Ask a Chef: Too Late for Culinary School and the Kitchen?

Is it ever too late to go to culinary school? I'm 50ish and in a position to start a new career. I've loved cooking and food my whole life and could work another 15-20 yrs (Lord willing ~ I'm now in good health). Would love to do something I love. How realistic is it to change careers now? Thanks for answering.

- Suzie from Portland, OR

This question popped up in a recent Ask A Chef Twitter chat, and it deserved a longer explanation than was possible in a rapid Chef2Chef Twitter dialogue. In short: no, it’s never too late to go to culinary school. I graduated from The French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, which hosted a diverse range of students of all ages, races and backgrounds. My class ran the spectrum from 18 to 60′ish, with plenty of career changers in every stage of office disillusionment. But whether it’s realistic or not to change careers and become a cook at 50 is a trickier question. So let me elaborate.

Professional kitchen work – whether it’s in a restaurant, catering business or school setting – is incredibly rigorous, as you’re probably aware. Combine long hours on your feet with a hot, pressure-filled environment, and suddenly the rigors of preparing meals at home seem like youthful play with an Easy-Bake Oven. It’s an invigorating environment in many ways (“dinner time rush” has a double meaning in a working kitchen), but it certainly wares on one after awhile. Even my 25 year-old cook friends are immobile-on-the-couch exhausted after a week of work (granted, they’re nighttime chefs at a popular i.e. slammed Manhattan restaurant). I’m not writing this as a deterrent to anyone. It’s just that the unique physical and mental pressures of the professional kitchen are necessary to know before you shell out thousands of dollars for a culinary arts degree, and the only way to know them is through experience.Before filling out an application, I think it’s essential to intern (or “stage”) in the industry area you’d ideally like to work after c-school graduation. And this doesn’t mean you have to tackle the night shift, where you’re slogging home at 2 am. There are plenty of sectors in the industry that are friendly to older cooks with families (or those who simply like to get 8 hrs of sleep and see the light of day). Catering, cafe kitchens, corporate/school dining and the lunch or prep shifts in restaurant kitchens are all good options.

What becoming a cook ultimately boils down to is whether or not you can do the work. Pretty much anyone with two hands and enough money can attend culinary school, and while over-45 students aren’t the norm, they’re certainly not an anomaly. But in terms of using that degree in a professional setting, it really depends on the individual’s capability and drive. If you’re a 50 + year old kitchen whiz who’s cooking 25 year-olds under the table (or even just an average cook holding your own), no one is going to care. And a lifetime passion for food certainly gives you a leg up. So if you’re interested, test the waters in a real world setting and then, if you take to it, get the degree. If you can cut it, you belong in the kitchen, no matter your age.

All of your culinary questions can be addressed by a wide range of professionals in the Ask a Chef forum, so send them along!