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Alternative Food-Based Careers

I'm currently attending my local community college, and I've decided to switch my major to Culinary Arts. Now, let me explain - I know that I don't want to enter the insane world of restaurant work, but I love food, and I am hoping to shape a career out of my love & talents.

But am I nuts to try this? This is my love, my passion - I'm making this decision late in life - my experience was raising four kids on practically no money - used my creative abilities (went to art school back in the Dark Ages) to produce decent meals, since we certainly couldn't afford eating out much - some weeks, I hardly could afford groceries!

As a result, today, I usually bake my own bread everyday (it's difficult for me to make a small portion of anything, now that some of my kids are out of the house - but I realize that this is, in no way, comparable to real job applications), roast my own coffee, whip up an everything-from-scratch menu on holidays and even most days. I do most of this by hand - lack of money has also built my intuitive skills. I've noticed that in the past few years it's become much easier for me to do all of this - at some point lots of it became, well, duck soup... unfortunately, I don't have enough of an audience even on holidays - I love putting meals together (esp. my bakery creations). (I was very happy that one of my daughters was around when I finally achieved both a crusty outer crust and, even more important, that ever sought after crumb in my french baguette - she understood my insanity - and appreciated my success - hooray!!)

I am concerned, however - despite all of this, it seems as though my window of job opportunities will be very small. I could see myself eventually managing a small goat-cheese operation, bed & breakfast, writing about food (yeah!) or conducting food based tours - but I am getting frightened that this is way outside the realm of practical (maybe it's just the voice of my mom - God rest her soul - shouting at me that I'm too much of a dreamer!)

Any thoughts, chowhounds?

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  1. Here's the voice of reason...nothing is impossible. If you can dream it you can do it! Back in reality though, you should think about using your artistic talenst and think about Food Styling. Contact some local photographers and ask them how they hire their stylists. If you can intern or work for a stylist for a few months you'll quickly get the hang of it.

    If that doesn't work, the kind of cooking you do is often done at natural food co-ops. They are always looking for people with ideas and pasion.

    Good Luck

    5 Replies
    1. re: tnidetz

      Thanks so much for your fast reply! Need reality checks - that's why I'm posting this.

      Never thought of food styling - I'll check up on that. We have a Whole Foods here (actually thought of that already) - that's the closest to a natural food co-op, unless I travel a distance.

      1. re: tnidetz

        i don't know your age but i think that you are not a spring chicken.don't get me wrong as i think this is to your advantage.there is a great need for mature people in food service management.get your a.a.in culinary arts or food service management .spend some time in the industry in the kitchen so you will be versed in the operation on a day to day operation.there are companies like aramark & sodexio who are looking for mature folks that have the knowledge to be a supervisor or entry level management positions.

        1. re: big john

          Yes - you are right - I'm no spring chicken (in fact, I'm a bit marinated - ha! Sorry - bad joke), although I've been told I look a few yrs younger, which should help in the job search.

          This is an excellent idea. I just need a few ideas to make sure I'm still being practical. The community college route isn't the bank-breaker like the private culinary schools, but for me, it's still an investment (and just the uniforms and knife kit will cost me money I don't exactly even have right now!).

          I could go into so many other fields - but I already KNOW food so well - at least I have a bit of a foundation. If I aim for another field, I have to start EVERYTHING from scratch!

          I've done gardening (in the past - I'm in an apt. now), so I could also work for any sort of place that has a small scale farming & food shop.

          1. re: threedogs

            Gardening, cooking...sounds perfect for a bed and breakfast or inn. It would be hands on, allow you to cook the way you like (roasting your own coffee, baking your own bread, etc.) on a smaller scale. Doing so would also allow you to write about food--think of how many inn/B&B owners write books. Contact your favorite inns/B&Bs and see if they will allow you to intern there for a week or so so you can see what running one is really like. I love staying at inns, especially ones with excellent in-house made food and see a good market in that. Lastly, it does sound like you love cooking but don't base your decision on having a base in it. If there is a field you enjoy more, but have to start from scratch, I'd still go for it. You're in an enviable position where you can remake where you're going and what you want to do. From what you've said, it sounds like you'd be happier starting small and having hands on work than being higher up and working on a larger scale (preparing breakfast for a dozen of so guests vs. larger restaurant where you'd have a small part of the whole picture). Good luck with it all!

            1. re: chowser

              This what I love, chowser. I'm interested in many, many things, but this is the core of me. Seems everyone around me is giving sort of "what took you so long?"

              I was actually trying to aim for health care. So many jobs, esp. in my area. But you know what? Just the thought of blood, and internal organs, etc., (human, at least), makes me want to vomit. The thought of studying anatomy & physiology - well, I could force myself to do anything, but no way - there'll be plenty of difficult things to learn in a field I love!

      2. A local woman started baking bread out of her house here in southern New Hampshire, and has turned it into a thriving business. She was selected as a "Best in NH" pick in New Hampshire Magazine back in 2005:

        "Artisan Bread: Yes, they are lovely to look at, but the loaves from Lynda Shortt’s bakery in Mont Vernon, The Good Loaf (673-0471), just beg to be ripped into with gusto. You’ll find her range of ryes, multi-grain, sourdoughs, challah, ciabatta and more at the Black Forest Café, Vista Foods and several Milford restaurants. For weight watchers, bread has become a forbidden pleasure of late. Trust us, this bread is worth every carb."

        We pick up her bread at our local Farmer's Market, and there is always a line!

        1 Reply
        1. re: whs

          Terrific - I'll do a search to read more (when I finish my work - this is my last week of an intensive semester).

          Sometimes I describe myself as an aardvark. I feel like an oddity today - my personality doesn't seem to fit in with the typical American workplace. When I thought this through - that's when I decided to do this. I may not fit into a restaurant setting - heck, I don't want to. But I know there are many, many roads that I could take. Just need to find the one that fits me, not the other way around.

        2. The old Ann Landers query is applicable here:
          "How old will you be in five years if you pursue your dream?"
          "How old will you be in five years if you don't?"

          Nothing is sadder than a life lived in the key of "What If I'd ...............?" Follow your heart, AND do it wisely. "Wisely" translates into being brutally honest about your situation, personal, financial, etc.

          You've gotten a lot of good advice so far about seeking input from those already in the field. They have the experience you need and often will be generous about sharing it.

          If the B&B idea makes your heart beat faster, are you in an area that supports this? Are you willing to work harder and longer than you probably ever have? (this according to those who are in the business) Are you good with people? This is often a seasonal business, is that OK with you?
          P.S. I didn't get any great vibes from you that you adored the gardening part of your experience. Am I mis-reading?

          Ask yourself honestly is food something that you really, truly and deeply love? or is it just what you know best? Do you get bone marrow-deep satisfaction out of your baking, coffee roasting, etc OR do you do it to save money? OR because it is the Martha Stewart-expected thing for a woman to do to gain acceptance?

          Once you have good answers to tough questions you can begin to make plans. Networking, through groups, local or international, like IACP, is a great idea because chances are that someone else is already doing what you want to do. Barbara Sims Bell's book JOBS IN THE FOOD and BEVERAGE INDUSTRY has opportunities far removed from the usual resto type and tells you what you need to get there.

          Good Luck!
          FWIW, I have only held a couple of "regular" jobs in this industry; all the others were invented and I've loved (almost) every minute of my long career.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Sherri

            "Follow your heart, AND do it wisely. "Wisely" translates into being brutally honest about your situation, personal, financial, etc.'

            Yes - very true. I don't have the know-how, nor do I want to be one of the many that fail. My way is slow, methodical - I have all the time in the world, as long as I can bring in enough

            "If the B&B idea makes your heart beat faster, are you in an area that supports this?"

            Sure, but I'm not in a financial position to own one, at least not in this point in my life. There is actually one quite nearby my home - but these people are not too friendly, and I prefer to find another route.

            I loved gardening when I had my own home - but I'm in an apt. right now (w/few areas w/sun here, too), have been away from it & have had too little time to even think of doing it for now. It would be very, very difficult to garden here.

            My method was more of a lazy gardener's method - but that goes along with my personality. Sort of went with the ebb & flow of the plants - and I ended up with tomatoes one year when I didn't even plant them - they just reseeded themselves.

            "Ask yourself honestly is food something that you really, truly and deeply love? or is it just what you know best? Do you get bone marrow-deep satisfaction out of your baking, coffee roasting, etc OR do you do it to save money? "

            It's both. I know it best from the years of experience, but I never would have (still) put so much time into it unless I truly loved it.

            I'm very interested in teaching someday - what I'd love to do is combine my love for food, both eating and the preparation, with an exploration of all the interesting cultures in the world. The thread that travels throughout humankind is centered around food. That's exactly what we all have in common - this could be a course that is never-ending!

            "OR because it is the Martha Stewart-expected thing for a woman to do to gain acceptance?"

            HA!! That is SO not me! (Children of the '70's, we don't need no stinkin' acceptance!)

            "Once you have good answers to tough questions you can begin to make plans."

            Yes, I am one to always, always ask questions. I can see things from so many different angles... ponder over many viewpoints.. so when I finally make a decision - I KNOW it is right (only takes me a lifetime to get there..)

            "I have only held a couple of "regular" jobs in this industry; all the others were invented and I've loved (almost) every minute of my long career."

            Very cool! I have the creativity, but I realize that I need the business sense to back up my ideas. I'll look for that book, too.

            Thanks so much!

            1. re: Sherri

              Great Advice Sherri, couldn't have said it better. I would only add, "think outside the box and create a job that you love, that you're great at" - the money will follow as will customers. Read Inc. Magazine and Entrepreneur and Fortune for Small Business - it will at least prove to you that people do it all the time.

            2. threedogs-go for it! I've changed careers three times in my nearly 50 years...and may change a 4th time if I'm lucky. Life is always more delicious with anticipation in your heart and optimism as your guide!

              Intern to your hearts content; it's flexible, easier to make a time commitment and a great way to gain specific skill sets. Dabble in everything that interests you; then make a few choices...and continue narrowing down your decision.

              Network like crazy--you will be pleasantly surprised by WHO you actually know to help you on your way. If all else fails seek out a life styles coach--they know how to guide maverick thinkers! HAVE A BLAST!

              2 Replies
              1. re: HillJ

                Very good ideas. Thought about interning - I plan to do just that. No way to figure out what job/place will fit me w/out it.

                Funny thing is, I'm not looking for anything that would be described as typically exciting (to others). But then again, for me, exciting is discovering just how to make that near-perfect crumb in my bread... I'd love to be part of a small operation, where everyone contributes.

                Actually, as I write this, it sounds as though a monastery would suit my personality ; > }. Wonder if I could bring my three dogs... ha!

                1. re: threedogs

                  t-dogs, another suggestion is to investigate food-based non profits. National orgs offer internships & volunteer opps. Great way to network with insiders, do your community proud and scope out a career move. Good luck to you!

              2. A friend's son is a chef, owned his restuarant, taught at a culinary school. He gave it up, because a chef has no home life. He now works for Smart & Final and sells to and advises resturant owners/chefs. Still food, but home at night.

                I am in the San Francisco area and food tours are huge right now. And personal chefs are everywhere.

                Good luck. Go for what makes you happy. My husband became a glass blower in his 60's ( and sells all over the country ) and is happiest doing hot glass. You don't know until you try.

                3 Replies
                1. re: Janet

                  i was thinking personal chef when i read the op as well.

                  put together some sample menus, cost them out (places like costco and restaurant depot are your ally here; you'll never make costs through regular grocery stores.) and advertise on craig's list or spread word of mouth with your circle of friends. a big business in my area is chefs who prepare a week's worth of meals and deliver them packaged and frozen with instructions for reheating. allows some flexibilty in your schedule, instead of being beholden to the whims of one family.

                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    Yes - the personal chef idea is definitely something I'm considering. I don't have a car right now (but that can change). Before I try anything, I want to get some of the crucial business info under my belt - hoping that my community college classes will help me there - and careful planning.

                    I've discovered also that there are food businesses quite nearby that will rent out space, too - in this state it's only legal to make baked goods (cakes, cookies, breads, etc.) from one's house - and they'd have to inspect my kitchen (eeks- with my three dogs, right!).

                  2. re: Janet

                    What your son experienced is just why I have no intention of going into the restaurant business. I tend to work in a slow, methodical manner - working under intense pressure never suited me. Oh, I can take some here and there - but not what goes on in the back of the house - never. Besides - I'd be worrying too much about my dogs ; > )

                    That's what I need to find - my version of your husband's glass blowing! I went to art school a long time ago - my favorite was always pottery, especially hand building. I hope to take it up again when I can - but for now, I think I channeled that love into bread.

                  3. What area do you live in? This can, of course, affect your choices.

                    I myself live in the Northern California Wine Country, and for the last few years, have been living out my food obsession by working culinary retail. I've even gotten into what I've been told is an in-demand segment - cheese specialist.

                    I've worked for an artisanal producer retail co-op, for 2 local specialty gourmet markets, and just yesterday interviewed for a position managing a marketplace at a well-known winery, which would include fresh deli service, as well as wine and condiments.

                    In other words, you can bring your talents to that realm, as well. I've met people who started working for gourmet markets and ended up running the fresh food-to-go or deli areas.

                    There are all sorts of possibilities, depending on how much of your life you want absorbed.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: cmvan

                      From past posts, it appears the OP lives in the Boston area. Many opportunities for entrepreneurship in the area.

                      1. re: whs

                        Yes, I'm north of Boston - right near the ocean, close enough to take the T in, if I want, too.

                        Ah... Northern California Wine Country.. sigh... I love this area (I'm a true Bostonian at heart). Funny you should mention that you are a cheese specialist. The reason I actually decided to finally DO something was an ad I saw in Craigslist.

                        A cheesemonger in Western Massachusetts was advertising for an apprentice. That really got my interest - I'm not in the position to relocate, but I realized (been considering putting my focus on food for MANY years) that the time is now. If I keep waiting - at one point it will be too late - and that would be so sad.''

                        Just curious - what did you mean when you said, "depending on how much of your life you want absorbed"?

                        1. re: whs

                          Yes, whs - Boston & the surrounding area have SO many possibilities. That's part of why I love it here so much (the other is because of our weather & grey skies - don't ask... like I said, I AM an aardvark!)

                      2. Wow, first off I just want to say that personally this is a really interesting topic.
                        I too am currantly looking for SOME type of future career in the food business. (I am only 16). Much like you threedogs, I love to cook, I love more to eat. I too have made my own bread (Well, croissants and sweetbreads mostly, heh) and tons of other things from scratch.
                        Unlike you however, I did it for the love of creating, not out of nessecity, not that I'm saying you never liked cooking, as it is obvious you do.
                        But I have lived a fairly privaledged life, I go out to eat ALL the time, and thus through my numerous eatings out and job searches, have come to have a personal relationship with many of the restaurant owners, managers and staff in our area.
                        However I have yet to get a job, and am still wondering exactly WHAT I will do with my passion.(I too entertain the idea of writing, food critiquing perhaps?)
                        Please keep me posted man, best of luck to you! I'm glad I stumbled on this page!

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Chef Casper

                          Hey, Chef Casper - you have so much time to discover your path! Best thing for someone your age, I think, is to follow the many bits of advice that people in the food industry suggest - work in the industry. But I'd say go even further... if you think you are truly interested in this field (the restaurant field is insane, but some people like the pace), then research chefs in your area. If you can find someone with whom you think you'd like to work, then see if you could work for her/him for a while.

                          Later in life, if you still have this passion (remember this can be a great hobby, too), you could consider doing what many do to learn from the great chefs - after saving enough money, they go to Europe & work for free, just to learn. (That's out for me - true to my name, I have three dogs, so I'll stay close to home.)

                          1. re: threedogs

                            Yeah, thanks for the advice!
                            True I love to cook and I recieve and attempt to utilize advice from all the people I meet in the industry. Recently Iv'e made friends with the pizza chef of one of the local italian restaurants which I frequent and she has real good ideas.
                            Currantly I'm going to try and get a job at Splash Cafe, its a chowder house in my area. It's not my preffered type of restaurant, or food for tha matter. But it will give me a chance to see what working in these situations is like, and see if I like it. Plus it will "break me in", in a way, so when I have more time to devote to a job (summer) I can probably get a job at a better restaurant.
                            Recently I also saw a nutritionist, and she set me with a sort of "good foods/bad foods" list and a dietary plan to try out, so I'm going to be "culinarily-challenged" around the home aswell. I think it could be fun and I could get really creative with it.
                            Thanks again for the advice threedogs, and others on this board. Keep me posted!

                        2. What I meant by "how much of your life you want absorbed" is that many food-oriented jobs require a great deal of time and effort, to say the least. While I've never been a chef, or even worked the back (other than helping out at the deli counter once in a while), I'm enough of a foodie to know from watching food shows and reading books like Bourdain's and Ruhlman's that life in the kitchen is long hours, back-breaking, and tough.

                          Even my work as a cheese specialist is daunting, believe it or not. Most days are non-stop, as cheese requires a great deal of attention, as do my customers, who rely on my expertise and advice. Someone recently told me that tending a cheese department is like overseeing a nursery full of babies - they need constant attention and their diapers changed frequently (that referring to the need to watch cheese for mold and drying, and then trimming away the nasty bits, leaving behind the perfectly fine product).

                          If you want to maintain a close-to-normal home life, definitely look for a career that isn't necessarily production-oriented. While my cheese position is busy, it's 40 hours a week, and I go home to my family.

                          You could also do something like freelance food demos, offering your services to local producers to demonstrate and promote their products at better stores and places like Whole Foods. I've done that for Bellwether Farms and had a great time.

                          If you've got local Farmers' Markets, visit them and talk to the producers. Most of them are too busy farming to be able to do things like promote, or put together recipes using their products (I did a small recipe brochure for Bellwether, for example), etc. And networking is always good.

                          Look for unusual ways to use your love of culinaria, and something will come forward for you.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: cmvan

                            cmvan makes a good point about restaurant work--if you have any doubt, read "Heat" by Bill Buford. It chronicles his life as a kitchen slave in Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo.

                            1. re: whs

                              cmvan does make a good point. however, no one ever reshaped a career by playing it too safe. do your research but don't just become a well read bystander...dig your heels into a food-based career and you might even discover a new market/job no one else has tried. Bill Buford/Mario B...take risks, career chances...inspirational!

                              1. re: HillJ

                                I've done oodles of research - that's why I'll stay clear of restaurant work, and maybe other areas. But no matter WHAT field one enters, there's plenty of negatives. There is always a downside. The key, I think, is to find an area I can at least fit into. Fortunately I am not some starry eyed viewer enamored with the Food TV stars - I don't even watch those programs. Don't have the time & I'd rather be researching or doing.

                                And I may not even stay on this path - it may lead me to something else. The important thing, I think, is to make the first steps, and to be open, AND to become as skilled as possible.

                                1. re: threedogs

                                  you got it! good luck with your search!

                          2. Another great alternative that is cropping up all over is the "underground restaurant". Much like a private dinner party that guest pay a "suggested donation". Check out this article: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html...

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: lexpatti

                              I had no idea that this was something that's becoming popular. I was told about someone who is doing something similar in N.H. - only more low-key, once a month sort of thing, and I guess everyone knows each other.

                              Or at least that's what I was told. : >)

                              1. re: threedogs

                                my son and girlfriend just moved to Paris and started one in June. They are booked through Oct. - extremely successful! Faster then they were planning. both are self taught cooks (no formal schooling), extremely passionate about food/presentation. Basically, high end 7-10 course private diner party at their secret place.

                                1. re: lexpatti

                                  Do they have a website or contact info?

                                  Doh---"at their secret place"---so, how does one book a table?

                                  1. re: whs


                                    Lots of recent write ups if you google them, also did a recent photo shoot and should be in Re'gal Magazine. Could hurt their secrecy!!! Food writers attended recently, was pretty exciting. An executive from William Senoma one time.

                                    1. re: lexpatti

                                      This is fantastic! You should be very proud of them. I wonder how this concept would play here in the US? BTW, when you were in Paris, did you dine at their place?

                                      1. re: whs

                                        It's unique in Paris but he doesn't think it would be unique enough here (not what he's cooking) - we can get that at restaurants (he thinks). They are just go nuts over his food because it isn't typical perisian dining, it's american but with a gourmet creative twist. Very proud (I"ve always told him to go for his dreams, just have a plan B! but if you don't try things you'll regret). They had just gotten their place while we were there and couldn't get the key to show us. We were there early May, they furnished it, decorated and ready for their first event (2 chefs and 5 food writers - free, just for feedback, input) on June 10 or June 3rd. They just recently opened for two nights a weeks (not every week though), they need time to play. His goal is to write - cooking is his passion.

                            2. I am in Catering Sales for a hotel and what is great is you create menus and events for clients, do tastings, yet you aren't back in the kitchen or dealing with the operational side of things. If you are a proactive person this may be a good job for you. You can do this at any museum, venue, hotel, country club..anywhere that serves food for private parties

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: stellamystar

                                Catering, that would be awesome!
                                Why dident I think of it sooner?!

                              2. I literally just re-wrote your post without even having seen it!I suppose we're in the same boat here.Glad to know I'm not alone, swing me an e-mail and we can compare notes, so to speak.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: GilloD

                                  refering to stellamystar or Chef Casper?

                                2. Would you be able to start with a table at a local Farmers' or Saturday market selling your wares (prepared foods and baked goods)?

                                  Whatever you end up doing, I wish you all the best. Keep us posted as things develop.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                    I did think of that. Since I presently don't have a car, it would probably be difficult, or close to impossible (hate to call anything impossible - heck, even Hershey started out with a tiny pushcart, and withstood all sorts of obstacles). Maybe after I start culinary school, I can team up with someone.

                                  2. Hi threedogs,

                                    I know this was posted 5 years ago, but I feel like I’m in the same part of life that you were once in—to work in a culinary related field—except that I know I don’t want to work in a kitchen. Do you mind telling me which direction you took or where you’re at now?


                                    1. If I could change careers right now, I'd start a business where I prepared meals for busy people for them to have for dinner instead of fast food, takeout, etc. So many people are more conscious about the types of food they are eating, but simply don't have the time to make meals from scratch at home.

                                      I have coworkers who have multiple children to shuttle around to things most days of the week. They want to eat well and provide their children with healthy foods but wind up stopping at Burger King on the way home from activities because they don't have the time or energy to make something. I also have several coworkers who go out literally every night because they don't know how to cook ANYTHING. They'd love to stay home with "real" food instead.

                                      Kind of like "place your order for the week"--meatloaf, pasta primavera, and chili with all the fixings? Done. Make it all and have it ready for pickup/delivery at the beginning of the week.