From the Investment Business to Culinary School

by Mark Gleason

John Stephano gave up a nice salary, enrolled in cooking school at 40 and let loose his lifelong passion for food. The hardest part was convincing himself not to stay on the safe path.
Culinary school
John Stephano in cooking class

Once in a while you meet someone whose enthusiasm is so infectious, you can actually feel your adrenaline flow. John Stephano, enrolled in a two-year degree program at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY, at age 41, is exactly like that. The former investment advisor dusted off an old dream and has turned it into a career odyssey. Unusually, the turning point came on a visit to a grocery store.

Stephano has always had a passion for food. “You know when you’re a kid and you get sick, and you have to stay home from school?” he asks. “So you spend the day on the couch watching TV. What I liked to watch on those days was Julia Child.”

Stephano had considered going to culinary school 20 years ago. Instead he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Cabrini College in Pennsylvania. From there he started out in corporate sales for Kinko’s then sold software to the banking industry. After a while, he realized he enjoyed the financial-services industry and went to work as an investment advisor for Morgan Stanley and later for another firm. Optimistic and outgoing, he was good with clients and did well. He was married for five years but divorced in 2008.

Imagining the possibilities

About then, Stephano began to think about how—even though he liked his job—he might prefer working with or around food. In idle moments he found himself imagining the possibilities, but of course with a comfortable job and a very comfortable income, there were always good reasons to do nothing more than dream. Still, he couldn’t shake the suspicion that his life was missing a key ingredient. Before his divorce, he had coached his wife through a career change: She had been a professional actress in New York, and she wanted to find a career with a longer-term future. She pursued a career in human resources and ended up as a VP for a large company. He had also advised clients in his investment practice who were thinking about making a career transition. “But when it came to my own career, I couldn’t take that step. I wanted to know what was around the next bend, and of course to take that kind of leap you can’t know what’s next. Wanting to know is the same as saying ‘no.’”

‘I belonged in that place’

As time went on, Stephano’s thoughts shifted from dreaming about working in the kitchen to considering how he might make an entry in a food-related career. “There are lots of ways to do it, beyond being a chef. Look at how food has exploded, with celebrity chefs writing books and whole TV channels devoted to cooking.” He considered careers such as providing marketing consulting to restaurants and food science. Then one night he found himself in the middle of a long drive to his home in the Philadelphia area from Bethlehem, Pa. The weather was bad, and fearing a slow trek, he pulled over to stock his car with some goodies. In a strip mall, he spotted a grocery store called Wegman’s. The Rochester-based chain had no stores in the Philly area, so Stephano had never been in one before. Wegman’s stores tend to be large, exuberantly stocked foodie bazaars. Cheese sections might carry more than 500 kinds of cheese, and elaborate carving stations feature tables adorned with steaming, succulent roasts. Stephano recalls, “I stepped in the store, and something came over me. I belonged in that place. The smells, the displays, the atmosphere—I was in my element.”

A year or so later, Wegman’s opened a store in Downingtown, near where Stephano lived. After shopping there for a few months, he learned about a food fair Wegman’s was sponsoring. He went to check it out, met a manager from the Downingtown store and boldly asked her for a job. Any job. Pretty soon he was squeezing in part-time shifts in the cheese and seafood departments alongside his job at the investment office. It was an exploratory step: “I knew now I wanted to work in the food business, but I also knew I didn’t know enough about the food business.”

90 percent pay cut

Eventually he gave up the investment job—and about 90 percent of his income—and worked full time at the grocery.

“Behind the fish counter, I learned about more than 100 kinds of seafood,” he says. “And as I learned, it became clear that I wanted to learn a whole lot more.” Stephano began to think about culinary school as a way to accelerate his learning and gain a window into the different career options that might be available to him.

He researched a number of schools, in the United States and in France, Italy, Spain. He kept being drawn to CIA, and in the spring of 2008 he went for a visit. The feeling on the stately campus, a former Jesuit seminary on the banks of the Hudson River looking west to the foothills of the Catskills that features 42 kitchens and five restaurants, was “just like that night in Wegman’s.” It felt right.

Cooking up a financial plan

Now Stephano had to figure out how to quit his job, cover tuition and live without a salary for two years. He started doing research and discovered a wide variety of scholarships for which he might be eligible. He began applying—and landed several, including one from Wegman’s and two from CIA. He also arranged to rent out his house in suburban Philadelphia. Stephano started as a full-time student in the two-year associate’s degree program in January 2009. The smile on his face says it all: “I love it. It just feels great,” he says. “I always liked my job. But now, I wake up in the morning, and I feel like a different person. This is where I want to be.”

Classes at the school are hand’s-on, with most days spent in kitchens learning about dozens of cuts of meat, hundreds of vegetables, the fine art of pastry-making. In one class, he wrote a report on his childhood inspiration, Julia Child. Being in school again at 40 is not what some might expect, he notes. It’s fun, sure, but it’s not the carefree lifestyle of an undergrad that makes him wake up smiling. “It’s the chance to learn about something you love,” he says. Having experienced the world, he says, he brings a greater focus and desire to truly learn than most 18-year-olds are capable of bringing to their studies. He has made friends with several faculty members and likes to pick their brains about their experiences working in restaurants and other culinary careers.

Stephano doesn’t know what he’ll do when he graduates: He might start a restaurant or open a food-wholesaling or importing business. That’s what he has the next 18 months to figure out.

The hardest part

Over a savory lunch in one of CIA’s restaurants, Stephano gleams with the energy he draws from his renewed sense of purpose. Then he shakes his head thoughtfully. “I almost didn’t make it here. I was thinking about it a lot, but I kept thinking of the reasons I couldn’t do it. Because I didn’t know this is how I would feel.”

For John and for lots of people, men especially he surmises, not knowing becomes a reason not to act.

Read John Stephano’s blog


by Mark Gleason | Tuesday, April 21, 2009 | Career Change, Career Change, Back to School

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