Kevin MershonAdviser | Wednesday, December 29th, 2010 | No Comments »
Even in a strong economy, a career change in life can be easily set aside due to a myriad of reasons such as income, stability, increased debt, and spousal or family support. I met Kevin Mershon when after he already made the decision to leave his career in corporate accounting to enter into the culinary industry. I was his admissions representative. He didn’t need to be sold as he already bought into the idea of attending culinary school. I liked that but not because it made my job easier. I applauded him because of the research, time, and effort he took before even filling out a college application. Sharing this Q+A is important because many of you have all been there before as adults. Some of you made the move and others could not. Whether it was a financial decision, a family restriction or simply fear. Kevin Mershon, in my opinion, can teach us a lot about making a career change into the culinary arts but you can also learn about life from his story.
JT: What led you to wanting to leave your career and go to culinary school?
KM: I was good at numbers and good at math. There’s a methodical way I go about thinking about things. It was even an expectation growing up with my family and my peers having a set career path and financial security. I didn’t really give as much thoughts as things that I would be doing day to day and enjoy them. All I knew is that I was good enough to do it and make a decent living. After doing that for less than three years, I knew that I couldn’t do that anymore. I was not enjoying myself. I liked the people I worked with and saw they were passionate and loved it. I loved to cook already but didn’t see it as a reality that I could do the rest of my life.
JT: How did you come to the decision to attend Kendall College?
KM: I spoke with 3 or 4 different chefs and went through my contacts to get different people’s opinions in the industry about should I or shouldn’t I go to culinary school? Should I just quit my job and jump right in? The big difference being I can quit, go somewhere and they pay me versus me going to Kendall College and I pay them and still learning but what’s the give and take? I went to culinary school because I didn’t want to be on the line the rest of my life. I kind of thought owning my own place was where I wanted to end up but the more I got into it I realized that life is pretty harsh and it takes a lot physically, mentally and takes a lot of hours. I could see myself doing that for 3-5 years but I don’t know if I see myself in a fine dining kitchen. If I don’t stay in fine dining, what do I have to show? I don’t have that legitimacy.
Most of the people I talked to in the industry with and without culinary school said that if I were to go to school in Chicago, you need to go to Kendall. I knew it was the top place to go in Chicago. I looked at CHIC (now Le Cordon Bleu Chicago) a little bit and took a tour. I was impressed with Kendall. There’s a support system with you and followed up with me a lot. It made me feel like there was a connection to the student as opposed to when I was at CHIC. They were there to give me a tour and if interested, you could give us a call.
JT: What was the process for you from deciding to make the change to starting school?
KM: Another reason I liked Kendall is that I would be there 6 months less than any other school. I did the math and knew that I needed enough before I go to school to get by on what I earned in 15 months. I wanted to do that taking into account whether or not I got paid for an externship. It’s not like it was a lot but it covered my rent every month. Also, 4 months before I left my old job, I sold my car. Another half year before that, we moved to a cheaper place and cut my rent in half. I looked at my lifestyle and decided what’s important to me, what’s not important to me, what can I cut out? Living in Chicago, I don’t need a car. I could ride my bike or take the train. I’m also lucky. I am 26 years old, so I kind of was thinking, before I made the switch, I knew I was going to get married. My wife was extremely important so I am lucky. I knew what that would mean 6 or 7 years down the road if I want to have kids. If this is going to happen, it’s going to happen now.
JT: How did your family and fiancé respond to this?
KM: At first she was excited because she saw I would come every day and knew that I hated doing it. She knew I wanted to do something I loved. She was cautiously optimistic. I’m working a lot hours now and if I do this, I still will work a lot of hours but I will be happy. Overall she was supportive. I know when I gave my 2 weeks at work and sat down with my best friend from that job, his girlfriend at the time. When I told him I was going to culinary school, he was totally floored. His girlfriend was like, “If you do that, I would leave you.” They’ve since broken up.
It’s hard to find someone that supportive. When I exit school and start cooking, I will earn 3 times less than what I earned before and I will be working as many hours in my peak time in accounting. I also have the benefit of enjoying what I do so I don’t know if you can really measure that.
JT: Before starting culinary school, you staged. What was that like?
KM: My first time being in a professional kitchen was at Mexique. I researched the place a lot and was really interested. I was eating outside and the chef walks by and I was eating with my grandmother who is Mexican. I was thinking that was the chef and she just started speaking to him in Spanish. He asked us how the food was and told him that I was interested in becoming a cook. He told me to think about it and come by on Tuesday if interested. I wasn’t in the industry yet so I didn’t know when to come by. Tuesday is not bad but I didn’t know I couldn’t come during dinner service. He was working the line so he couldn’t talk to me but his wife was managing the hostess station. She talked to him and they told me to come in on Thursday, bring your whites for the stage. I emailed you that night and I told you that I have no idea how I did this, but I got myself a stage. I don’t know where to get whites, pants, or any of this stuff. You told me to checkout Northwestern Cutlery. I went in and bought a few random things, shoes, pants, chef coat. I went in looking half decent.
JT: Any advice for a new stagier?
KM: I would recommend to not go in during dinner time, possibly in between services. Knock on the back door because often enough, that’s where the chef will be.
JT: What were your expectations going into Kendall?
KM: I think the element that I have grown the most that I didn’t expect to be emphasized were 2 things: The whole business end of being a cook and how to cost everything out and how to manage your inventory. I had a business background and thought I just wanted to learn how to cook. It was emphasized in every cooking class. Even though I had a strong business background, it showed me how I could relate everything I know to the culinary industry.
How to determine a menu price…before I had no idea how to come up with a menu price that would earn me enough money to cover my food costs, labor costs, overhead, and all those different things involved in running a restaurant. Ever since my first class, we learned how to cost out every ingredient and how much to pay for it and how to figure out your yields. So take mushrooms…you buy 10 lbs of mushrooms but you have to calculate not using the stems. It was introduced in the first block and repeated in every class.
Also, time management and multitasking are key. When I thought about learning how to learn to cook, I thought I would learn how to make sauces and ho to grill 10 different types of protein properly. I didn’t think how I would grill, fry, sauté and prepare mise en place at the same time.
JT: Any tips for internship? What to expect? What to be called?
KM: Even though I was treated well, they still called me intern. “Hey intern, do this or do that.” It’s just part of being in the kitchen but if you are coming from a different industry it’s strange. In my old industry, I was in undergrad for accounting and their internship had a set program. This is how long your internship is, this is how much you get paid and this is what you’ll be doing. At the time, they had a 3,000 person office. The entire restaurant had 20 people that worked there with 10 people in the kitchen at maximum. It’s different as your schedule changes every week. I worked every station but pastry at Green Zebra. I got to see a lot of things and I got to learn. The chef, Molly Harrison, busted my chops for the first 2 months. (Since Mershon’s internship, she has moved to Colorado). I kept hearing, go faster go faster and I really heard a lot from that. They started me off on garde manger which is where most interns will start because it’s the simplest, lower cost items and lower margin for error. It’s the least money a restaurant can use if the intern screws up. I told her that I wanted to get different experience and when I staged there before I told them what I wanted to get out of it. Since mine ended, we’ve had additional interns and one ended up not getting off the cold line. It’s about whether you are committed and whether or not you want to learn. Internships have set end dates so they know it will end at a certain time so if they know you don’t want to get the most out of it, it will just end for you.
JT: Networking is something most of us understand as a professional adult. Is it any different for you in the culinary world versus your previous industry?
KM: They talk about it a lot in school and I think it’s very important. Right now, I am looking at a lot of places. I had the opportunity to stay but I thought that I want to get different types of experience. I had the chance to sit down with the sous chef and he said he knew people and he could help me get in or at least get a stage. We had a lot of stagiers at Green Zebra. If people were super persistent and had a good attitude, they usually got in. Also, if someone knew someone there and knew what they were doing, it was a huge leg up. No matter if it’s catering, fine dining, or a sandwich shop, knowing people is a huge.
Since the interview was conducted in November, Kevin Mershon has since graduated from Kendall College.