Wednesday, January 05, 2011

How Long For That Risotto, Grandad?

I’ve had a great response to my blog question: “How old is too old to be a chef?” It appears to be a matter close to the heart of many foodies in the Twittersphere, especially those who went into - or are thinking of entering - the trade as late as me.

The advice was fantastic and on the whole deeply encouraging, whether from hard-bitten professionals or enthusiastic amateurs, and I thought I’d summarise it as best I can and share it with you, because there are some of you clearly going through the same ‘shall I do what I love however freaking crazy it maybe’ hell as me. And if it has helped me, hopefully it will help you.

In a nutshell, the consensus seems to be you are never too old – within reason. Obviously you might want to think again if you hope to bang out dishes in your 90s while leaning on a rusty Zimmer Frame, but it really depends on what your aspirations are. Or as food and drink journalist Douglas Blyde (@DouglasBlyde) succinctly puts it: “It depends on the venue, its scale and ambitions.”

If you desire fame and TV exposure then you’ve probably left it too late, likewise a hat-trick of Michelin stars (or as they’re known these days, stock cube adverts), but if your dream is to run your own kitchen then there has probably never been a better time to do it – what with the huge plunge in pub and restaurant prices. And really, if you are going to slave away in a cramped furnace in a trade as hard as cheffing, then you might as well work for yourself. And there are far less bollockings and threats on your life that way too.

There was some great advice from the cooks on the Staff Canteen forum via a 42-year-old foodie who’d run a pizza stall but now wanted to properly train as a chef. Was he too old and what was the best way to do it?

One chef questioned whether he would “HONESTLY be able to take a bollocking from a 25-year-old, or possibly someone younger?” It’s true. It was one of the hardest things I found about cooking during my first attempt to make it as a professional chef. The ability to bite your tongue when a teenager with a bum-fluff moustache and bad breath is screaming at you because you’ve forgotten the parsnip chips or something is a hard one to master.

For that reason alone, it is better to seek out a mature chef as a mentor. They’ll be less likely to be Pierre White or Ramsay clones, and it’s definitely easier being ripped to shreds by someone closer to your age. It also stops you studying their acne while dwelling on how late you left it before taking up the knives.

Private chef Grant Hawthorne (@granthawthorne) told how he had worked with a 42-year-old woman who’d packed in her high-paying job to retrain as chef. Her family and husband were against it, but eventually after years of hard work and a much-needed divorce, she continues to live her dream and runs her own business.

Hawthorne said he had recently met a lot of “senior students” who were retraining to work in “this wholly satisfying profession”. Like most of the chefs I have met, he recommends – if you can afford it – getting a long-term (probably unpaid) stagier position under a master in a decent kitchen rather than going to college.

Indeed, most experienced chefs agree that you’ll learn far more in a few weeks in a professional kitchen than you would doing years of qualifications in catering colleges. I remember one chef I worked with at Rick Stein’s who said he learned more in one month at the Seafood Restaurant than he had in six months at the expensive Leith’s Cookery School in London – something that in hindsight would have saved his parents thousands.

And when it comes to the CV, professional certificates and NVQs will be far less important than enthusiasm and passion for the job, head chefs say. After all, if you’re going into it in your 30s, 40s, or 50s then you’ve probably already demonstrated that in spadefuls.

So how old is too old? The discussion was sparked after Anthony Bourdain said that anyone thinking of becoming a chef over the age of 32 is already too ancient. He is, no doubt, once again carping on about the drug-fuelled, high octane, balls-on-the-table, waitress-banging, cooking-is-the-new-rock-and-roll cheffing myth he has done so well out of propagating. But whether you are cooking at gunpoint for gangsters or even running a fudge shop in a sleeping village in Devon, it certainly doesn’t seem to hold true for many of you.

In fact, try telling that to Shar, a former desk jockey from New Zealand, who is now training as a commis chef at one of the country's top restaurants. He's 50 in two weeks' time.

Jason Rowe (@lovesgreatfood), who runs Dine On The Row restaurant in Beverley, Yorkshire, got into the trade when he was 38, and believes you are never too old if cooking is your passion.

Blogger the Pub Landlady (@NorthernSnippet) runs a rural pub in northern England with her partner. They are in their 40s and still do 18-hour days, but they have their own business, and “wouldn’t do it for anyone else at this age”. And she adds: “There has never been a better time for an enthusiastic chef/owner to snap up and exploit one of many bargainous pubs on the market.”

(She’ right. Running a leasehold pub, especially with a tied lease, is a mug’s game, but there’s still a lot of cash to be salted away in a freehouse serving good food. And the price of freeholds has plummeted. There is a great pub in a rather dowdy town in Buckinghamshire that I’ve been following that went on sale two years ago for £495,000 plus VAT. The brewery still can’t shift it for £280,000.)

But I digress...

Swansea-based chef Jonathan Crooks (@stovemonster) was equally encouraging about the profession. “Go for it Len, it’s the best job in the world in whatever sphere of food production you choose. You have to find out if you have it,” he tweeted.

And Dhruv Baker, who decided to become a chef at the age of 34 after winning Masterchef 2010, improved my mood by saying he was still setting up plans for his restaurant. And when I asked him if he was cheffing, he replied: “No not at the moment but hoping to be in a couple of weeks.”

Maybe I wasn’t that lazy after all?

But my favorite piece of advice came from Dave Ahern (@CorkGourmetGuy), who is retraining as a chef at the age of 35: “Chin up and remember the saying, you need an old dog for the hard road.”

The hard road it is then...


Anonymous said...

That's brilliant Lennie. you won't regret it one bit. In fact you'll have a ball. Look forward to opening night in your restaurant.

Love Sandy

Nicky said...

You learn more wisely as you get older.

CorkGourmetGuy said...

Via Twitter...

Hey I'm not 35 until tomorrow! I demand an immediate retraction, Fancy doing a pop up this year?

EmmaLDickinson said...

Via Twitter...

Really enjoyed your blog this morning, so well written and engaging. Look forward to meeting you when you come down to the Ship.

Stovemonster said...

Via Twitter...

Go Len, great news you wont regret it.

manlyartichokes said...

I really like your blog. I'm an old starter myself.

In theory I was 28 (when I started). But about to be 29. Nothing on you I know (cheeky bastard...Ed) but I still had the 'what are you doing here?' look.

Liliana said...

not too old...but just like having children in mid-thirties...heck tiring!

If it's your passion why not, you suppose to have a least another 25yrs of working life so might as well spend it doing something you love.

Being a chef for a food lovers is enticing...years ago it crossed my mind and even did days paid-free to see how I felt about it...but personally I don't like working under intense pressure to produce a dish in minutes...and my other dislike is the boredom of producing the same dish, night after night after night. I like to make something and move on...

Best suggestion from me is to use up some of your free-time and help out in a restaurant even if just to wash dishes so you get the idea of the how it feels for you...but choose a busy busy I'm sure that's what you're aiming for!

good luck!

Northern Snippet said...

Dear Lennie,
Look forward to reading about your further adventures.Can I vote for the pub please?

The King of Kurtopia said...

I changed professions at 36 to become a chef. I went to culinary school for a jump start. It paid off well and I was employed and moved up quickly.

I then spent 10 years as the Executive Chef in the same place. I was swayed by a head hunter to take a position in a start-up organic food company. To make a long story short, the business was under funded and the recession hit at the same time. My new position lasted only 2 years before the company folded.

I've now been unemployed for 13 months. Sure there are jobs out there, but I would need to make $18 an hour to equal my unemployment compensation after taxes.

Those jobs are scarce at the moment. When I do get an interview, I can tell by the way they look at me that they are surprised I am so old and applying for a position that many consider a young man's job.

I didn't want my post to sound negative, but unless you do actually start your restaurant you may find yourself facing the same challenges as myself.