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For chefs who made the career change from the corporate world to the kitchen line, I often wonder if they look back and think of how much easier life would be if they hadn’t switched their suits for whites. For two local chefs, the answer is unsurprising: perhaps easier, but that doesn’t even matter.

Chef Tim Ma of Kyirisan trained as an engineer and worked at Raytheon for years before opening his first restaurant, Maple Ave in Northern Virginia and funding it on a credit card. So was going to culinary school years after getting his master’s degree from John Hopkins worth it?

“I look back every week on Saturday night when I’m weeded on the line and tired from cooking since 8 am, and service is not going as smooth as it should. I look back and wonder why and how this happened,” says Ma. “Then at the end of service, when I look back at the body of work we did for just this one day, I am happier than I ever was as an engineer.” What he misses is understandable: health insurance, 401k, and knowing how much the next paycheck will be.

Chef Mike Friedman of The Red Hen in Bloomindgale made his move into the culinary world from the confines of a cubicle in which he was selling radio air time at WBZ Radio Baltimore. He quit eight months in.

Friedman loves telling this story: he ran out of money and ended up living in this parents’ apartment. When he couldn’t sleep, he would read his mother’s cookbooks and the recipes somehow calmed his nerves. At 22, he got a gig as a prep cook at Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda and ended up going to culinary school three years later.

So what does Friedman think when he looks back on his career change?

“The first month I worked in the kitchen, I knew it was the right fit. What drew me to this career – and what continues to drive me – is the sense of team and family within a restaurant,” he says. “Every service is like playing an important game as a team – ‘going to war,’ as I like to say. On any given night, everyone moves in harmony…The result is happy guests. That’s the reward. That’s why I cook for a living.”

It looks like if both chefs couldn’t find their passion in the corporate world, they’re all set now. Want to learn about more chefs who made the career leap? Check out Eater DC’s “Before They Were Chefs.”

Photo of Tim Ma courtesy of Kiriysan. Photo of Mike Friedman courtesy of Scott Suchman.

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