I Made a Massive Career Change in My Thirties - Here's What I learned.
31 was a rough year for me. It involved a marriage and a divorce that came just months apart, each of us having realised (both fairly quickly and just a bit too late) that the former had been something of a mistake. That sort of upheaval leads to some pretty serious soul searching, and when I looked at my life, honestly, for the first time in years, I had to accept that I wasn't happy with what I'd built.
Sure - I'd had a good career. I'd worked for some great companies, with some fantastic people. I'd built products I was proud of (and that are still going strong today) - but I just wasn't passionate about it anymore. Life, I realised, is too short to spend doing something you don't love.
For years I'd dreamed of being a chef. I spent all my free time watching food tv, reading recipe books, cooking for friends, creating new dishes.... wishing that I'd made a different choice when I was younger. I was, I had decided, far too old to go into such a demanding industry and to start a new career from the bottom.
Now, I was at a turning point in my life. One of those pivotal moments where you just have to take the risk or regret it forever. I quit my job (handing in my notice to a somewhat bemused but very understanding and accommodating CEO), gave myself a few months off to go travelling, and decided that upon my return I would try to get hired in a kitchen - any kitchen that would take me, in any role, so I could start afresh with a new career.
Fast forward 4 years - as the head chef for a small but busy London restaurant, I find myself (on furlough) with time to reflect. I've been incredibly fortunate - working in some incredible kitchens, learning from some extremely talented chefs, I've even had a brief stint on food TV, on the sort of show I'd have watched myself back when I was still dreaming. The risk has paid off - but it wasn't all plain sailing, and it wasn't all dumb luck. Along the way I've learned lessons that I think would apply to anyone trying to make a career change later in life, and that's what I wanted to share:
1. Use your network
When I first started trying to get a job in a kitchen I started applying to every entry level role I could find. Most didn't respond. A couple gave me the opportunity to go in and have a trial day. In the end my first 2 jobs came via a friend who had connections to the industry - she'd worked front of house in a restaurant that had won a Michelin star when she was younger, and had stayed in touch with a couple of the chefs there. They'd gone on to have successful careers and were in a position to offer me the roles that got me started. On her recommendation alone they were willing to give me a foot in the door and a leg up in a highly competitive industry.
Never be shy to reach out to your connections and ask for help. Most people are nice. Most people want to help where they can. One day, if you're lucky, you'll get the chance to pay it forward and do it for someone else.
2. Your skills are far more transferable than you think
Honestly, when I started down this path I thought that nothing I'd learned over 10 years in the corporate world would be of any use to me. I was ready to chalk those years up as 'wasted' experience and start again.
In reality, it turned out that all those skills Id' learned building and growing businesses were exactly the skills a lot of restaurants were missing.
Yes - there was A LOT that I did have to learn, from how to chop an onion properly to how to survive a service when there's 200 people all wanting perfectly cooked food within 15 minutes of sitting down. There's an insane complexity to working in a kitchen that makes even the best of services feel half like elegant ballet and half bitter and bloody battle. BUT - I already had what I needed to survive that; time management skills, work ethic, discipline, communication - all acquired from a decade behind a desk.
When more senior roles in the kitchen became available it was the fact that I already knew how to manage and motivate people, deal with suppliers, take care of paperwork, and make decisions quickly, that meant I was able to progress far more rapidly than I had expected or hoped that I would.
Used well, the things you learned in your old career will be the things that give you the edge and make you stand out in your new one.
3. You will have to fight every day to get taken seriously
My first year was hard. not just because I would repeatedly cut and burn myself while learning how to use a knife and a flat-top stove properly, or because I'd struggle to keep on top of prep jobs that other chefs could do much faster than me - it was particularly hard because almost every chef I encountered thought of me as a tourist. Like I was there to take a break from the office, but as soon as I realised how tough it was I'd be back to my comfy desk and cushy pay cheque.
To this day, there are plenty of chefs I meet who feel that because I didn't earn my stripes as a 16 year old commis , being abused and run ragged in the basement kitchen of a 5 star hotel, that I somehow haven't earned the right to call myself a head chef - or any kind of chef. No matter how good my food, no matter how inventive my dishes, no matter how successful the restaurant or what the reviews are like - for some people in the industry I will never be a 'proper' chef.
I don't blame people for being skeptical when a 31 year old guy who barely knows the name of anything in the kitchen steps into their world and says they want to be a chef. I realised pretty quickly that these guys with 10, 15, or 20 years in a kitchen under their belt had no reason to take me seriously - until I'd proven myself.
I was never going to be the most experienced guy in the kitchen, or the most talented, but I knew I could be the hardest working and the most reliable. Every day I'd start earlier, finish later and try to push harder than everyone else. As Anthony Bourdain once said "Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don't"
If you switch to an entirely new industry, with no experience, and you want to be taken seriously, you need to be prepared to step up and prove yourself. Every. Damn, Day. Even when you think you've 'made it'.
4. Leave your ego at the door, be humble and ready to learn
In my old career I'd reached the level where I was the person other people went to with questions. I knew the business, I knew the industry, I knew the people and the products. I spent most of my time hiring, training and managing people - teaching them the skills I'd learned along the way.
To go from that to suddenly being in an environment where you know basically nothing about how anything is done involves eating a massive slice of humble pie, every day.
You can't learn when your ego is getting in the way.
It helped that kitchens run on hierarchy, and that I obviously had to start at the bottom, so orders were pretty clear and it was obvious when I was doing well and when I wasn't.
I was fortunate to have a couple of great mentors take my under their wing an invest the time in training me to get better quickly. I saw every day, every task, every interaction with another chef as a chance to learn something an improve.
Humility wasn't necessarily something that came easily or naturally to me, but it was the only way I was able to progress. It's a trait I wish I'd learned a lot earlier. I still try to make sure that I'm open to learning something everyday, from everyone I work with.
5. If you are doing what you love it will absolutely be worth it
Being a chef is one of the most physically and mentally demanding jobs imaginable. The hours are long, the breaks are few, the pay is not great. No matter how hard you work there is always more to do. Kitchens are hot, and loud and dangerous, and at some point you will get hurt. Sometimes a customer won't like what you do and they will say unpleasant things about you on the internet - which can be soul crushing if you let it.
To make it as a chef I've had to work harder and give more of myself than I've ever had to in anything I've ever done. And it's all absolutely worth it, because I get up everyday excited to go to work, because I love what I do. Any maybe, if I'd done it the traditional way - going to catering college at 16 like everyone else - maybe that wouldn't be the case.
It's never too late
Here's the thing - knowing what I know now, If I hadn't made that leap of faith at 31, I'd make it today at 36. I'd make it in ten years time at 46. The only better time to start something than yesterday is today. If you've got a dream to do something you really love, you owe it to yourself to do it - because life is too short and too precious to spend it doing anything else.