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Before They Were Chefs: D.C.'s Own Talk About Their Pre-Kitchen Careers

"See if you can stand for more than twelve hours straight." That's one piece of advice Palena's pastry chef Aggie Chin gives to those considering a career in the kitchen.

With the increasing popularity of food and restaurants, not to mention the increase in reality television shows centered around chefs, many daydream about exchanging a suit and tie for chefs whites. But like with any career, it takes more than just passion to be successful. Several Washington chefs, though, had very different careers before they made their way into a kitchen.

Before he started his career in the kitchen, Chef Michael Friedman of The Red Hen majored in marketing and public relations at Boston University before working as an account executive selling radio advertising. But eight months into the job he realized it wasn't the right job for him. "I didn't like the confines of a cubicle, nor a suit and tie. I wasn't necessarily bad at selling, but I just didn't have the passion that a lot of other people at the company seemed to have."

After running out of funds, Friedman moved back in with his parents, and he would soothe his insomnia by reading his mother's cookbooks. "I enjoyed reading them — those books and recipes somehow took me away and calmed my nerves. I made a major decision at 22 years old to try something I've never done before: professional cooking." He started as a prep cook at Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda, and graduated to sous chef in just nine months. After three years there, Friedman decided to go to culinary school.

Friedman advises those seeking a change to "make sure this industry is for you. Long hours, tough relationships and lots of burns, aches and pains are only part of the process. Restaurants are not like the Food Network. Restaurants are about consistency, hard work and fire. They are not about ego."

Maple Ave. chef and owner Tim Ma had a similar experience when he reached the pinnacle of his career as a hardware engineer with Raytheon. "I always wanted to open a restaurant and when I saw my future, I was bored by the thought of it. I clearly remember the first time I talked about opening a restaurant almost 10 years ago with my sister and brother-in-law, and we said I could probably survive on the business from friends and family alone. How naive that was. Joey Hernandez [Ma's wife and general manager] really pushed me off the cliff to chase the dream by taking me on trips to New York to take some culinary school classes. Soon after, we took the full plunge and I enrolled into culinary school full-time."

Chin had planned on going to law school after studying Foreign Affairs, East Asian Studies, and History at the University of Virginia. But as a legal assistant, many lawyers at her firm told her to "only go to law school if I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a lawyer." She realized that it was "a placeholder" until she figured out what she wanted to do, so she looked to her main interests: food and cooking.

Initially looking at culinary schools to augment a career in food writing and photography, Chin discovered that most required some kitchen experience. "I scoured Craigslist for entry-level positions in restaurant kitchens. I interviewed with a chef who spent most of the interview trying to convince me that I did not want to work in a restaurant, and then asked if I was still interested. He asked me to come in and stage that following Saturday. I was hooked after the first night of service, and thoughts of doing anything else quickly vanished."

Though some chefs disparage going to culinary school, instead emphasizing on-the-job experience, Chin, Friedman and Ma all feel that it does offer value depending on the individual and the situation.

Coming from the perspective of someone who entered the industry late in his career, Ma valued the connections that he made at culinary school. And he recommends it for those who are limited on time, "You get to see many facets of cooking, but you never fully understand them until you get into it. For the guys who are coming out of high school and wanting this for a career, no culinary school needed, you have the time, energy and drive to go through it old school. There is no right [or] wrong way to do it, though… you are only as good as you make it, not what it makes you."

And even for Friedman who started in the kitchen, "I learned so much in my first three years of cooking, but when I got to CIA, I realized I didn't really know how to cook. I knew the movements, colors and feeling, but that base knowledge of French technique and variations are invaluable to any cook who wants to reach some kind of success in their career. There is so much history, reason and science behind the craft of cooking - if you don't understand these things, you're at a slight loss in my opinion."

The basic principles of cooking are equally important when working in pastry, "Culinary school can help lay the foundation if you are better at learning through lectures and books," Chin says. "Going to school was helpful in learning the whys— for example, why you want to use cold butter when you make pie dough— but I have developed techniques and preferences in how I make that pie dough from my time in the kitchen." But she acknowledges some work better through experience, and it may be better to work as an apprentice.

As for the chefs' former "daywalker jobs" (industry slang for those working a traditional shift), the skills they learned still add value to the work they do today. As owner of Maple Ave. and the new Water & Wall, Ma found that "coming from the corporate world and having a 9 to 5 has generally given me an insight in how systems can help organize a business. Be it a system for accounting, or systems for employee evaluations. That has really helped me along the way, I didn't realize it until much later, but I know I would have not made it without those skills."

For Friedman, the value comes in how he promotes his business and his work. "Because of my degree, I understand the marketing perspective of the restaurant industry, and why some things work or don't work. I can communicate very well with guests, purveyors and my team because of my initial educational training. I'm also more comfortable at events or demonstrations. With my history background, I have come to appreciate the rich history that comes with different cuisines. It helps me understand why we do things a certain way and how we can change them for a more modern approach."

And written communications and her past in law still have an important place in the kitchen for Chin. "From composing emails to writing down explanations for handbooks, I'm rarely at a loss for words. I still also think of my time in increments of billable hours. I subconsciously keep track of how much time I spend on each project, and I think that drives me to be faster and better every time."

For those considering a similar path to these chefs, "my advice would be to really understand that you can't make a small investment into this industry and expect big things," said Ma. "You have to put your whole heart into it and prepare to let it be taken by the industry. I remember saying to myself that I wanted to feel like I've really worked, and no other industry will make you feel like that than this one."

"And don't be afraid of the people who tell you that you will fail. I literally have had a person walk up to me in front of Maple Ave when we first opened, told me 'I wish you luck, but you won't make it past 6 months' and walked away. Still happens once in awhile."

Chin says, "I always encourage people interested in working in this industry to try it out. There are so many restaurants willing to have stages or apprentices. The reality is so different from all the TV shows out there, that it's best to see the real thing first hand."
—Jamie Liu
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[Photos: Friedman, Chin, Ma]

Water & Wall

3811 Fairfax Dr, Arlington, VA 22203

Palena

3529 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington DC, DC 20008

The Red Hen

1822 1st Street Northwest, , DC 20001 (202) 525-3021 Visit Website

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