By Claudia Cevenini.
Becoming a chef in midlife.
“Forget going to cooking school for a while. It’s expensive and, thousands of dollars later, you might find out you don’t even like working in a kitchen.” Best advice I ever received.
But let’s back up for a moment.
This particular mutton is now 54.
My name is Claudia and, although born and bred in Italy, I have been calling myself an angeleno for the last 20 years. I cook professionally. And I write. While I love both endeavors and I can find many similarities, if I am totally honest, my cooking skills are now financing the career that yields few financial rewards.
I wasn’t always a chef. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know how to cook until well in my 30s. I suppose I had a glamorous career, in the music industry, working for multinational record companies, mostly in international marketing. My mother would always strive to understand what I did for a living, which I usually summed up as “I spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone, I come up with marketing strategies and I travel.” The travel part became quite substantial and, as gilded as it might sound, it got to the point that all I wanted was the ability to spend a weekend at home, in front of the telly.
I began my chosen profession after graduating from college and moving to London, the city of my dreams. From there, I was relocated to Milan, Italy, for a few years and, eventually, to a position I couldn’t pass up, in Los Angeles. My plan was to stay for three to five years max.
And here I am today. As many stories go, I met a man, I fell in love and, at 39, I got married and got busy raising his children.
After living on my own for so long, with no children of my own, it was clear a few months into this “experiment” that being a soccer mom was not exactly a job that would keep me happy. I have utter admiration for those women who can get so fully absorbed in child rearing – I wasn’t one of them. I did the best I knew how with my step-kids and, at the same time, I dipped my toes in the workplace again, part-time at first.
I worked in a bookstore for a few years, where I spent pretty much the entirety of my paycheck on books, and I began making cakes for a friend, a private chef. When she would go on vacation, I would fill in for her. It was clear I had a knack for pastry, long before it became hip to bake. At age 42, I started toying with the possibility of baking for a living, maybe open my own place. But I also realized I knew nothing about the business end of a potential bakery or how to run a professional kitchen. So I applied for jobs, thinking I might enroll in a cooking school, at some vague point.
I wrote earnest resumes that had no cooking experience but included my food philosophy: the pastry chef at a famous restaurant was intrigued by my letter and hired me. “Try it out. If you really like the rhythm of a kitchen, you can always go to school.”
On the first day, in my chef’s whites and black clogs, I felt like a bit of a fraud. But I learnt. I worked insane hours at $10.00 an hour. I climbed up. When my pastry chef left, I stepped into her position. I became Executive Pastry Chef in a kitchen with 30 to 40 cooks, a large catering arm, a fine dining restaurant and two cafes. I learnt the ins and outs of a professional kitchen, I mentored young cooks, cooked at the James Beards Awards, travelled around and became skilled in savory foods as well. All in the space of 8 years. It was wonderful but the pace, physically, couldn’t last. The hours, the relentless work on my feet, the stress do get to an aging body. Ever wondered why all those famous chefs end up on tv shows or marketing pots and pans?
Shortly after I turned 50, I resigned. The idea of opening my own place had been put aside – too much work at this stage in my life. Besides, I wanted to start writing. Now I work for a friend who owns a catering company and I consult for restaurants and other food businesses wishing to revamp their pastry programs, needing some training or opening new locations. Essentially, I freelance.
Giving up the steady and sizable paycheck wasn’t easy. I wouldn’t have been able to start cooking professionally if my husband hadn’t stepped in, financially, for a while. Now I earn less than I used to because I pick and choose the projects I want to work on, and I don’t work full time. Again, if I hadn’t created a financial stability with my husband, I wouldn’t be enjoying this privilege.
My advice to any woman intent on changing the course of her professional life is twofold: look at where the signs are pointing to figure out what fulfillment means to you. I had started cooking and baking obsessively long before I even thought of making a profession out of it.
And do make a financial plan: how long will it take for you to become proficient? How long before you can support yourself? How can you bankroll the interim? And then, be humble, ask for help and ask questions. Relentlessly. Imagination, creativity and passion take you only so far. Dreams require grunt work too.
Last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I bring this up only because, in a way, this might change the course of my career again. Not because I had to slow down or because I am sitting here with thoughts of mortality. I had already started to volunteer at the same hospital that ended up treating me and I realized how hard, emotionally and practically, it is for patients to navigate a serious illness, how many decisions need to be made at a time of vulnerability and insecurity.
While I still volunteer on a weekly basis, I am thinking of avenues where I can put everything I learnt to the service of other women. Not sure where this will take me yet. For now, I keep on asking questions.
What I know for sure is that, for a career to be fulfilling, it has to be in line with the principles that define us, who we are and who we have become. We change over time, our priorities change, and so does our lifestyle and it can be that what we chose at 20 or 30 doesn’t fit in with who we have become anymore.
Taking the leap is always the scariest part. But, if a modicum of planning and research have taken place, everything ends up falling into place.
You can find me here.
You may also like our other Midlife Reinvention features.
Claudia Cevenini enjoyed a long and very glamorous career in the music industry as a marketing executive before deciding to retrain as a chef. You can find out more about her at Campariandsofa.com.