A tasteful new career in the kitchen

Many job-changers now choose to study culinary arts

Nicole Kaplan worked long, hard hours washing dishes - and she loved it.

No, she's not a masochist. Ms. Kaplan, a professional flutist at the time, was tired of the isolation of rehearsal rooms. She wanted to take cooking classes in order to become a professional chef, but she couldn't afford them. So she started volunteering at Peter Kump's Cooking School, now the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, in exchange for tuition.

Since graduating from the program in 1997, she has become a nationally recognized pastry chef at Eleven Madison Park, one of New York's premier restaurants.

While Kaplan has achieved recognition that most chefs will only dream of (she has been named one of the 10 best pastry chefs in America), she's not alone in her desire to don an apron and take up a spatula for pay.

Increasingly, applicants to cooking schools are not just the fresh-out-of-college, I-don't-know-what-to-do-with-my-life set, but professionals in another field - what one expert describes as "recovering" architects, doctors, and attorneys.

A number of reasons are cited for the rise in cooking school attendance. First, cooking is considered "very cool" these days, says Riki Senn, director of the Greenbrier Culinary Arts Center in West Virginia.

Television shows such as the Food Network have given prominence to chefs and made them seem more intriguing, says Rick Smilow of the Institute of Culinary Education.

The current economic and political climate have played a role, too. High unemployment rates and the situation in Iraq have elicited a communal nesting instinct, says Ms. Senn.

These factors have translated into increasing numbers of students at cooking schools across the country. At the Institute of Culinary Education, enrollment has increased by nearly 90 percent from 1999 to 2002. The French Culinary Institute in New York City has seen an enrollment increase of more than 200 percent in the past three to four years. And the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco has almost twice the number of students it had two years ago.

Not surprisingly, many of these students are former workers in the technology industry.

Becoming a restaurant chef isn't the only option for graduates. There are also opportunities for cooking in nursing homes and grocery stores. Event planners, food writers, and recipe developers are also needed.

For those with an entrepreneurial streak, starting a restaurant or a catering or personal-chef business is another viable option, says Mr. Smilow.

But not everyone willingly chooses to switch professions. Carol Rickert was laid off last year after more than a decade in sales.

Taking advantage of New York's Self-Employment Assistance Program, which provided her with more than six months of unemployment insurance benefits and business counseling, she started a new career as a personal chef on Long Island.

Now she caters to clients with special dietary needs. Although she makes about half of her former salary, "I'm much happier," she says.

Then there are those who didn't need much of an impetus to switch careers but simply disliked their jobs or lifestyles.

Kaplan, the former flutist, resented the instability of a musician's life. "It didn't suit me," she declares.

So she had no regrets trading musical notes for pie crusts.

Jim Davis's transition to a cooking career was less dramatic. He had spent more than 30 years working in hospital administration and the mortgage business before he started volunteering at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Md. He eased gradually into his new career, which was a natural choice for him, since he had always loved to cook.

"You'll have to see me to know I don't miss many meals," he says, laughing.

Davis's road to a cooking career began inauspiciously, however. He recalls frying doughnuts with his mom when he was 8 or 9. She told him to pour the leftover grease into a bowl. So he did. But rather than pour it into a glass bowl, Davis poured the hot grease into a plastic one. Needless to say, the bowl melted, and grease dripped everywhere.

Flash forward two generations. When Davis's son, Bryan, a chef in Washington, D.C., started a personal-chef and catering business, the senior Davis wanted to help. Now the Davis team serves about 20 clients, ranging from government officials and professional athletes to writers.

His favorite part of the job? "Tasting," he says.

The life of a chef is anything but easy or glamorous, however. Most students in cooking schools think they're going to be Bobby Flay when they graduate, Kaplan says. But they're not, she adds.

Kaplan and others emphasize how physically taxing it is to be a chef. Besides, the hours are long and the pay often isn't great.

"Baking is not brain surgery," she says. "However, you need to the right kind of person to be a baker. You're not just baking a dozen cookies. You're making 500."

Kaplan urges would-be chefs to volunteer in a restaurant before applying to cooking school so they know what they're getting themselves into.

Chefs also stress the importance of pleasing the customer. "You can feel passionate about what you're making, but if people don't buy it, it doesn't matter what you think," Kaplan says.

Later, she adds, "There's crazy stuff these days," mentioning such exotic fare as beet brownies and sundaes. "I don't want to eat that. Do you?"

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