Being a cook used to be the kind of job people settled for. Now it’s one to aspire to.
The shift in American culture — thank you very much “Top Chef” and “Chopped” — is what helped persuade Colleen Koperek to stop shuffling papers and start shucking fava beans.
“You have time to think about what you want to do,” says Koperek, a Somerville resident, who left her administrative job at Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year to attend the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. “I’d always enjoyed cooking, and loved having dinner parties.”
Koperek, 27, is one of a number of career changers at the school. When unhappy workers decide to pursue a passion, the road often leads to food. “We hear the same story over and over again,” says John Hannon, director of operations at CSCA. “ ‘I’m pursuing my passion. I never thought of it as an aspirational job. I thought of it as a menial job.’ ” He sees up to 250 students a year looking for an opportunity in the food industry.
CSCA’s student population ranges from young adults in their 20s to folks in their 40s and 50s. Hannon says changing careers happens at a quicker pace for 20-somethings, a generation that gets “the seven-year itch a little bit faster.”
Many people won’t stand for being stagnant at work any longer when they can make a change, even a dramatic one. “We live in a society where switching jobs is a little more acceptable, and a little more expected,” says Hannon.
After finishing the culinary program in February, Koperek took a job as a prep cook at Ten Tables in Cambridge, where she spends her days roasting sunchokes, making vegetable stock, and baking chocolate terrine.
Laurel McConville was among those itching after five years on the job. The former elementary school teacher was working at her “dream job” at Mission Hill School in Boston when she started to rethink her dream. “I was looking for more work-life balance. It wasn’t hating my job. I just felt if I’m giving so much of myself to my work, I’d rather be working for myself,” says the South End resident.
A lifelong health food enthusiast and daughter of a flower shop owner, McConville, 30, knew she wanted to go the entrepreneur route. She got her training — albeit, informally — working the counter at Flour Bakery + Cafe, where she observed owner Joanne Chang running her small chain of successful bakeries after leaving a management consultant job.
“I went thinking I would do it for four months, just to get inspiration and experience. But I stayed there a little over a year,” says McConville. “I was making the connections I needed to make in the food world and in the South End, and I knew I wanted to be a part of the neighborhood.”
McConville left Flour last year and began to plot out her own business. She plans to open Nectar & Green, an organic juice bar and health food shop, this summer. Though her lease isn’t final, she is ready with equipment and signage, and has refined a menu of blended and pressed juices, which she describes as “a celebration of the vegetable.”
Among her concoctions are fennel, lemon, yellow pepper, and squash; and carrot, banana, mango, and bok choy. Her signature blend is made of grapefruit, kale, banana, and hemp. The grapefruit blend is “the juice that I crave the most,” McConville says, “and the one that always gets people over their fear of drinking something green.”
Health and wellness were also deciding factors for Koperek, who was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago and hopes to eventually leave Ten Tables to open her own personal chef business, which she’ll call Fearless Foods. “My goal is to provide food for people who have food allergies, who may need it for a party or weekend dinners and have it prepared by someone who understands it day to day,” she says.
But not everyone wants to be a “Top Chef.” Vanessa Spilios, 35, of Brookline, left a successful management consulting career for Boston University’s Certificate Program in the Culinary Arts. After completing the 18-week, full-time program, she landed a job as a culinary specialist for Euro-Pro, a Newton-based company known for its Ninja products. “I’m in my dream job,” she says. “I get to cook and be creative.”
No two days at Euro-Pro are the same. She might spend one setting test protocols for company products such as the Ninja blender, and another coming up with new recipes like a Chillout Chai smoothie (bananas, chai tea, and soy milk) or Lean Green Ninja (mango, pineapple, banana, kale, and spinach). “It’s one of these jobs I didn’t know existed,” Spilios says. What she did know when she started culinary school in 2011 was that the chef lifestyle did not appeal to her. “I’m not cut out to be in a restaurant kitchen.”
But she finds creativity in coming up with recipes that real cooks can use. For Mother’s Day, she whipped up a frittata, and recently remade sole meuniere in the Ninja cooker by steaming it instead of cooking it in a pan with butter.
“I thought I’d never make a career in food. But I had this voice in my ear, and I had to listen to it,” she says. “It’s been a great change for me.”