In the beginning of their careers, many culinary school graduates focus on opportunities in restaurants, bakeries, hotels or catering kitchens. At first, that narrow focus makes sense, because being a great chef requires spending time in professional kitchens. But the modern food industry has become a diverse, multi-faceted field. When one pursues a career in the culinary arts—and makes an effort to broaden their experiences beyond the kitchen—they may find that their career will include many satisfying twists and turns outside restaurant walls.
My life as a chef was influenced not only by my culinary training, but also by my time as an undergraduate student. In particular, I recall one of my academic advisors telling me that the best way to be considered an authority in my field was to be published. He said, “No matter what your profession may be, if you have published articles in an industry magazine, research papers in a journal or a book, your peers will better regard you.” And so it began. My first goal outside of the kitchen was to write a cookbook. What I didn’t realize at the time was that by allowing myself to pursue opportunities outside the kitchen, I would develop my interest in cooking on a much deeper level.
Of course, publishing a cookbook didn’t happen overnight. But the future goal of writing a cookbook immediately transformed my perspective on working in the restaurant industry. I knew that I didn’t want to work in professional kitchens until I was old, gray and possibly needing a hip replacement. In fact, I found that the best way to preserve my love of pastry was to transition to a more independent, flexible career at the pinnacle of my restaurant experience—instead of when I was too tired to give 110% every day.
To prepare for this “exit strategy,” I began to say yes to every food-related project that came my way—whether it was a paid gig or a volunteer opportunity. My plan was to network with other successful chefs to find connections to the world of cookbook publishing. But these connections took me beyond that field. Some of the most exciting opportunities I found were in the New York City public school system, teaching cafeteria workers to cook meals from scratch for Wellness in the Schools, an organization dedicated to the healthy diets of children.
This volunteer work gave me a fresh perspective and a chance to step back and reconsider my day-to-day responsibilities. At the time, I was overseeing the pastry departments for several restaurant kitchens. In doing so, I wasn’t spending much time actually baking anymore, directing most of my attention to administrative work, developing new menu items and spending a tremendous amount of time teaching other pastry cooks how to execute my recipes and vision.
Since I was already teaching for a living, I figured that I might as well do it at a culinary school. I contacted ICE to inquire about instructor opportunities and began teaching recreational classes. I immediately realized how fun and rewarding it was to share my hard won knowledge with home cooks. So a few years later, I eagerly added on the responsibility of teaching aspiring chefs as a faculty member in ICE’s professional Pastry & Baking Arts program. In class, I try to inspire my students to consider their own talents as a teacher, calling on them to lead a demonstration for a specific technique. At first, they approach this responsibility warily, but I always explain, “When one knows how to do something well, that’s a gift or talent; but when one can teach someone else how to do the same task, that’s expertise.”
So it continued: the more opportunities I found outside restaurant kitchens, the more I was interested in exploring them even further. In addition to writing a cookbook and teaching at ICE, I wanted to learn more about the retail market. Rolling up my sleeves, I did my research, found some investors, and through trial and error, created and launched a line of baking mixes for the general public (which was no easy feat!) called Cisse Trading Co. Based on the success of that project, I received a call from Crate and Barrel, who wanted me to create an exclusive line of baking mixes—based on my first cookbook, Desserts for Every Season—for their stores. (During that process, I met numerous young entrepreneurs who were developing food products; many of whom had little to no professional culinary experience. What they did have was a good idea and a lot of gumption. For entrepreneurial ICE graduates interested in opportunities outside restaurant kitchens, food product development could definitely be a viable career path.)
After experiences running restaurant kitchens, publishing a cookbook, teaching and developing product, what was left? Becoming the co-chair for CAPS, the Center for Advanced Pastry Studies at ICE. This role required me to network with masters of various pastry techniques and invite them to teach professional development classes for established pastry chefs. The experience has been immensely satisfying, providing both a chance to meet incredible chefs and to continue my own education in the art and science of pastry. As any seasoned chef will tell you, this kind of continuing education is absolutely necessary to maintaining a vibrant career. Trends and techniques are always evolving, so it’s important to stay on top of industry innovations and to learn from chefs that are shaping the future of their field.
Of course, surrounding myself with the industry’s leading pastry chefs further inspired my desire to pursue even more personal projects. The last frontier—at least for now—was television. When the Food Network expressed interest in my becoming a judge for their new series, Rewrapped, I realized what an advantage my diverse professional experiences had become. Previous to judging, I had only appeared on a few television segments or filmed demonstrations for online classes. But Rewrapped required me to tap into all the different “hats” I had worn in my career to date. Moreover, the experience of judging others certainly helped me refine my own perspective and opinions about what I’m looking for in the creation of a dessert.
Ultimately, my point is that there are a million and one ways food professionals can apply their skills and passion. If at some point you become inspired by some other sector of the industry, it’s perfectly fine to switch gears—it will only make you a better and more well-rounded chef. (Or, if you’re like me and want to simultaneously dip a spoon in every pot, that’s okay too.) Cooking and baking are like learning a new language—if you completely immerse yourself in the food industry and commit to living the experience in full, you will always find satisfying work and sustainable success. Here are four ways to get started:
- Attend industry networking events to meet peers and potential employers.
- Enroll in professional development courses to boost strategic skills—from culinary techniques to writing or social media
- Volunteer with organizations in a different part of the industry to show your enthusiasm and initiative
- Read industry magazines, newspaper articles, books and blogs to stay on top of current trends and best practices
If you are a current ICE student, a recent graduate or even a chef with years of experience, don’t be afraid to pursue opportunities in food media, product development, and more. Your network will expand, your opportunities will multiply and your love of food will continue to grow and grow.