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Dec 11, 2013 08:52 PM

Do I spend money on culinary school or on starting a restaurant ( food business)?

I am 41 years old and wanting to follow my passion to make food the center of my career goals. I've been having a hard time finding feedback from people who have gone to ICC (FCI), to see if they felt the knowledge and the experience was worth it. Investing close to $50,000 (which will be mostly debt) in solidifying my knowledge, or taking that same $ (small business loans) and using it as start up for a food business, and "flying by the seat of my pants" and maybe hiring the right people. If money wasn't a concern I'd do the 6 month program at ICC, no question, but between the tuition and finding an affordable situation to live in NY...I'm intimidated and overwhelmed. And starting my own restaurant without that rock solid foundation, seems nuts. I actually have worked in the food and hospitality business for 15+ years off and on, mostly front of house, I' m a damn good cook, and have a great palate and lots of food knowledge. I want to learn from a team of great instructors and beside people who are as passionate as I am. I'm only willing to consider programs that are less than a year and accredited. The cost seems so impractical, but the experience sounds like heaven.....stuck, dreaming and confused.

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  1. Better yet, spend some time studying business, learn how to launch a small business, and try to start using OPM. If you can't find investors to back you, there's a good chance you don't have what it takes to make a go of it (either from a food sense or a business perspective) and you learn a hard lesson without losing a lot of money (or going into debt).

    I don't mean to be a buzzkill, but too many people lose their asses on dreams that aren't well grounded. (Then again, dreams tend not to be all that well grounded anyway, so maybe I'm just naturally a buzzkill. Sorry.)

    11 Replies
    1. re: ricepad

      I have a strong (still a lot to learn) business background, I've been co-running my family business (in interior design sales) for the last 7 years. I've done PR, marketing, and events, been a restaurant manager (not payroll), server, bartender, and expediter, I've also done some private catering ( inconsistently and not plated, buffet and family style) but also because of our business I have access to a good support team ( accountants, bankers, and such). I'm not sure how to find investors, and have not flushed out a business plan mostly because I'm still on the fence about how I plan to move forward (stuck), I don't know what OPM is but I'll google it and I'm hungry to learn anything. Writing a business plan would probably be a productive process for me though. Your not a buzzkill nothing you said hasn't crossed my mind, this is my long calculated journey to throw caution to the wind and put it all on the line;) which line first I guess is the question, and to further kill us with cliche which risk gets the most reward. One more thing in the "top culinary school" column is that if in 10 years I don't want to be an entrepreneur anymore and want a kitchen job at a resort someplace beautiful, that certificate ( along with experience) could make a lot of difference.

      1. re: almaluna

        Wow. 75% percent of new restaurants fail within 6months.
        Yours probably wont' be one of them.

        Find a business plan you like, and go for it. You'll need a bit of flash (but you know that).

        A business is a 10 hour a day, 7 days a week thing. If you want it, then do it.

        I don't think the school is required for that. But if you'd rather just be a kitchen person, go for the school.

        1. re: Chowrin

          " A business is a 10 hour a day, 7 days a week thing."

          And the restaurant business is more like 12-14 hours a day.

          1. re: bobbert

            True that, 13 hours average, easy.

            1. re: bobbert

              <and the restaurant business is more like 12-14 hours a day>

              If someone's serious about making their restaurant work then the day is more like 24 hours with a little rest/sleep thrown in there.
              Eat, drink, work and think nothing but restaurant and then some.

              1. re: latindancer

                I know plenty of owners that have a dumpy little apartment in the back, for the few hours sleep that they ever get.

                1. re: coll

                  <for the few hours sleep that they ever get>

                  I've know far too many owners who give over the responsibility to their managers, look in on their *own* business every few days, and then wonder why their business failed.
                  On the contrary, the owners who put their business before everything else in their life, are consistently present and helping out with everyone from the bussers to the chefs, are the ones who succeed.
                  It's a 'hands-on', never ending journey if there's any remote chance of succeeding.

          2. re: almaluna

            Actually, that Certificate will make no difference at all.

              1. re: almaluna

                I want to share something from personal experience. I was five years younger than you are now when I left a job with good pay/benefits and very high income potential to follow my dreams. I went back to school for a graduate degree. Fortunately, I had the resources to pay for most of the tuition and related expenses so I didn't rack up too much debt. However, I gave up four years of earnings and then (following my dream) went into a field where nearly all the work is in nonprofits so salary range was much lower and benefits all but nonexistent except in the few large organizations in the field. So now I am paying for my own health insurance (fortunately, a group plan through my husband's job in one of those large organizations), have no retirement savings match - 100% comes out of my pocket, though admittedly tax-deferred. But the amount that I can afford to put into that plan is less than I would have been able to rack up in my former career.

                You are 41, so you have about 24 - 30 working years left. You have to start thinking about how you are going to sock away enough to live on after you stop working. You have to balance following your work dream with the fact that there is more to life than work, both after you stop working and even now - don't you ever want to be able to pursue your non-work joys, too? That requires time and money, too.

            1. Do you currently live in NY? Maybe check out culinary programs at different schools in other states where the COL is less...

              If you were to open a restaurant, do you have an idea as to what type of food you are thinking about? Maybe living in an area that specializes in that cuisine might assist you. It will expose you to different ideas of what current places are offering and give you an idea of what the market is for your plans.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Jerseygirl111

                I lived in NY for 10 years ( worked for some of the best, Bobby Flay, Marcus Samuelson) but now I live back in Santa Fe, NM, my home town. I've been researching lots of programs, I feel like if I'm going to do this I want to do it with the best at the highest level. and with access to every cuisine in the world. Also the 6 month program really appeals to me. The prestige of it would also count in this town, if I can back it up.
                Yes I have a couple of strong concepts for restaurant/food businesses, but my overall concept involves global comfort foods, with a lot of mexican, carribbean, and African notes (curries, red chile cream sauce, roasted tomatoes and pesto, wild mushroom cous cous etc. I'm going to have to factor into my future some amount of food related travel to always learn, but in NY I have access to so many flavors. Unless I win the lottery I don't think I would move back but an intensive 6 months to a year seems perfect to me. Just so prohibitively fricken expensive.

                1. re: almaluna

                  What kind of works did you do for these chefs? So, you already have a culinary background? Or, were you working on the business side of things?

              2. I had a choice of culinary school, or a bachelors of business in hotel/restaurant management, both at the same college. I chose the business degree and glad I did. Cooking comes easy to me too, but business sense was something I had to be taught. Luckily not the hard way, by loosing my shirt!

                The cooking school was two years, and the business degree four. If you have a real knack for it, learning on the job works for some people too, but you need a great mentor.

                1. I have nothing useful to add, but I have a question. After all I've read and seen as an outsider, I can't figure out why anybody wants to try it! Can you shed some light on that for me?

                  PS I do own a small not-food-related business.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: Shrinkrap

                    I'm not sure what to say except that I had that crazy moment about a year ago when I realized my life has always revolved around food, and that I'm happiest when I'm creating in the kitchen and feeding people! I'm deeply satisfied by the feeling of surprising people with my flavors, and finding the "sweet spot" (when everyone loves it). These things make me joyful, and I want my life to be full of joy. I'm not naive, this is a brutal grueling business, many would argue most Chefs are sociopaths, in certain circles noon is dawn, and the odds of a restaurant being successful are low, and successful for a long time even lower, still I feel like I'm finally passionate about something other than music ( reason I was a great waitress lol).

                    1. re: almaluna

                      Are you actually in the business?
                      Because if you aren't... I'd pitch your cooking to the local daycare. Homemade (& healthy) food from the heart makes a great pitch for stressed out parents.

                      1. re: almaluna

                        "I'm not sure what to say except that I had that crazy moment about a year ago when I realized my life has always revolved around food, and that I'm happiest when I'm creating in the kitchen and feeding people! I'm deeply satisfied by the feeling of surprising people with my flavors, and finding the "sweet spot" (when everyone loves it). These things make me joyful, and I want my life to be full of joy."


                        cooking in a restaurant kitchen has zero in common with cooking for your friends and family. zero. nothing.

                        when i was 25 and in possession of a bachelor's i never intended to use, i decided to go to culinary school. this was pre-tv food network and celebrity chefs were not a "thing," so most students' motivation was different than today. i'd been waitressing and bartending for 2 years prior, so "had" restaurant experience, but i was NOT prepared for how grueling line work was. within my first semester i knew i was not cut out for boh. i was also working full-time as a bartender to pay my bills while i was in school. even though i was young and very fit, i frequently had rashes and anxiety attacks from lack of sleep and physical exhaustion.

                        i completed the 2-year program anyway and it did help me in some ways. i wound up staying in foh for 20+ years, mostly as a sommelier.

                        at your age, i can't imagine plunging all that money into a SIX-MONTH program. if you have never cooked professionally, how much do you think you will truly learn? i have had to manage graduates from places like johnson & wales and cia and they were next to useless for their first few months. the hours were so long, the atmosphere so intense and the pay so minimal, many more washed out than kept going, so even in their 20s they couldn't hack it. (btw, i have always worked in fine dining and my previous bosses include 3 james beard award winners. these were not cut-rate joints.)

                        say you go to school. how will you live and afford nyc while there? why do you think a 6-month cert will guarantee you a job or a flock of investors when you return home? in the mean-time that loan will start coming due and you might still be couch-surfing and jobless.

                        you may also want to explore options like becoming a private chef or a caterer.

                        what are the possibilities in your area for food trucks? many in boston have gone on to open b&m locations after enough buzz with a truck. anybody doing pop-ups or underground restaurants to get yourself some name recognition?

                        agree with others who suggest trying to get a boh job NOW, even if it is unpaid.


                        from your post below:

                        "Thank you, you are correct, I am wondering if culinary school should be my first step, if it's better to start in debt but with a "professional" foundation, or just go for it."

                        a 6-month program isn't going to teach you a whole lot. it's a very expensive piece of paper. sorry.


                        just went on their website. it says you get 469 hours of hands-on time. if that was in a real kitchen job? that would be about 6-8 weeks. fwiw.

                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                          The part about not like cooking for friends/family is the part that has resonated with me while vicariously watching others over the last 10 years or so. I used to think it must be really rewarding; now I am glad I can afford the time and money to do it (including classes!$$$$!) for fun. I can see there are niches where people in the industry thrive, but much of it seems like a major "fun sucker"!

                          I used to want to teach pre-school too!

                          1. re: Shrinkrap

                            for the right people, restaurant cooking *IS* wonderfully rewarding. my point was that home-cooking on any scale is apples to oranges.

                            whenever i cook and host people will ooh and aaah and wonder why i don't cook professionally, lol. when i try to explain it's like they don't believe me!

                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                              "For the right people, restaurant cooking *IS* wonderfully rewarding"

                              I believe you, and believe the same is true for being a pre school teacher. For me though, those are two dreams that at age 50+, I'm greatful didn't come true.

                              1. re: Shrinkrap

                                about 15-17 years ago, my mother came into quite a bit of money and was convinced she and i should open a restaurant. "i could do the books and work the door and you could run everything else." she was a competent home-cook and good with people and assumed my schooling and work experience would guarantee success. it took MONTHS to dissuade her from this idea. not that i was convinced of failure, but even then i knew that ownership (not to mention working with my mom!!) wasn't for me.

                                and if we had failed? she would have been a 50-something woman with nothing left for retirement. i could never have forgiven myself.

                                no thanks.

                    2. FYI...I have a Bachelors Degree from Macalester College in Sociology, with economics core almost 20 years ago, not really relevant except for the part that I've already paid off student loans and have little interest in going into a 4 year program, I need practical training not really interested in a lot of class room work, except as it pertains to running a kitchen and developing concepts and seeking investors. There are resources available to help write a business plan and negotiate leases, etc.

                      20 Replies
                      1. re: almaluna

                        Do you want to be a restauranteur or do you want to be a chef? I can't tell from all your posts, to be honest, and that is a bit of a concern.

                        My advice is get a kitchen job. Stay local, try and find a place that you have connections and they will give you a chance to work your way up to real cooking. But you need to spend some serious time on the line and see if it is really what you want to do, especially as we approach the downhill side of mid-life (I'm your age, no offense intended). Everything I've ever heard is that this is a young person's game, with hours and hours spent on your feet in high heat under great time pressure.

                        There is also nothing wrong with throwing caution to the wind and going to culinary school as part of a mid-life crisis as long as you recognize it as for the right reasons: fulfill a lifelong dream, learn something new, take a break for the drudgery of "real life" for a while. But, in that case, I think you need to go into it with the knowledge that it could lead to something more or . . . just be the experience that it is and that's it. Some people have made new careers by writing about such experiences. And I'm sure there are those out there that do decide to make a new career about it. I think there are many more that look back fondly on the fun, but go back to their former lives. And there's nothing wrong with that.

                        What concerns me most about your plan is this idea that you are just going to go to NYC because it is the best and only the best is good enough. NYC is probably the most difficult place in the WORLD to make it with a small business, let alone a restaurant. The competition there is beyond fierce. And while I get that that is part of the appeal for you, the risks that go along with that are potentially devastating. That's what I said start in a kitchen closer to home. If it all "feels right" and you still want to do this after 6 mos. to a yr. of kitchen employment, then go for it.

                        1. re: centralpadiner

                          Before you spend a nickel on attending a culinary school or opening a restaurant I plead with you (as a former small restaurant owner) go buy ALL the Tony Bourdian books and read them. At age 41 no matter how in shape you are you won't last a year in any busy restaurant. 'Back of house' is only for the young. Soon most of them get emotionally /physically burned out and many turn to 'bad habits' just to make it to/through work. (That's one reason so many restaurants fail BTW).
                          At 41 if you haven't already had years experience in business you'll be broke within a year.
                          But then again you may be the literally one in a million who proves me wrong.

                          1. re: Puffin3

                            This post reminds me of the following riddle:
                            Q:How do you make a small fortune in the restaurant business?
                            A:Start with a big fortune.
                            With all the restaurant closings I see in NYC, it's not that funny...

                            1. re: boredough

                              Not just NYC, everywhere. I was in food sales and my motto was "I've seen them come and I've seen them go". So glad I never got around to trying any of my wild ideas, not that I'm talking anyone out of following their dream. Just don't be too pie in the sky, it IS still a business first.

                            2. re: Puffin3

                              More appropriately, read "Heat." That book outlines the writer's year apprenticing in kitchens at about the same age as the OP.

                            3. re: centralpadiner

                              Since graduating from college (finance and accounting), I have worked, in one way or another, with small businesses, mostly banking in credit and problem loan workout. I could write a book on the many way small businesses fail.

                              I agree on getting your "dream job" by working for someone else's restaurant first. If you end up owning your own restaurant, you are going to need to do every single job in the place sooner or later so you might as well round out your restaurant experience by doing the jobs you haven't tackled yet.

                              1. re: centralpadiner

                                If I read correctly, almaluna is not talking about opening a business in NYC, but just spending six months there in culinary school, to take advantage of learning in the NYC environment and then going back to Santa Fe.

                                Almaluna -- I know absolutely nothing about the food business, so don't really pay attention to me ;) -- but I'm wondering if Santa Fe allows for food trucks or pop-up restaurants and, if so, how successful some of their owners have been in using that as a starting point for a successful business.

                                I do think that what you're asking is not so much advice about whether or not opening a restaurant or other food business is a good idea so much as whether culinary school is a good first step toward taking the leap towards that dream - not entirely sure that's the question others are answering, but they are answering thoughtfully, at least.

                                And, since you're in Santa Fe -- I think it's Katharine Kagel I've heard talk about how angry Bourdain's books make her...

                                fwiw, only.

                                1. re: mselectra

                                  The Santa Fe resto market is very active with some excellent chefs, but as in any food crazy city, they come and go pretty fast. One of the hottest restaurants currently is Jambo Cafe located in one of the ubiquitous strip malls on Cerrillos Rd. The Chef is Kenyan and is a beautiful example of an immigrant moving to this still somewhat remote region and making a huge splash in the food world. Point being that almaluna's potential menu and tastes would likely be well received.

                                  Yes food trucks are popular here too, but I don't know what hoops you have to go through for approval. If it's anything like other bureaucratic procedures in New Mexico, it could be a nightmare, but I don't know.

                                  I too was wondering about the OP's age (isn't that terrible--she's only 41), but as someone posted above, it is such a grueling business that it may be difficult to keep up the pace required.

                                  As far as Bourdain and New Mexico goes, his recent faux pax on his CNN show regarding frito pie made the front page of the local newspapers. He did apologize but, IMHO, he was right. Regardless, he's not a New Mexico kind of guy :-)

                                  1. re: sandiasingh

                                    Thanks sandia -- I'm now distracting myself from the work I need to be doing with dreams of Santa Fe. I used to spend a lot of time there (in the long ago '90s!) and Pasqual's is one of my family's favorite restaurants of all time. Realizing this is taking the thread OT, but I was trying to remember where I'd heard Kagel on Bourdain -- looks like it was in this Spendid Table interview from some years ago:
                                    The interview starts at about 15:00 and the discussion of Bourdain at about 18:45. It's not exactly as I remembered, but an interesting discussion, I think (and even a bit related to OP's question, maybe).

                                    I missed the CNN frito pie faux pas, will have to look that up. Didn't the Woolworth's close though?

                                    HillJ seems to offer some really good advice below. I think the importance of networking -- or perhaps, rather, the importance of collegiality (as, actually, Kagel talks about) -- is often greatly underestimated.

                                  2. re: mselectra

                                    Thank you, you are correct, I am wondering if culinary school should be my first step, if it's better to start in debt but with a "professional" foundation, or just go for it. I AM CLEAR it is a HUGE gamble, I UNDERSTAND it is a business. I am sure that I will be able to put together a good kitchen team and I will not be spending every moment working a sauté pan, I want to know I can and exactly how to execute so I can be a chef, a leader with the skill and confidence to back it up. My food, my flavors.
                                    Katherine Kagel is a friend of my family's you are right I should talk to her.

                                    1. re: almaluna

                                      I had a similar question once years ago while attending a private art school: was I better off spending the (then - 1990's) $50K on a workshop and just doing stuff or getting the degree? results were mixed. makers returning to school felt they had plateaued in need of a pedigree and DIY-ers felt they were free to go in any direction with little upfront debt.

                                      I kinda wish I'd gone the DIY path. I'd be no worse off than I am now and NOT in loans approaching 6 digits (interest)

                                      1. re: hill food

                                        Me too, I went the management route in college because it was a bachelors degree, while the culinary school was just a certificate of some type. I like to get what I pay for! If you lean towards the kitchen, it's easy to learn on the job and get paid for it instead of the other way around.

                                        1. re: coll

                                          coll: yeah sometimes in the wee hours of gnashed teeth, I romanticized the idea of chucking it all and apprenticing my self to a violin maker (or barring that, then shoe lasts) in the Alps and applying those fine skills to sculpture and furniture.

                                          1. re: hill food

                                            I know what you mean. Too bad we can't live for 500 years or so and do it all!

                                            1. re: coll

                                              If I gave in to thoughts like that I'd feel every bit of my age. I'm still the youngest spirited elder in any room. 2014 I'm working on sky diving and improved Russian skills.

                                              ..join me people!! :)

                                                1. re: HillJ

                                                  oh I'm still scrivening away, just at different or tangential things.

                                                  1. re: hill food

                                                    Don't matter what you do, just do :)
                                                    You rest you rust is a tat I wear proudly.

                                    2. re: centralpadiner

                                      I love centralpadiner's question - do you want to be a restaurateuer or do you want to be a chef? It gets to the heart of the matter. If your primary desire is to own a restaurant I think you should still invest in some culinary management education. Even though you are experienced in front-of-house in the hospitality industry, it sounds like you have no experience in payroll, food costing, stock management - the nuts and bolts stuff.