When I went to the FENI (Foodservice Educators Network International Conference), I learned that enrollment in professional culinary schools is soaring. This is true despite all the talk about how difficult it is to get a student loan. This led me to wonder: who are these students? Who is going to culinary college and cooking school?
I decided to ask the students in my Professional Food Writing class to tell me about themselves and what made them decide to pursue a career using their interest in food.
I’ll periodically share a story with you. Today I’d like to introduce you to Tim Hsu, who recently enrolled at the Culinary:
“Once upon a time a boy named Tim thought that a six figure salary and job security was the path to happiness. So he studied and worked hard for many years to become a doctor. When he was finally able to tell his Chinese immigrant parents, who had sacrificed much to provide a quality education for their son, that he had been accepted to the medical school in Galveston, TX, the sigh of relief that followed could be heard several towns over.
Unbeknownst to his parents, who lived far away in China, Tim had been dabbling in the kitchen during his college years, and found himself watching the Food Network channel almost religiously.
He loved food and cooking—so much so that the night before he was to take the MCAT (the SAT for medical school), he had a mental breakdown; instead of studying, he filled out an online application to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). He never submitted it.
Still, Tim had an ominous feeling he was making a terrible mistake by leaving for medical school without exploring the culinary career path. He asked the medical school to delay his matriculation and kept the real reason for doing so from his parents under the guise of “needing to take a break.”
After knocking on every single kitchen door in Austin, he got lucky and found a chef who was a CIA alumnus, desperate for a pantry cook. So Tim spent the next year working in a real commercial kitchen at one of the busiest hotels in the city.
During his stay, he met many cooks and chefs who all had their two cents to give about the industry. It ranged from a passionate “I love my job! I can’t think of doing anything else!” to a portentous “You’re still young—get out while you still can…” In the back of his mind, Tim had both of these thoughts at some point while working there.
A year passed, and he still could not decide. Every time he tried to sit down and think about it, he would become so exhausted by his own indecision brought on by his dreadful fear of failure and insecurity that his mind would shut down. He would escape by sleeping inordinately.
At the behest of his worried parents, he decided to quit and attend medical school. After all, how many people in the world have the opportunity to become a doctor?
The next fifteen months were the worst fifteen months Tim ever experienced in his short life.
They consisted of: infinitely boring lectures and fruitless hours of studying textbooks that did not interest him; sleepless nights agonizing over whether to stay or to leave; pages of insomnia-driven essays on what to do with himself; months of clinical depression, several therapy sessions, dozens of pills, and one deep contemplation of ending it all. Worst of all, he had the constant feeling of being lost with no hope of finding a way out of his dilemma—”money and security” or “passion and dreams”? Needless to say, it was a dark, dark time.
Sensing that all was not right, Tim’s parents moved back to the United States for several months in an attempt to support their son at school. Not wanting to disappoint the two people who gave him so much, Tim instead placed more pressure on himself, adding to the stress of being a good son.
In an unrelated cosmic string of events, in September 2008, Hurricane Ike blew through Galveston. It decimated the medical school, leaving hundreds of students displaced and homeless—Tim included.
His energy now completely depleted and with stress hormones at near-toxic levels, Tim experienced something he had never felt before: a total lack of motivation to do anything at all. Banned from returning to the island by the mayor of Galveston until it was deemed habitable, Tim moved in with his parents. He simply no longer cared about anything. In the weeks that followed, he slept, he ate, and then slept some more.
Then one day, Tim’s parents finally intervened. They came into his room while he was lying in bed staring at the ceiling. They took a good look at him, then said, “Tim, you used to be a happy kid. Now, you look miserable. You need to do what makes you happy.”
All Tim’s friends could have told him that, but for his parents—immigrants who knew what it is like to have little and to struggle, who came from a culture that values security over dreams, who were his strongest advocates for staying in medical school—for them to actually admit that…well, it meant something. The following day the ban on returning to Galveston was lifted, and Tim went back to his apartment to salvage what he could.
The place was utterly destroyed. His apartment had received two feet of ocean water. Any possession that had touched the ground had been washed away and anything left out exposed to the humid air suffered a blight of multiple varieties of hazardous molds and fungus.
Grim-faced, Tim looked around and saw his book shelf. In the most bizarre yet profound moment of clarity and enlightenment, his eyes were opened. On the shelves below the top shelf, he had placed his heaviest and most expensive books: medical textbooks, all now completely damaged by the flood. On the top shelf, he had placed his most cherished and valued books: cook books, the only books that managed to survive the flood’s purge and mold damage.
He had finally found the answer he had been seeking all these years, and it only took a Category 4 hurricane to find it.
Three months later, Tim withdrew from medical school and attended the Culinary Institute of America where he is writing this very story. After years of struggling with the question, he finally decided that pursuing dreams were more important than money and security. Although he has no idea how the story will end, he is certain of one thing: he will not regret the path he’s now taken.”
Will you share your story too? What factors led you to decide to enter the food world?