You Say You Wanna Resolution . . .

Well, you know, we all want to change careers

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-- Serene Dominic

So you wanna be . . . a chef

On any other night, chef Scott Robinson cooks with the motto "mise en place," or "everything in its place." But tonight, while instructing his French Cuisine students, it's simply, "Watch out for the tendons."

It's Fear Factor night at Phoenix College, where a small class of 10 eager chefs-in-training is learning to slice and cook raw calf kidneys, cow tongue and sweetbreads, which, to several students' disappointment, is not actually sugary mounds of dough but rather the thymus gland of a cow.

"No bad comments now; I'm personal about my food," warns Robinson, director of culinary studies at Phoenix College, as he delicately separates the rubbery flesh of a sweetbread from its tendon.

A few students grimace, but after a dollop of cooking oil and a dash of salt, no organ is left untested. If they intend to become chefs, after all, this is not the place for a prejudiced palate.

By the end of the school year, these students will be slicing sweetbreads like pros -- perhaps without the scowl. It's a tough business, Robinson admits, but "with good hands and the right attitude, anyone can become a chef."

It's not all in your chopping technique, however. Education is key, and there are plenty of options.

You can fork over big bucks for a renowned culinary school, shell out significantly less for comparable community college classes, or simply take courses one by one to enhance your culinary competence. Whatever the route, that big, white chef's hat isn't far away. Within a year, you might find that your place truly is in the kitchen.

Phoenix College offers a two-year program, leading to an associate of applied science degree and/or a certificate of completion in culinary studies. The entire program runs aspiring chefs $4,500, but courses such as International Cuisine, Pacific Rim Cuisine and Menu Planning are available individually at roughly $205 per class for those who want to hone their craft or add a few recipes to their résumé.

PC is the way to go, Robinson says, if you're looking to taste-test the industry before digging in. "If worst comes to worst, it gives people an idea of what the industry is like without having to make a major career change, and for much less expensive," he says.

If you have the dough -- as in cash, not Pillsbury -- Scottsdale Culinary Institute is another option. A roughly $40,000 option. Started in 1986, SCI offers Le Cordon Bleu training through an 18-month associate's degree or two-year bachelor's degree in culinary arts, hospitality and restaurant management, and patisserie and baking.

Adam Cho, 25, completed the class portion of his associate's degree in December and starts a six-month externship at Olive's restaurant in New York City this month. The school time was valuable, he says, but not completely necessary.

"The paper I'm getting certifies me a chef, but you don't have to go to school to become one," says Cho, who aspires to own his own restaurant. "It just helps."

Cho says he saw his class of 30 students whittled down to half as many during the year -- many succumbing to the pressure of the fast-paced, high-stress, ego-driven industry that experiences a high turnover rate. But don't let that scare you, he says. The school is perfect for what he calls "career changers," many of whom were his classmates.

"If you're a career changer, it's a great place to be," he says of the school. "Just don't go there if you simply want to learn how to cook, or if you're on the fence about becoming a chef."

And if you truly have a passion for cooking -- and a pocketbook deep enough to support your zeal -- invest in a national four-year institution, he adds.

Christopher Green, who teaches at smaller local cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Kitchen Classics and AndyFood, knows something about career shifting. Green was a newspaper editor in Jacksonville, Florida, for 12 years before dropping everything at 30 to cook full time.

Green, now 40, attended L'Academie de Cuisine in Washington, D.C., for nearly a fourth of the tuition that SCI now charges. While Green says school is important, he warns would-be chefs not to put all of their career eggs in one costly basket.

"Culinary school is really about learning the basics. It is what you do with it afterwards that is important," he says. "Let's face it: Day one of culinary school is going to be spent cutting an onion. Is it going to be a 50-cent onion at community college or a $5 onion at a big school?"

Instead of buying a line-item for your résumé, Green suggests learning from as many different chefs in the industry as possible. Robinson agrees, noting that you're not truly a chef until you've conquered several different areas of the business such as management, service, catering and fine dining.

It takes a good five years with school -- 15 years without -- to succeed as a chef, says Robinson, but persistence, stamina and a positive attitude can accelerate the process. Just ask Terrell Brown, SCI graduate and executive chef at Foster's Seafood, a quaint but upscale bistro in Scottsdale.

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