Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Review: Culinary Careers

Culinary Careers by Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride is a great overview of the educational and professional pathways to becoming a food professional and a bit of a surprise. Given that the first author is the President and CEO of The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, I was expecting it to be a propaganda piece for his school; but no way. It's a refreshungly unbiased introduction to the range of educational opportunities and careers available to those who see the world through the lens of food and cooking. I'm sure the temptation to churn the book into a marketing tool for his school must have been tremendous and Mr. Smilow is to be commended for his restraint.

Come to think of it. Not only is the book devoid of propaganda for Mr. Smilow's school, but he and co-author Anne McBride (an adjunct professor in the Food Studies program at New York University) pay considerable attention to ways to enter the culinary profession without going to culinary school.

The intended audience of Culinary Careers appears to be as diverse as the job market it addresses and is refreshingly devoid of the condescending language common to other works of this genre which are  typically aimed at  high school aged readers. It feels right and real and the writing is crisp and clear. There is a terrific section on how to approach opening a business that I wish I had read before I decided to open a catering business in 1982. (I would not have done it.) And there is a discussion of the merits of becoming an investor in a restaurant that left me wondering why anyone would bother.

Specifically, there is an interview with attorney Mark Seelig who claims to have directly and indirectly invested in at least two dozen restaurants. Seelig counsels that the vast majority of restaurants are lousy investments that never pay back their investors. He explains that he's been investing in restaurants for twenty years, "for reasons not tied to making money on my investment " (emphasis mine) and that they are "probably the worst type of venture to invest in." He then goes on to say that only one out of the "dozens" of his clients who invested in restaurants has ever made money. As much as I would like to speculate about why anyone would invest money he knew he was going to lose, I'll have to leave it to others to explain. Anyway, I doubt that whatever I came up with would be half as clever as the truth.

Now, I no longer care about how to get into a culinary career -I'm already in- so most of the discussion about how to get in was only of passing interest to me. However, I found myself fascinated by the interviews with food professionals that comprise the majority (80%) of the content of the book. In fact I liked this part so much that  will I go out on a limb and say that even if you are not interested in entering the food industry, I think you will be intrigued by the testimonies of some of the famous an obscure personalities that populate this section of the book. Dan Barber, a chef whose work I admire but whose on-screen persona makes me claw at my eyes because he reminds me too much my own anxious and goofy stage presence , comes across as the sensitive and careful scholar that I always assumed he was. The interview with Daniele Boulud does nothing to dispel his image as truly great chef and a perhaps even greater businessman and, at the risk of sounding like a groupie, I found it thrilling. Ruhlman and Lidia Bastianiach weigh in, as do a bunch of other celebrity culinarians. But the bulk of the interviews are with people you probably know nothing about, and probably never will, unless you read the book.


Natalie Sztern said...

I, too, am not looking for a new career but I just ordered it ... crazy broad that I am...I read starchefs from head to toe including the jobs available; clearly I have been in the wrong career, ...I wish I knew where this love of 'the insiders view' of food was borne?

(don't mind me i missed my therapy apt this week)

Jessika said...

Bob: would you have chosen another career altogether or done it differently when you entered the business with a less hands-on approach?

Bob del Grosso said...

The only thing I would do differently if I had to do it over again is to work in Europe. Otherwise, I think I got it about right.

Jessika said...

Where in Europe would you have gone? (since Europe is a big continent).

I got a degree in behavioural science and also became a linguist. If I was to make the choice today, as your life changes over the years, I'd chose to study horticulture or the botany of flowers. It is a hobby today so it might just be a dream that I would have enjoyed it as a job.