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So You Wanna Be a Chef (2010) (ruhlman.com)
138 points by Tomte 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

I wish more experts would give advice about careers/undertakings with this kind of honesty and a clear list of requirements to be successful.

With programming they built this whole myth that "coding is easy, bro, trust me, you don't even need to know maths" and then people approach it with an according attitude. Once they actually progress from doing CodeAcademy courses to more real-world-like programming they hit a wall, programming turning out to be hard doesn't fit their mental model of it being easy, they decide it's not for them and leave it.

On the other hand, it could be argued that people who need to be convinced to overcome difficulties in progressing in a skill are not suited for it, but I'd still say that the world could do with more honesty so people can calibrate their expectations appropriately.

My wife teaches pre-veterinary students in university. It's not a dis-similar issue to the one here. A lot of kids (particular girls, at the moment, for some reason) grow uo dreaming that they want to be vets because they love animals. Nobody tells them thqt the path to becoming a vet is just as strenuous and expensive as being a medical doctor, but the pay is a tenth as much. And nobody tells them that clients can be far more unreasonable, and in some cases, downright nasty, about their animals than their family members (a byproduct, I suspect, of paying for veterinary bills out of pocket). And nobody tells them they will get bitten and scratched every damn day, and if they're large-animal a horse will break both their feet within a few years and they'll have to retire from arthritis in their fifties.

Suicide rates for veterinarians is one of the highest of any professional group.

The first day of sophomore year my wife always lectures about the financial and emotional realities of the veterinary field. She makes them make a budget for themselves that includes a hundred thousand in student loans and assumes starting pay in the high thirties. And every year she has students leave in tears. She frequently gets irate phone calls from parents saying that she has crushed their daughter's (in a few cases, their son's) dreams.

But this is likely the only time they will have had anyone tell them the cautionary tale. And it is the right thing to do.

> A lot of kids (particular girls, at the moment, for some reason) grow uo dreaming that they want to be vets because they love animals.

Animals toys and books about animals are considered girl toys now I think. Boys have dinosaurs. I think it was different when I was a kid, a boy could have animals (in books or those plastic figurines) and books about animals on top of cars and it was completely normal. Horses camps used to be boy thing, now it is girl thing - probably due to cowboys and westerns going out of fashion.

At least here locally.

> She frequently gets irate phone calls from parents saying that she has crushed their daughter's (in a few cases, their son's) dreams.

More like they abandoned their "dreams" because they learned they value other things in life even more. It sounds like your wife is doing the right thing. A little pain now to save those students years of hurt down the road.

From conversations with a new vet, it also appears that they have a weird ethos of self-sacrifice. Basically, too many of them go into the field to just do good and help the poor animals, and they end up working for free too often, or simply not charging enough. (I don't know the details here, I'm simply relaying the rant from said vet.)

An unfortunate side effect of caring more about the animal than its damn owner does, I expect.

The thing that would seem to be most distasteful about being a vet is putting down animals because the owner is tired of them.

Other things would be pets weighing three times what they should, never given exercise, etc.

Those are covered in your unreasonable owners, I guess.

I see this as a side effect of the somewhat delusional things adults tell young people. If a kid love playing with animals, they get told "you should become a biologist!" or "you should become a vet!". But, while I'm sure many people in those professions would love to play with animals all day, that's obviously not what their jobs are about.

I have a friend who is a vet in Germany, and he seems to do quite well, with a salary that is (I believe) at least double the median. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that he was able to take over the clinic from the previous owner, and he now employs a small number of other vets.

No it has to do with it being Germany not the US.

Indeed. No significant student loans in Germany.

Do human doctors make over a million a year? My veterinary student girlfriend has classmates getting offers of $110k USD per year straight out of school. After she does a speciality residency she’ll be in the $300k range.

Actually coding has a pretty decent outcome: if you just put in the work and dedication, someone will hire you for a pretty good salary.

Other “occupations” however, such as actors, musicians, chefs, and yes entrepreneurs, are often mostly or wholly dependent on luck to get a good outcome. They have to be extremely good and be lucky. Coders just have to be decently good to get a job.

I'd say it's simply that the opportunities for programmers (demand) outweighs the number of people trying to make it (supply). For actors, musicians, chefs, and yes entrepreneurs, the number of opportunities (demand) is outweighed by the number of people trying to make it (supply). This is possibly awkwardly true for entrepreneurs in a strange way; at least for actors, musicians, and chefs, the path forward is clearly laid out, you know where the opportunities exist. For entrepreneurs, you need to figure out where the opportunities exist, besides being able to deliver the goods too. Maybe it's better to say that for entrepreneurs, there's a qualifying matching supply and demand problem, while for actors, musicians, and chefs, there's simply a volume matching supply and demand problem.

I don't think it's about luck. I think it's about supply and demand.

> I don't think it's about luck. I think it's about supply and demand.

In a supply/demand imbalance situation, it very much is about luck for an individual. If for each open position there are 100 candidates, then whether or not you'll get that job is mostly a matter of luck (and to some degree contacts).

An extra problem here is that "luck" doesn't mean lottery. It also means making all the right choices for the past years, including back before you even figured out you're in competition for a position.

I completely agree with you about programmers, but what you are saying about entrepreneurs doesn't make sense to me. It's like saying there are too many inventors and not enough ideas...

Most entrepreneurs aren't inventors, and vice versa.

Deal with that in the 2nd half of my paragraph.

Some types of coding/engineering anyway. Game development is probably closer to acting/music/cooking/art in this sense, since the number of people wanting to work in that industry drastically outweighs the demand, and it causes conditions to end up being something akin to a meat grinder.

I wish they would too. It'd certainly be interesting reading what goes in to other careers and what not.

Personally, I'd say the one for journalism would probably look a lot like the chef one. Many of the same beats would be hit there too:

1. You've (sometimes) got an expensive degree that costs more than you'll likely take home in wages. Though (presumably) like with a chef, it's technically a field you can do well in without a degree if your experience stacks up.

2. The internships and work experience you take on cost a fortune, since they're low/non paying positions in expensive locations, which likely work better for those with a trust fund or a decent amount of financial support from a partner or parent.

3. If you're not passionate about it, find something else because it's basically financial suicide.

4. Yet again, there's some skill/advantage you should have to do well. Not age/fitness, but influence/existing audience.

5. There's a decent amount of pressure too, with minimal benefits, low pay, awkward working hours, etc.

You could probably paraphrase the article and make it about the media industry without changing more than a paragraph or two. Same goes with game development, though that'd require a few more changes.

But yeah, it would be interesting to see articles like this for other industries.

Someone I know tried learning programming in Code Academy. She finished it, and then completely stumbled when faced with real-world programming challenges, dropping it soon after, never to come back. A closed off bubble like environment, like Code Academy, is not a good way to learn, though I've not tried anything like that, so I'm not speaking from personal experience.

However, programming really is easy, in that its learning curve is very shallow. It might be a long way, and you might become afflicted with the "C language brainwash", where you fail to distinguish between algorithmic and engineering details, which will further impede progress, but the learning curve is shallow, which means that overall it feels easy.

I think this is an underappreciated point. I started learning to code a few years ago with online platforms and just flew through the exercises, but always hit a brick wall every time I tried to actually build something.

I stopped and started a handful of times, but I would always get so frustrated that I quit after a few weeks or months each time.

The most recent time, I realized that a lot of my issues were more logistical in nature. I didn't adequately understand how to use the command line, or where my packages were being installed, or how the files interacted with each other, or how to create and delete a development environment, or how to get an IDE configured.

All these things are things that felt like "not programming" to me, and indeed, when you Google "learning programming" you almost entirely get posts and articles about syntax and most of them gloss over setting up an environment.

Now that I've figured out how to get an environment set up and torn down and I can spend more time building things, I'm finding that it's nowhere near as complicated as I thought originally.

This is a good point, and still is the primary challenge I face when working. Programming in most jobs that I experienced (and most programming jobs in general, from what I gather) isn't that hard - gluing libs together, churning out CRUD, working around bugs of the libs you glued together, and occasionally writing something that actually uses some of the undergrad-level knowledge. But the logistics are still a PITA. Where do you deploy code? How do you deploy code? Where are the dependencies stored and when/how they update? Why that $&!@ Maven config broke, and how come none of the seniors in the team, including the boss himself, know how it works? These days, I can't feel comfortable around the project unless I know the answers to those questions. The codebase itself is much easier.

The not-programming situation you described is a very typical experience. I'm delighted when I can work for a period of time just "programming", i.e. not trying to solve hard build/dev-environment problems that are blockers, but at the same time unrelated to the actual problem I'm solving. Unfortunately, in some tech, like web and mobile, in my experience, you'll spend a lot of time doing that, which is sad, considering how many people work in that industry and how many work-hours (work-years, -decades?) that makes up.

I've had the exact same experience and it took actually getting a job to get out of the rut. I will also note that it's entirely possible to get a degree in CS without learning this stuff, in fact, that's the default for many programs. Only syntax and algorithms are mandatory, everything else must be learned through electives and osmosis. So the people who are:

1. Minmaxing life and taking the shortest path to a degree

2. More interested in CS theory

3. Just plain unlucky in that everyone teaching their elective courses went out of their way to provide a sanitized environment

can end up mildly screwed.

And then they point to people like John Carmack and say I don't need college he didn't. But John Carmack obviously has taught himself more math than most know with degrees.

Being vulgar not makes it more honest in my book. Also, on one hand he tries to sell cooking as a meritocracy, on the other he says cooking is not for fat and old people and btw it is full of nepotism. Sounds dishonest to me.

> Also, on one hand he tries to sell cooking as a meritocracy, on the other he says cooking is not for fat and old people and btw it is full of nepotism.

It's completely consistent. From the description, in this job if you're overweight, or slow, or stubborn, or have chronic illness, or otherwise can't handle hard physical work, you're not suitable for the job. "Meritocracy" doesn't mean "judging only by how smart someone is", but "judging by how well one can do the job".

Nepotism by definition can't be consistent with meritocracy. Cooking might be more taxing than sitting in an office, but come on, it is not exactly coal mining either.

Sorry, I don't buy into his arguing from authority pov and not just because he sounds like an a hole.

He didn't mention nepotism anywhere. All he said is that top performers know each other - which is completely normal - and that if you aim towards working with them, then your reputation is crucial - which is also completely normal. None of this isn't compatible with practical meritocracy. Sure, in a perfect meritocracy, you'd be able to input a request for a worker into a computer, and out would come a list of people ranked by aggregate cost-effectiveness. But we're nowhere near that in any industry. In an environment of imperfect and incomplete information, relying on reputation and recommendations from other high performers is a safer strategy than taking risks with random strangers.

As for his writing, I didn't find him sounding "like an a hole". To me, he sounds like a normal human being communicating honestly.

You are basically rewording nepotism so you don't have to call it by name.

As for his writing, I didn't find him sounding "like an a hole". To me, he sounds like a normal human being communicating honestly.

To each their own I guess, let just agree we disagree.

Nepotism is about employing friends or relatives because of that friendship or family relationship and not because of any inherent skill. However the fact that top chefs (or programmers, VCs, actors, doctors, academics etc) know each other is nothing to do with that. They know and trust each other first because of their proven skills and track record.

You need to look up the definition for nepotism

the practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs.

All the great chefs know each other. Do right by one and they tend to hook you up with the others.

You might be right. I'm not a native speaker, but it reads a lot like nepotism to me.

In that case there is no difference between nepotism and networking.

Nepotism is usually used in negative context meaning preferring unskilled family member over skilled person you don’t know.

Otherwise any kind of recommendation can be seen as form of nepotism.

Is it not? Obviously there are different shades, but reiterating how the top chefs know each other and how one can hook someone with the rest is imo over the threshold.

Of course everyone is entitled to their own interpretation, nevertheless I do think there is an element of making excuses here for a celebrity. Ditto for the meritocracy' with ageism and body discrimination.

I think you're completely misinterpreting this.

> All the great chefs know each other. Do right by one and they tend to hook you up with the others.

> Which is to say: if you’re lucky enough to be able to do the above, do not fuck up.

Bourdain is specifically saying there is not nepotism--that you must "do right by" a chef (in context, you must be GREAT at your job) in order to get hooked up with others--and the converse, "do not fuck up," because if you do, your bad reputation will now precede you. This is not nepotism--nepotism would be if he said "if you get a chance to work with a great chef, great, you're home free, because now they're your friend and will recommend you to other chefs regardless of how good/bad you are."

Finally something I'm an expert.

> if they should go to culinary school

I didn't go to culinary school. It means I might be one of the best chefs in the world, however, I will never be hired by a hotel. For 11 years I cooked exclusively in the top 20 restaurants including 2 of the top 3 on the Bay Area Zagat survey, yet, I couldn't get hired for months on a private yacht because I was not 'culinary trained'. At these restaurants, my title included chef de cuisine and sous chef. Often I'd be the only cook without at least a 2 year culinary degree from CCA or CIA.

It was the same thing when I decided to start coding. I don't have a degree. It doesn't matter how incredible my github portfolio is. Nobody looks at it. I went years without being hired because I didn't have a degree. I code because I very much enjoy it like I still very much enjoy cooking, not because I want to make lots of money. I strongly regret not returning to school to get a 4 year degree in Computer Science. I working on data viz using d3 utility libraries and react native svg at the moment and spend whole evenings working through khan academy courses on linear algebra and tranforms with matrices because I don't have that knowledge.

If someone wants to enter coding, it's not necessary to get a 4 year degree in CS, but I strongly recommend it.

There's a saying, I don't remember from whom, that goes like "a degree is just a piece of paper ... but you have to have one in order to be able to say that".

Join a field that draws lots of passionate people and you will have low pay and poor working conditions. It looks like the market monetizes passion.

Yup. Passion can substitute for paycheck to some extent ("I don't earn as much as I would at $mundane-job-X, but at least I'm doing what I love!"), at least for the first couple years - and by then, it's much harder to change your career path.

Exactly. After the passion wears off and you're left with a young family that needs food and clothing and medical care and you can't afford to buy a decent house, doing what you love isn't enough.

This is the true lesson of the economics of career choice. Cleaning toilets can pay surprisingly well because no one wants to do it.

I am not sure that your example is really appropriate.

I’m getting horrified at the way cocaine is becoming standard in so many places, and the way you hear about it more and more in the media, as something casual. It seems just like if the drug cartel knew they wouldn’t be able to benefit from weed for long and decided to start pushing for the next thing.

I'd offer 2 reasons:

1) Cocaine hasn't the stigma of junkies. Cocaine's junkies are often highly productive individuals often paid accordingly.

2) In a way, the same self-improvement logic that allows yourself to guzzle down "soylent" or "huel" allows yourself to take a nose once in a while. It's like a mega-triple espresso.

While crack is known for its junkies it's also used among high income people (They somehow manage the teeth issues as well I guess). I've noticed that weed users regard cocaine users as *holes, while cocaine users regard weed users as losers.

About 1) sounds like it's the 70's/80's again (Yuppies with sweatpants and bitcoin?)

I think it was Robin Williams who said "Cocaine is god's way of telling you that you make too much money."

It needs to be repeated here:

>If you think smoking dope makes you more responsive to the urgent calls for food from your expeditor, then God bless you, you freak of nature you. If you’re anything like me, though, you’re probably only good for a bowl of Crunchberries and a Simpsons rerun.

>On the other hand, if you’re stuck heating up breakfast burritos at Chili’s—or dunking deep-fried macaroni at TGI McFuckwad’s? Maybe you need that joint.

> It seems just like if the drug cartel knew they wouldn’t be able to benefit from weed for long and decided to start pushing for the next thing.

This is the case - these are billion dollar businesses who indeed monitor market conditions and plan in multi-year cycles accordingly: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/losing-mar...

Remember that every time you use cocaine, somebody in Mexico get's tortured to death. And by tortured I mean being flayed alive.

The cartels can do the math - cocaine is at least 10x more profitable.

Well it certainly is now; I suspect the more places cannabis becomes legal, the less money those in organised crime have to gain from selling it.

Overall, this article strongly reminded me of a recent take on artists [0][1]. The entry prospects are similar - you're supposed to take on student debt which then you won't be able to repay for 10+ years out of the salaries you'll be able to command, even if you'd live for free. Unless you graduate from one of the few top schools, your education doesn't matter anyway, and even if, to get any success you have to either play everything perfect early in the career, or get lucky.

Honestly, this sickens me. Our economy still keeps overworking people to death, and the end results aren't even that great (e.g. typical restaurant food isn't better because of the grind, there's just 200% more of it).


Also, this resonates badly:

"Rather than put in the time or effort—then, when I had the chance, to go work in really good kitchens—I casually and unthinkingly doomed myself to second-and (mostly) third-and fourth-tier restaurant kitchens forever. (...) What limited me forever were the decisions I made immediately after leaving culinary school."

It's still infinitely easier in our industry, but being ~6 years past graduation, I increasingly feel I fucked up my career prospects by not really paying attention to it in the first year. Part of it was just life, but part of was lack of courage (or "impostor syndrome"). I should've applied straight to first-tier companies. I thought I wasn't good enough. Then some of the people I know got hired by FAANG, and I discovered that the standards at those companies aren't really "world-class". That was just a myth.

Fortunately, in this industry there's still enough wiggle room to not be completely doomed by early mistakes. I have a lot of sympathy for people in other industries, who like me weren't money-oriented and planning their careers since teenage years, who wasted their first working years and realized it only later.


[0] - https://www.ejroller.com/2018/10/25/my-parents-give-me-28000...

[1] - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18328393

Yes, I enjoyed his point about choices you make just out of school having profound reverberations for the rest of your life.

I think that is, as you allude to, real in software as well. Having a stint at the FAANGs, or other big names like Microsoft or even Oracle, opens up doors, at least a crack.

Bourdain - what a fascinating guy.

I like the brutal honesty. Painful to read some of it though.

That line at the end - "luck is not a business model" - a classic.

Any examples of startup-success-story-type people acknowledging this, or the general idea of survivorship bias?

> That line at the end - "luck is not a business model" - a classic.

Funny in context of this site, though. While "luck is not a business model" for the one who's to hope to be lucky, other people's luck definitely is a business model. In fact, it's the startup investing business model.

I loved that man, Bourdain! He's open, honest, and utterly brutal in his descriptions. It was so unfortunate that, in the end, he was unable to shake whatever demons were haunting him.

Rings true to me. It also describes my experience as an attorney. What is most disturbing is it is a sign of a broken system. Chef, attorney, journalist, musician, professor, real estate, entrepreneur, etc. The issue is that the system has broken when half the jobs are untenable for anyone lacking a trust fund or ivy education.

Implicit in that article is the idea that if as a chef you're not working at a top 20 restaurant, you don't even count. That seems questionable. I could see someone who enjoys cooking liking the work in a decent but not famous restaurant, just as there are those who enjoy teaching high school rather than being Ivy League professors or being nurse practitioners rather than surgeons. And in each case there are many such lower-tier opportunities.

> No possibility of making less money. I got older, and the Beast that needed to be fed got bigger and more demanding—never less.

In software development it's similar. I am now older, with a family, the days of "risking it all" in startups have long gone.

And you can understand why startups practice age discrimination in their hiring policies. Why hire the guy or gal in their 30s who has a family life and won't be willing to put in 70 hour weeks regularly when we can hire some dude-bro in his 20s with no baggage who won't mind sleeping in his office as long as we feed him breakfast and energy drinks.

Bourdain is one of the best writers in the culinary world you will find. His sense of clarity comes through in his writing. I wish he wrote more about how he developed this skill.

His mother was a writer. He most likely has been nudged into the right direction if only by being around high quality literature.

Unfortunately, we've got all we're ever going to get from Anthony given his suicide earlier this year. RIP.

I saw the title and thought “just read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain”.

Of course, this article is by Bordain (RIP).

It’s worth a read.

Sounds like taking a MBA to me.

Never take an MBA unless your employer is paying for your night classes.

Come on, that’s too harsh. An Executive MBA from a good but not great school is worth it if your employer is paying but most people who go to top tier residential programmes aren’t going to regret it either. Attending anything lower is a fool’s errand but if you can get into Wharton, Harvard &c. and you want to be an executive it’s great if you want to move into a different industry than the one you currently work in.

As someone who paid for a non-top MBA and regrets it, I agree with the grandparent - don't take a (non-top) MBA unless your employer is paying (and don't take the top one unless you know what you'll do with it, though connections will be very sweet).

If you can get into Wharton or Harvard I think it's very likely someone other than yourself will be paying.

But you’re not agreeing with the grandparent. You’re substantially more optimistic with regards to top MBA programmes than they are.

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