(This article was published in the San Jose Mercury News and its affiliates on March 1, 2012.)
Making a career change is a common daydream for Bay Area cubicle dwellers who see their life devolving into a Dilbert cartoon, but without the chuckles. For foodies — or just those fed up with corporate life — what better fantasy is there than going into the food business?
As cooking teacher and former software sales professional Heather McCarthy of San Francisco explains it, “Most people aren’t looking forward to a call from their sales rep but they do like to spend an evening with a chef.”
Among the many who have heeded the call are successful examples like former corporate finance guy Minh Tsai, who founded Oakland’s über-tofu company Hodo Soy, Andrew Burnham — who once toiled at a hedge fund but now works on the line at Los Gatos’s Michelin two-star, Manresa — and Anne Le Ziblatt, co-proprietor of power-dining spot Tamarine in Palo Alto, who previously labored in software marketing.
However, throwing successful dinner parties at home doesn’t guarantee a thriving new career as a restaurateur. According to experts, 60 percent of new restaurants fail within the first three years and a howling success might bring in profits of just 16 percent.
But this didn’t deter big, burly Paul Reddick from opening Smoking Pig BBQ in San Jose last year with his understanding wife, Jessica. “It was on my bucket list,” jokes the former semiconductor sales manager, who spent more than three decades in high tech and finally got tired of the vicissitudes of the chip industry.
His business background gave Reddick a leg up; he wrote a business plan, researched his segment and refused to go into debt to open his casual barbeque spot. Also, he learned fast. Initially cooking, plating and serving himself — “I’d come up to the table shaking, sweating and covered in grease, having just come from the pit” — he quickly hired an executive chef and put him on a bonus plan.
Reddick is wisely investing in good ingredients for hits like honey-rich cornbread and not-for-the-fat-challenged peanut butter pie. Barbecue fans have taken notice, helping Smoking Pig break even after just three months.
Some corporate workers who move into the food arena know they won’t find their bliss in a restaurant environment. “If I were a chef in a restaurant, that would be like an office job for me. The same daily rat race and routine,” says Mick Dimas, a former San Francisco hedge fund trader who went to culinary school and is now a caterer, menu consultant and part-time cooking teacher with Parties That Cook, a teambuilding-through-cooking operation whose clients include companies throughout the Bay Area.
“The whole finance thing; I never had the passion for it,” he admits, despite the monetary sacrifices that often accompany switching into a food career. For Dimas, that meant earning less in his first year as a chef than just the taxes he paid on his bonus as a trader. “It’s a little hard to digest,” he groans.
Yet the lure of the kitchen remains irresistible for people like Dimas and BethAnn Goldberg, who earned Stanford engineering degrees and worked as a NASA engineer, but realized her heart wasn’t in it.
Despite not knowing what fondant or buttercream were in the early days, self-taught Goldberg opened Studio Cake in Menlo Park, where she architects spectacular wedding and specialty cakes that have won twice on the Food Network Challenge. Her creations are conversation stoppers, like an accurate rendition of a Tesla roadster, a realistic golden retriever for a Milk Bone corporate event, and a fondant alligator purse that matched a bride’s real handbag.
“An engineering degree gives you insane problem-solving skills,” says tall, lean Goldberg. “I can build just about anything,” even if the materials are all edible. She developed techniques for what she calls “carving cake. I feel like I’m being a poseur if I say sculptor,” modestly notes Goldberg. Yet her obvious skill and artistry have expanded her business to the point where she now employs three people full time — who all went to pastry school.
Culinary training to kick off her new food career wasn’t part of Linda Esposito’s roadmap. Instead, she used her fervor for cooking, her business background — she hold a Harvard MBA — and the excellent presentation skills she honed during years in technology marketing to dazzle her way into a cooking teacher gig at Whole Foods in San Mateo.
These days, she’s one of the cooking teachers with Parties That Cook, which itself was founded by someone whose initial career was in computer programming. Esposito also runs the Asian curriculum at the cooking school of posh Cavallo Point in Sausalito and manages the Hodo Soy kiosk in the Ferry Building.
Alas, her busy schedule hasn’t produced nearly the income levels of her prior technology career. “I must say, there is a financial sacrifice,” Esposito admits. “It’s the cost of happiness.”
(See recipes in following post.)