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You want to go to culinary school?

Kendall College chef instructor DinAltieri lectures students intricacies veloute classic sauce. (Rich Hein~Sun-Times)

Kendall College chef instructor Dina Altieri lectures students on the intricacies of veloute, a classic sauce. (Rich Hein~Sun-Times)

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Updated: November 8, 2011 12:32AM

Before Doug Sohn was slinging gourmet hot dogs to the masses at Hot Doug’s, his North Side sausage shrine, he was a slacker office temp who enrolled in culinary school mostly because “the opportunity to not work and go back to school for a couple of years sounded really appealing.”

Suzy Singh, a UIC graduate and self-described “engineering nerd,” was making good money as a neural engineer. An avid home cook, she moonlighted at Le Cordon Bleu Chicago and eventually quit engineering to focus on cooking. She’s now a contestant on Fox’s “Masterchef” series.

Nicole Greene was a Department of Defense analyst with multiple degrees from the U. of C. who had never baked a cake in her life but always had food-related daydreams. After much research and soul-searching, she gave up her government gig for an intensive, six-month pastry program and, within a year, launched her confections business, truffle truffle.

Versions of this scenario — 9-to-5-er realizes his 9-to-5 job isn’t for him and quits to enroll in culinary school — are playing out with increasing frequency across Chicago.

At Washburne Culinary Institute in Englewood, an estimated third of the students are career-changers, and “that’s been going up,” says provost Bill Reynolds.

Blame it economy. “It’s so typical,” says Renee Zonka, dean of the school of culinary arts at Kendall College in the Goose Island district, which also gets a “good amount” of students looking to reinvent themselves. “As the economy gets worse and people lose their jobs, they start thinking about what else in their life they like to do. And they say, ‘I’ve always enjoyed cooking.’ ”

It sounds romantic, and indeed, many culinary Johnny-come-latelies say it’s their true calling. For others, such as Sohn, it’s something to do that turns into quite the right decision. (On a Monday, seven minutes before his hot dog stand’s 4 p.m. closing time, there’s still a line out the door.)

But culinary school is not to be entered into lightly for those questioning their current careers. It’s not cheap, it’s demanding and the pay once out of school is crappy.

Chances are, you’re not destined to open Hot Doug’s 2.0 after graduation or, like Singh, have a chance encounter with the “Masterchef” producers in the lobby of Le Cordon Bleu.

With that in mind, here are some factors to consider before taking the plunge and bidding your (insert day job here) adieu.

Be honest with yourself

So you can make a mean blueberry muffin. But do you truly have a passion for food and cooking? Or are you trying to get away from your current job or your monster boss?

You don’t have to go to culinary school to follow your dreams and get in the back door of a restaurant. Plenty of chefs didn’t. You’ve heard of Charlie Trotter? He’s self-taught.

That said, that degree gets you more places faster, says Kendall’s Zonka. “It teaches you really well-rounded information, but also prepares you for that business side . . . It makes [you] more marketable, opens more doors.”

And by the way, have you worked in a restaurant?

Again, some would argue that no previous exposure to cooking on the line is necessary before you enroll in cooking school. But it sure helps.

So go to a restaurant or bakery — or several — and offer to wash dishes or peel carrots. In industry parlance, this is called a stage, or unpaid internship. “You’ll get a real good picture of what it’s like,” says Washburne’s Reynolds.

Do your research

Read up on as many culinary schools and programs as you can to find the right fit. Consider the duration of programs, and what the class requirements are. Go to an open house. Le Cordon Bleu Chicago in River North hosts a monthly open house that includes cooking demonstrations; lunch is part of Kendall’s tour.

Many schools are more multi-faceted than people realize. Some schools offer certificates and associate degrees. Kendall College offers full- and part-time bachelor’s programs in various concentrations, including foodservice management and childhood nutrition.

“I had never taken any accounting, and accounting was a requirement at Kendall,” says Jill Houk, a former information technology sales exec who now is a consultant to food companies. “Just understanding billing and cash flow . . . the nitty-gritty of how a business operates was especially good.”

Do the math

Getting that degree can cost upwards of $15,000. Greene’s tab at the French Culinary Institute was $40,000.

And consider that you might not have a salary while in school, and that it likely will be peanuts — $10 an hour, maybe, no benefits — when you’re out. Do those numbers work for you?

Consider the physicality and the lifestyle

Between the early-morning classes, the hands-on, on-your-feet kitchen time and weekend classes, culinary school is a grind physically. “But that’s nothing compared to being in a restaurant kitchen,” Reynolds say.

And if you have a family, can you balance that with your home obligations?

As a Kendall student at age 35 — and a single mom — Houk felt like the “old kid on the block.” She remembers the dean at the time, Christian De Vos, asking her bluntly, “What makes you think you can stand for 12 hours a day in no air-conditioning?”

Accept that you’ll be starting over

You may have had a corner office at one time, but if you make the switch to culinary school, “you have to be prepared to climb that totem pole all over again” amid a much younger field, Greene says.

But then, this industry, of any, values working your way up. So immerse yourself, pay attention, get the techniques down — and be realistic. About half of students who graduate from culinary school aren’t in the industry five years later, says Reynolds.

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