During the past few years there have been many conversations in the media about whether or not its worth the investment to go to culinary school in order to build a successful career in today’s food world. Back in February I attended a cookbook writers conference in New York City and had the great pleasure of meeting a very popular food blogger and cooking instructor who seemed to be contemplating going to culinary school, even though she has already attained the kind of success and recognition through her blog and local classes that many of us were still striving for. When she found out that I was a culinary school graduate she asked me point blank whether or not I felt it was worth it. I paused for a few seconds and preceded to explain to her that when I graduated 13 years ago the era of the celebrity chef was just dawning. Rocco DiSprito was the first person ever to grace the cover of Gourmet Magazine that year, there was no Top Chef, no Next Food Network Star, and certainly no food blogs. The only way to break into the industry back then was to either go work in a kitchen and learn the field from the inside out starting at the bottom and working your way to the top or go to culinary school. I chose the latter, mainly because I had no desire to be a restaurant chef but instead wanted to gain a certain skill set and knowledge base that I felt would make me a good food writer. I told her that if I was just starting out in the biz today I wouldn’t go to school, instead I would work in restaurants, on farms, with local food artisans. I would spend time with people who are just as passionate about food as I am, who work hard and understand that its not about fame or money but doing what you love and of course I would write, in old school journals as well as blogs. She seemed pretty pleased with my response, so did I and if I’m not mistaken I saw something on facebook about her working in a local restaurant for some “on the line” experience.
Fast forward some months later and I began paying close attention to the facebook and twitter updates from Hadassah Patterson. I met Hadassah virtually through a mutual friend, cookbook author Nancie McDermott. Hadassah lives in North Carolina, volunteers at a local community co-op, works part-time for NCSU Unversity Dining services as a cook and writes a column for Examiner.com. Hadassah had recently enrolled in culinary school and I was intrigued as to why someone who was already so connected to her food community and building a solid following as a local food writer felt the need to go. Soon after I caught Melissa Harris-Perry’s coverage on her MSNBC show about the increase of African-Americans enrolling in Culinary School and I started to re-think my response to that question from back in February. I’ve always believed as an African-American female that I have to work ten times harder and have triple the credentials of my caucasian counterparts in order to be taken seriously in my field so was there a similar line of thinking at play with this new generation of culinary school students, was culinary school becoming the new alternative to the rising costs of college tuition or was it the pop culture influence? I contacted Hadassah and asked her if she would be willing to write an essay about her reasons for enrolling in culinary school, what she hopes to achieve and what the experience has been like for her thus far. Keep reading to learn more about Hadassah’s choice in her own words and get her recipe for Summer fruit salsa. ~ Heather Watkins Jones.
I have to say that culinary school has been an absolutely wonderful experience for me as it has progressed. I have been cooking since the age of 5. My parents got us kids involved in community/religious/non-profit cooking very early (around age 8). Our family was one of those that could be relied on to show up and roll up their sleeves when no one else would. Aside from the obvious life-lessons inherent in those parental decisions, it exposed me to cooking on convention, community, and individual levels. These varied experiences earned us some life-long friends, a lot of great times, and a healthy work-ethic. I got the chance to work side-by-side with industry professionals who loved what they did so much that they would do it for free, and that is precious. Basic things like sanitation, dishwashing, food-preparation on varied levels, and customer service were part and parcel of my experience.
Really, the passion I saw rubbed off on me in a huge way. It was a winding road though. After graduating high-school, I started off in food service at a breakfast restaurant in Durham, NC. I worked numerous temporary positions until a family friend told me about a position in banking that would get me out of the “temp cycle”. I did not intend for it to be permanent, and even though I kept up my volunteering efforts in food service, banking was my profession for almost 15 years. Certainly it has given me a solid professional background. I was in banking operations and customer service primarily. Operations have the same basic principles no matter what business one is involved in, and the skills I learned in banking are things I will always take with me. Professionally and voluntarily, I have always been in some form of customer service, and to succeed in the food industry, it truly helps to have a “people-centric” personality. High standards of customer service are the benchmark for success.
Overall I have faced numerous obstacles going to school in general. I like to joke that I am probably one-stop shopping for diversity. Being African-American, female, and Deaf poses some unique challenges. The first and foremost however, was conquering my own fears. When the economy became difficult, I really began some soul-searching about what would make me happiest. The experts say to revisit our childhood and think about what we loved as kids. My passion was cooking without a doubt. But the challenge was in giving up a “secure” type of profession where I really was not happy, and reaching through the unknown to start over. It was definitely not easy. I completed some adult education programs before graduating high-school that prepared me well. But I had never actually been to a college. I was able to start working right out of school, and most scholarships are geared to high-school kids. Those programs are great, but not helpful to working adults trying to go back to school. So without a lot of understanding or parachute to fall back on, I really had to take a leap of faith.
I originally had my eye on Le Cordon Bleu’s Grand Diplome Professionel, which at the time was only offered in Canada. Unfortunately, Canadian law is not as accommodating as the U.S. for Deaf and other individuals, so I would have had to pay out-of-pocket for interpreter services. I don’t know how that would have run there, but here, interpreting may run from $40.00-$70.00 per hour! Naturally, the cost was prohibitive, and I was less than thrilled at the answers given. Undeterred, I decided to stay closer to home and see what would be better for me here. After a good bit of research, I decided on Wake Tech Community College. I am very glad I did! Community Colleges are equipped with subsidies to fund assistive technologies and services to remove the barriers to education for those needing it. I found that private schools often did not exercise due diligence in accommodating those with special needs of any kind. Also, the program they offered was competitive with others, affordable, and well certified.
The next issue was funding. I have talked to so many fellow African-Americans that would love to go to school, but feel they cannot because of the money. I think this is not necessarily so. In this day and age, it is more a matter of desire and will to see one’s dreams become reality. If a person really loves something, the means will come about. It takes faith and determination despite all the many and repeated obstacles one may face. There is funding out there, it just takes a lot of hard work, networking, skill-building, and research to find it. It may also take time and patience.
I began volunteering with a local co-op startup at the Durham Farmer’s Market. This was really the key for me. Once again, volunteering started me back down the path I was to go. I met hundreds of people I would not have otherwise. I have seen the food chain from the ground up and it has been lovely. Chefs, farmers and purveyors, marketing professionals, and social networkers are crucial to the modern food industry. As a result of this, I was also exposed to the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation before I even started attending school. I did not know it at the time, but this is the same organization which certifies, tracks, and credits a chef’s progress from culinary school onward until you become a Master Chef. I cannot enumerate the number of times I have met just the right person at the right time to keep me going forward. I simply discovered the ACF website and asked to be added to the mailing list. Then I began attending meetings and one of the faculty from Wake Tech was there, along with other professionals and local food community supporters. It was a real encouragement as I began seeing how possible things could be.
It is true that majority of Chefs are Caucasian, and many male. However, I was made to feel welcome, there was a real sense of belonging, and feeling comfortable in one’s own skin is important to any endeavor. I didn’t always understand every discussion, but it was great to know that I was in the right place. The guys involved in the local chapter were very cool about checking up on my progress in the culinary program and giving helpful advice. Every obstacle I overcome convinces me that all my sacrifices have been worthwhile. Becoming a successful chef, food writer, or other food professional does not happen overnight. It takes work and persistence and I think it is absolutely worth it!
Hadassah will graduate from the culinary program at Wake Tech Community College in 2014. She plans to spend some time working in restaurants while continuing with her food writing. I can not wait to see what great things are sure to come her way. And now readers I turn the question to you. Do you think going to culinary school is worth it? Why or Why not?
Dee’s Summer Fruit Salsa
(Makes approximately 4 to 5 cups)
Hint: Best made with produce from local farmer’s market. For peak flavor, ripen fruit in brown paper bags for at least 2 days, they’ll be juicier, sweeter, and much easier to peel. If time is short and chopped peaches are not quite as ripe, flash cook them for 2-3 mins on medium heat in a non-reactive sauce pan with a TB of fig balsamic to soften and bring out the natural sugars.
4 large peaches (20-24 ounces) – peeled and chopped in 1 inch cubes
3 medium tomatoes (8-10 ounces) – halved, squeezed lightly, and chopped in 1 inch cubes, skin can stay on or not
2 large mangos (6-8 ounces each), quarter from top with a sharp knife, slip the knife around close to the seed, and pull back skin, chop in 1 inch cubes
15-20 sweet cherries (4 ounces), pitted and quartered
1 large white or yellow onion (5 ounces) – chopped into 1 inch pieces
3 medium-sized jalapenos – 2 with veins and seeds, 1 without (optional – add to taste)
4 cloves garlic chopped very fine or 2 TB powdered garlic
1/2 bunch chopped cilantro (Leaves from at least 8-10 stems)
Leaves from 3-4 stems of mint, chopped fine
1 TB pure ancho chile powder
Combine all of the ingredients and flash cook the salsa for 5 minutes on medium heat in a non-reactive pan to kill bacteria and bring out the juices. Drain about 1/4 cup of juice and stir in 2 TB of tomato paste to thicken and the juice of one or two limes. This really pops after letting the flavors “marry”overnight, but that is optional.
For final presentation, you can do as you like. Adding some coarsely chopped cilantro and mint on top will give a great flavor boost! Pull out a bowl of chips and enjoy!