When I decided to leave my own corporate job years ago to pursue the culinary arts, I couldn’t think much further than doing what I love on a daily basis: cooking. But it soon became clear to me that leaving the safety of one career to take up another is not quite that simple.
Doing something you love will make you work harder at it, but that alone doesn’t mean you have a good business. Hard work, ultimately, has to meet with the right opportunities, and that’s where entrepreneurial spirit can come in, allowing passion to meet real business sense.
My own journey in the kitchen has taught me innumerable lessons that extend far beyond time and temperature. If you are looking to change yours, here are some tried and tested lessons I can share:
1. Treat goals like recipes. Remember to take it one step at a time.
It’s easy to get mired in the day-to-day, and though you may be doing something you love broadly speaking, that doesn’t mean you will love it all the time. Segmenting my goals and having a clear vision has allowed me to stay calm and focused on the process. Keep your ultimate objectives in mind, but try to appreciate and not look past where you are today. I often remind myself that I'm always learning and getting a little closer to my dream.
2. Get to know the people who came before you.
When I changed careers, I studied star chefs like Jean-Georges and Thomas Keller as well as people with successful food and lifestyle brands like Martha Stewart and Giada de Laurentiis. I wanted to better understand the landscape as well as the successes and mistakes these guys had made. I never expected to take their exact path, but I did gain an understanding of what went into their level of achievement.
3. Always have something to offer.
I do a fair bit of traveling, learning from chefs and home cooks around the world. When I visit a new location, I like to shadow cooks in professional or home kitchens to learn their techniques and dishes. This has been a huge challenge as both a foreigner and a female. I usually start small, asking if I can watch service for the day. In exchange, I offer to prep and make something, whether that be the staff’s family meal or a recipe the chef may not know. Taking a little more time to build trust and having something to offer helps open people up more.
4. Seek help from those who do it better than you can.
Use your network and resources thoughtfully. If you don't have a skill, you likely know someone who does. For example, I wanted to photograph the recipes from my book myself but I wasn’t a pro food photographer. I bought a great camera, reached out to a talented photographer and friend who was willing to teach me and prepared myself for trial and error.
5. Prepare to be uncomfortable, both physically and mentally.
Some of the greatest lessons and most gratifying experiences have come from times when I wasn’t entirely comfortable with what I was doing. I'm not just talking about having to lift 80 pound vats of stock in some of the kitchens where I worked. When I signed on to write my first cookbook, I was pregnant and already working full-time. I had to write, cook, test and photograph the entire book. This idea terrified me. There were days when I was so exhausted it was hard to get off the couch. But the book is done and will be out this year.
It just goes to show: When you’re pushed, you push back. Rise to the occasion because success might be waiting around the corner for you.
Aliya LeeKong is a chef and author of the forthcoming cookbook, Exotic Table: Flavors, Inspiration, and Recipes from Around the World -- to Your Kitchen (Adams Media, 2013). She is the chef and culinary creative director of the restaurant Junoon in New York. Aliya blogs at www.aliyaleekong.com.