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Trade your cubicle for a kitchen

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  • Thousands leave their jobs to attend culinary school
  • Chef: School is "hot. It's fast. It's high-stress"
  • Trend is fed by TV shows "Ace of Cakes" and "Top Chef"
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By Sarah Jio
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(LifeWire) -- Janice Shih might be the most educated pastry chef you'll ever meet.

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Janice Shih left her career in medicine at age 38 and became a pastry chef.

Shih attended Johns Hopkins University, followed by medical school at George Washington University, then practiced for eight years as an obstetrician/gynecologist before realizing that baking, not medicine, was her calling.

"Everyone would say, 'You're a doctor; it must be so great to be able to save lives,'" she says. "But I felt like I was just pushing papers and feeling pressure to see more patients in less time. It was very draining. It just wasn't fun anymore."

So in 2004, at age 38, she swapped her stethoscope for a rolling pin and enrolled in the pastry program at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

"I had always been interested in pastries -- mostly interested in eating them," she says with a laugh.

Shih now owns Tenzo Artisan, a bakery and catering company in Baltimore that specializes in pastries for people with food allergies -- it's rewarding, she says, to make birthday cakes for people whose dietary sensitivities had forbidden such treats.

She's one of thousands of career changers who have left their cubicles for culinary school. Enrollment has risen 40 percent since 2000 at the Culinary Institute of America, and it's up 15 percent this year at The Art Institutes, which operates 30 culinary programs across the country. The trend is helped by a growing cultural interest in gourmet food and a proliferation of cooking-themed TV shows like the Food Network's "Ace of Cakes" and Bravo's "Top Chef."

Plenty of possibilities

Students attending the grueling programs, which can last six to 38 months, can dole out as much as $30,000 to $40,000 for the diploma. And then the real work begins.

Neil Robertson, 44, was technical director at a graphic design firm in 2003 and felt like he no longer fit the mold. He quit his 18-year career and attended the French Pastry School in Chicago. "I've always loved to bake," he says. "But baking in a professional kitchen? I wasn't sure that I could handle it."

In his first professional experience after pastry school, he found out how tough it can be: "I came very close to tears." Yet he persevered, and five years later became head pastry chef at Seattle's Canlis restaurant.

"You're not a chef as soon as you finish culinary school," says Michael Ruhlman, author of "The Making of a Chef," an inside look at life at the Culinary Institute. "You're a chef only after spending several years further honing your craft and learning the ropes. To say otherwise would be like saying grads of medical school could instantly be called pediatric neurosurgeons the day after graduation."

And becoming a chef isn't the only option. "There are so many possibilities today," says Culinary Institute President Tim Ryan. "Catering, sales, manufacturing -- we even have graduates who have launched clothing companies (or) become food scientists."

Jen Beltz, 38, and Thom Householder, 40, testify to that. In 2004, they quit their jobs at AARP and followed their palates to Italy.

Using the proceeds of their house sale, the couple attended a five-month culinary program in Florence, then a nine-month course in Canada. All the while, they had no idea where their gastronomic education would take them.

"Some of our friends and family seemed to think we were a bit insane," Beltz recalls.

But with their newfound culinary know-how, Beltz and Householder launched Front Burner PR, a boutique public-relations and marketing firm in Portland, Maine, that focuses on restaurants, hotels and other food-related clients.

Don't quit your day job just yet

Think carefully before writing your resignation letter -- culinary school is no cakewalk, says Robertson. "It's hot. It's fast. It's high-stress. It's a pressure cooker."

Ruhlman agrees. "I can't even tell you how many people have read my book and thanked me for saving them from going to culinary school," he says, "because they had no idea how hard it really is."

Before taking the plunge, Robertson and Ruhlman suggest getting a feel for the job via a culinary vacation, like those offered through gourmetontour.com and foodvacation.com, or by shadowing a chef.

For the second option, "go to a restaurant that you like and respect and ask if you can spend a day in the kitchen," suggests Ruhlman. It's called trailing, and some restaurants are open to it. If you have some food experience, you might be able to stage (pronounced stauge), which entails working in a kitchen alongside a chef, without pay, for a day or two.

"You get to see what life is really like in a professional kitchen," he says, "and it will really open your eyes."

Looking back, Robertson says leaving his job for the culinary world was a bold move, but worth every deflated soufflé along the way:

"I'm much more excited about what I'm doing now." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Sarah Jio's work has appeared in "Gourmet," "Health," "O, The Oprah Magazine," and many other publications.

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