Friday, March 13, 2009

Changing Careers to Culinary


Written by Chad Fraley, Brandon Johnson and Andrea Scalici
FCI has proved over the last nine months to have not only a diverse curriculum (despite the “French” designation) but also a diverse group of individuals with which I have made this journey. One thinks upon enrolling in culinary school that he or she will be surrounded by prospective cooks and sous chefs to fill all of the restaurants in New York City. But the truth is, at least in my class, that those with aims toward the line are in the minority.
We knew from the first night of class with a room filled with paralegals, PR and marketing professionals, even a make-up artist that we were an assorted group. They called us “career changers” as we were venturing into a new culinary profession while working during the day. With interests in restaurant ownership, culinary websites, food writing, executive chefing, food media, and catering, we began our first day. Now with graduation in our sights, a mere week away, the inevitable question now facing all of us is “what’s next”…

For Brandon this question begins with a return to the beginning. To the first time it was asked of her after high school. From “Are we there yet?” to buying sketchpads and T-squares for Parsons’ summer program, her trips to New York always brought her back to D.C. After that first NYC affair, she would return with her fashion degree to her Logan Circle apartment, and to scheduling her next date at a restaurant she’d never been to. The life of a graduating 24-year-old lead to a budding career in marketing and lots of dinner parties with stuffed peppers, poker, and experimental spirits. Living in D.C., a short walk away from P Street’s Whole Foods, Logan Square Park and U Street, Brandon never forgot New York. New York was the place where the artist in her emerged, where the French-tipped acrylic nails and mascara came off, where she found De La Guarda, the Green Market, and glass noodles. So with five years of marketing under her belt, she took a step closer to New York by feeding her creative gene. She went to work as a creative associate for nothing more than the satisfaction of exercising her imagination on short films, videos, television hosting, and catering. It was the for fundraiser aspect of this job that Brandon would cater and host for upwards of 40 of her close friends and colleagues, where she saw generational artist of and before their time. As photographers, architects, film directors, painters and dancers savored spinach pie with swiss cheese, stuffed pasta shells, and sage and rosemary roasted chicken in eclectic settings, that she realized her calling… Fast forward 3 months and a trip to Japan later, Brandon had her foot in the door at The French Culinary Institute in SoHo with plans to turn her once brief affair with the Big Apple into a long term relationship…

In Chad’s case the primary question wasn’t “what’s next” but “what now?”. After being laid off from two jobs in Texas, he had the perfect opportunity for change. The biggest of these changes might have been moving to New York from Houston, it might have been his first real winter and the zero-degree weather, but it was also definitely the brand new culinary world that was laid out before him upon his descent into Newark Airport last June. The city was a spectacle of surprise for Chad (and still is at times). He had to learn his way around the subway stations and keep up with schedules and routes of Metro North and New Jersey Transit. He found creature comforts where he could, like the familiar commute through Hoboken to his temporary accommodations in the Garden State and experienced new emotions like walking down Broadway after class on September 11 and seeing those magnificent blue beams of light shining straight up in place of the towers. After moving to a new home, he appreciated October in Connecticut, with the most beautiful assortment of colors he had ever seen. He describes the trees in transition as like looking through one of those kaleidoscopes with shades of colors that Crayola can’t make, worth the rolls of film he went through trying to capture it. When we got hit with our first snow of the year back in December, he thought “Oh, that wasn’t too bad”. Little did he know that he wouldn’t see his yard again until the last week of February...

And myself? My culinary bug came at a very young age. Growing up in an Italian family you can’t help but spend most of your time in the kitchen, trying to fight your way to the stove to sample Nonna’s secret sauce. Cooking became part of my identity but I never thought until much later to make it my career. I thought my path would be very different, which is what led me to my Public Relations degree from Penn State. Though I value my education and my time at college very much (Go Nittany Lions!), nothing ever sparked for me in the classroom or at my internships. My spark came when I was in the kitchen on any given evening preparing an impromptu meal of Chicken Romano with sautéed spinach and roasted tomatoes for 14 people or sharing my recipe for Mascarpone Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust with my friends. My inspiration, however, came from a totally different place. Upon graduation, ready to move to the Big City, I called upon my hometown connections from Cooperstown, New York, "Home of Baseball", to help me pay the bills. At first, working at MLB.com was exciting, the fast pace and big names a distraction from the fact that I wasn’t doing anything that I actually cared about. I was envious of the passion I saw around me from my co-workers for this sport and bringing it to a worldwide audience of more than 8 million people per day. They had the spark for baseball like I had the spark for cooking. A light bulb went on with the realization that I too could make this happen. The stars aligned and within two weeks I took the plunge into my new education at culinary school three nights a week so I could keep the bills paid during the day…

Ok, ok so really, we’re a mere week away from graduation. Reflecting on those months of beheading lobsters, making fresh stocks, working on this student blog, tasting cow jewels, sampling wines and cheeses, and learning the technique of cutlery, it’s time to get our Mise en Place in order to answer the question… what’s next!? After all, if we pass the final March 21st, we’ll finally be crowned with our official chef’s toque.

As a hopeless romantic with a commitment to New York, Brandon is led by love to catering and event planning. The entrepreneurial bug is also biting and encouraging her to start a food arts company, which includes catering, creative events, products, and food media. With an anxious excitement, creating a company with all the culinary bells and whistles is her next move. As she sears rosemary lamb skewers, makes seaweed salad, and creates hors d'oeuvres menus for the next event, she will progress in her new career. But not before taking a trip four hours south on I-95 to the nation’s capital, and abroad for some much needed R&R.

Chad has met a lot of interesting people and made some great friends in New York and at FCI. He wouldn’t change a thing. But he must move on as just any other traveler in time. For now, he is being called back to Texas. He has applied at a few 5-star establishments in the Austin area. With a great music scene and home to the University of Texas, it has a thriving culinary scene with a southwestern twang. His wife, Kati, along for the journey in New York, has applied for new jobs in her field of cardiac rehab at the hospitals down there as well. It will be closer to family (but not too close), and warm all year round. He hopes to keep blogging, bringing news from the South to us here at Eat Life. And while Chad signed up for the “career-changing” program, it proved to be a life-changer.

The timing being what it is now with the economy in an upheaval and the start of baseball season around the corner, my graduation from FCI probably won’t lead me imminently into my new career. But the space in my schedule that the night classes leave behind will soon be filled with – yet another – internship to usher me into the food world. With a “go big or go home” attitude, I will hopefully join the team of a New York institution like Daniel or Jean-Georges to earn my chops. After time served, I am open to anything that may happen… A full-time kitchen gig? My own business? A stint in food media? True for me, and my classmates on March 23rd, the world is my oyster.

1 comment:

duodishes.com said...

Wow, this is a very inspirational story. Truly. You don't even know! :) Much success.