see my web site) at a small chain of alternative pharmacies in Austin, TX. Since I have started working there I have been more and more involved with the health aspect of food and how it can help people with food allergies to feel better and healthier. I have already written one book on How to Lower your Cholesterol with French Gourmet Food to help people to lower their cholesterol without the help of toxic drugs. I am about to self publish my second book Living Gluten and Dairy-Free with French Gourmet Food to help people with gluten and dairy allergies as well as kids with Autism.

    I hope my few words start a healthy discussion on the merit of an serious apprenticeship program in this country and the importance of thinking of food as a healing element of our life, not just to stuff our faces.

    Sincerely, Alain

    • pgym

      Hate to say it, Alain, but apparently you missed the point of AB’s post. The reason he did not mention apprenticeship is because he is NOT laying out the range of educational options for would-be chefs, he’s addressing the question of whether a person who is considering a career as a chef should go to a culinary school.

  • xericx

    All you have to do if you can’t cut it as a chef is open up a food truck nowadays and put some fancy logos on it with catchy internet memes as your brand or slogan.

  • Jamie

    I read this when the book came out and I have the same reaction now as then: you can apply this to every and any career. Sure, there’s spectacularly good and brutally honest advice there for nascent chefs, but it applies just as well to my own career field (science).

    Good advice is good advice.

  • Jeroen

    Anthony Bourdain ‘s books and tv shows are very entertaining, thought provoking and inspiring. He’s very good at delivering no bullshit, honest opinion with balls. He possesses a special humorous cynicism (or is it?) that only few people master well or even understand. A unique and rare personality. Very human. Vastly appealing.

    To me he represents the dark romanticism of this walk of life (gastronomy) that I find alluring and inspiring. It’s the same admiration and respect I hold for soldiers or cops. Plus the rich cultural aspect of food and beverages worldwide.

    I hold a deep respect for an industry that provides a world for the underdogs of society or anybody who feels at home with a passion for food, living hard lives because that’s all they can/know/want to do, can produce something so convenient, satisfying, wonderful and sometimes even an experience of a lifetime for us : the consumer, the gourmet, the food snob or whatever…

    I see parallels with myself and my profession (software) but with many others too but nothing is as satisfying as eating a great meal (well , maybe preparing one).

    Food has something special. It’s life, food gives us life…
    Good life (a nice meal with nice people). Hard life (for the people who produce, sometimes). Beautiful life (for everybody who is lucky enough to enjoy good food regularly). This is what makes it so special to me.

    I would and could go into foodservice/gastronomy if I were younger and hadn’t “wasted” my life on

  • Jeroen

    … slaving away in software / similar unhealthy habits that are associated with The Life.

    I guess I should count myself lucky but sometimes it does feel like I missed my true call.

    Chapeau!

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