You Used to Do What? Star Chefs' Unexpected First Careers
If you want to be a chef, try joining the opera first, playing pro soccer, or working as a chemical engineer
If you still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, don’t sweat it. Many of today’s most successful chefs didn’t start out having any idea they'd end up in a kitchen. Here, some of the most winding roads chefs have taken to get where they are.
Top Chef alum Carla Hall once worked as a model and planned to study theater, but she had her food epiphany while working as an accountant at Price-Waterhouse. “I had my aha moment when I was in the middle of a small town in Florida doing an accounting audit,” she recalled. “I just felt so sick and hot and looked at the accountant to my right and thought, that cannot be me when I’m 40 years old. Two weeks later I quit.” After some time in Paris, she came back to the U.S. and enrolled in cooking school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland, going on to rise in the chef ranks at restaurants in D.C. and Maryland. Hall, who now hosts ABC’s The Chew, just opened Carla Hall Bakes, a cookie stand in New York City's Gansevoort Market, and is set to open her first restaurant, Carla Hall's Southern Kitchen, in Brooklyn in February. It's inspired by her upbringing and her grandmother’s famous Sunday Nashville Hot Chicken meals after church.
April Bloomfield, a Michelin-starred chef and one of the most respected restaurateurs in America, runs Manhattan's The Spotted Pig, The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, The John Dory Oyster Bar and Salvation Taco. The woman widely created with creating the gastro-pub revolution in New York City (and then the nation), actually grew up in England dreaming of becoming a cop. She was inspired to pursue a career in law enforcement because of a crime she witnessed as a kid: From behind her locked playground gates, she saw a man steal a handbag from an old woman and felt helpless to do anything. She applied to the police academy but didn’t get in, so she fell back on cooking. Then she tried to get into the police academy again, right before taking a position at the famed River Café in London, but was given an application to become a member of the transport police—not a cop on the beat, which is what she'd wanted. She took it as a sign that she was meant to cook.
Chef Gerard Craft, the 2015 James Beard winner for Best Chef Midwest (and chef-owner of the Niche Food Group in St. Louis) started out with zero interest in food. He wanted to hit the slopes; he was on skis by the time he was four and on a snowboard by eight. Craft also inherited a love of photography from his father and hoped to one day shoot for National Geographic or Transworld Snowboarding Magazine. In college, he tried to make a go of it as a snowboard photographer, shooting pros in Salt Lake City. It was while washing dishes and cooking at a local pool hall that he fell in love with restaurants. He went on to cook at renowned restaurants nationwide before opening one of his own. He sees similarities between photography and cooking: “They're both crafts and take a long time to learn. I wish that with photography, I'd continued apprenticing and submitting more work to places for free, like I did by working for free at different restaurants. I laid a better path with cooking, so in the end things worked out.”
Lisa White, the pastry chef at top restaurants in New Orleans including Domenica and Shaya—was a massage therapist for 10 years. Her journey from masseuse to chef recalls Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. “I was feeling like I needed more...I was missing something,” said White. “In March 2008, I decided I was going to do the Camino de Santiago—a 1200 mile walk from south central France to the coast of Spain. It was my own personal pilgrimage. While walking the isolated trails of Camino de Compostela, I smelled and ate the amazing village baked goods. These are the foods that reawakened my first love for baking.” White returned to the states, with a broken foot and 300 miles logged, and decided to go to culinary school. “I was in my late 30s and about to start over in life,” she said. “I enrolled in the accelerated baking and pastry program at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. The rest is history!"
Melissa Weller, the chef, baker, and co-owner of New York City’s Sadelle’s, has run the baking programs at some of the country’s most revered restaurants, including Per Se in Manhattan and Roberta’s in Brooklyn. But before she started baking, she spent nearly ten years as a chemical engineer, with a degree from Bucknell University. While Weller says that deep down she knew engineering was not really for her, she liked it enough to continue working because it gave her financial stability and the ability to spend her nights cooking and hosting dinner parties for friends. At one point she took a position doing pastry in a restaurant at night and continued working as an engineer during the day. But when her company closed, she was given a nice severance package and decided to join the restaurant full-time. That's when she realized she wanted to pursue baking as a career and moved to New York to attend the French Culinary Institute.
Patrick Watson is known as the gregarious owner of beloved Brooklyn spots such as Stinky Bklyn and The JakeWalk—but before he decided to devote his life to the hospitality industry, he was an opera singer. Watson majored in voice at McGill University, then worked professionally and sang with the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra. He also worked for a few seasons at the Metropolitan Opera in productions like Aida and Tosca, with Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Working in restaurants was a way of paying off his financial aid from college and making ends meet. But his restaurant career soon started to take off. Watson landed a job as one of the opening sommeliers at Manhattan's Lupa, and has worked at the legendary Blue Hill and Raoul’s. He eventually realized hospitality was his calling. Nowadays, he still gets called in to sing the national anthem at places like the Barclays Center and Fenway Park; watch! “That was a childhood dream,” said Watson, who grew up in Boston and is a Red Sox fan. “But don't let my customers find out.”
Chef Julien Wargnie of New York City's acclaimed Tocqueville Restaurant was born in Paris but didn't begin his culinary career the way most French chefs do. He trained as a soccer player, and was a good one at that. At a young age, Wargnie was groomed for the great green fields of European football in France’s Championnat de France Amateur. By 17, he had reached the highest level of the league while playing for AS Poissy. But when he didn’t sign a contract to play professionally, he switched gears, moving on to culinary school. “I found out I enjoyed doing that,” he said. He completed a rigorous four-year program in Grenoble, France before working in kitchens across the world including L'Orangerie and Le Cirque before landing at Tocqueville.