Making a career change is a common daydream for Bay Area cubicle dwellers who see their lives devolving into a Dilbert cartoon, but without the laughs. And what better fantasy is there for a food lover than fleeing the cube farm for the glories of the culinary world?
As cooking teacher and former software sales professional Heather McCarthy, of San Francisco, puts 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 surrendered to the siren call of the kitchen and done it successfully: 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' Michelin two-star, Manresa; and Anne Le Ziblatt, who labored in software marketing before becoming co-proprietor of power-dining spot Tamarine in Palo Alto.
Hosting successful dinner parties at home, however, doesn't guarantee a thriving new career as a restaurateur. Industry experts say 60 percent of new restaurants fail within the first three years, and even a howling success might bring in profits of just 16 percent.
That didn't deter big, burly Paul Reddick from opening Smoking Pig BBQ in San Jose last year with his very understanding wife, Jessica.
"It was on my bucket list," jokes the former semiconductor sales manager, who spent more than three decades in high
Reddick's business background gave him a leg up; he wrote a business plan, researched his market segment and refused to go into debt to open his casual barbecue spot. And he invested in high-quality ingredients for hits like his honey-rich cornbread and not-for-the-fat-challenged peanut butter pie. Barbecue fans took notice, helping Smoking Pig break even after just three months.
But Reddick learned a lot on the fly. Initially, he did all the 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 says, before he figured out he needed help and hired an executive chef.
The culinary scene may be the attraction, but the restaurant environment isn't for everyone, of course. Former San Francisco hedge fund trader Mick Dimas left the investment world when he realized he didn't have any passion for "the whole finance thing." Instead, he went to culinary school and now works as a caterer, menu consultant and part-time cooking instructor with Parties That Cook, a team-building-through-cooking operation whose clients include Google, Genentech and companies throughout the Bay Area.
"If I were a chef in a restaurant, that would be like an office job for me," Dimas says, "the same daily rat race and routine."
Dimas may be following his bliss now, but the move came with significant monetary sacrifices. Dimas earned less in his first year as a chef than 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 initially put her Stanford engineering degrees to work as a NASA engineer, until she realized her heart wasn't in rocket science.
Despite not knowing the difference between fondant and buttercream when she started, the self-taught baker opened Studio Cake in Menlo Park, where she builds spectacular wedding and specialty cakes that have won twice on the Food Network Challenge. Goldberg's creations are conversation stoppers -- among them, 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," Goldberg says. "I can build just about anything."
The results are worthy of any sculptor, but Goldberg describes her techniques as merely "carving cake -- I feel like I'm being a poseur if I say sculptor."
Yet her obvious skill and artistry have expanded her business to the point where she's been able to hire three full-time employees, all of whom went to pastry school.
Culinary training wasn't part of Linda Esposito's career road map, either. Instead, she used her fervor for cooking, her business background -- she's a Harvard MBA -- and the 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 Dimas' colleagues at Parties That Cook. She also runs the Asian curriculum at the posh Cavallo Point cooking school 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."