Image: John Stephano
Anne Rettig  /  The Culinary Institute of America
John Stephano, center, left his job as vice president of sales for a financial firm in 2006. He is now a 40-year-old student at The Culinary Institute of America.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/6/2009 12:42:36 PM ET 2009-04-06T16:42:36

It’s all about food lately.

Culinary shows like “Top Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen” are all the rage. Tainted peanuts have us worried about what we eat and how to make it better. Books such as “The Omnivore's Dilemma” and “Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics” are bestsellers. And even first lady Michelle Obama is getting in on the act, planting a vegetable garden at the White House.

Not surprisingly, more and more laid-off workers, those switching careers and young people just starting out are contemplating jobs in the food industry.

Jack Bernowitz, a 44-year-old laid-off broker from bankrupt Lehman Brothers, enrolled in New York’s Institute of Culinary Education this past November with his sights on becoming a chef.

“For 20 years I loved going to work,” he says about his tenure at the brokerage house. “But in the last four years, with the greed, corruption on Wall Street, the love was gone.”

He was ready for a career overhaul.

“I always loved cooking for my family and friends, even bringing food in for the people at work,” says Bernowitz, who has more than 120 cookbooks at home. “Sometimes you need a tragedy to push you to do what you want to do.”

Last year, the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) saw a record-setting 20,000 inquiries for enrollment, up more than 12 percent from the previous year.

“Surging interest and growing enrollment at ICE is directly related to the current economic climate,” says Rick Smilow, president of The Institute of Culinary Education.

“People are re-pondering the importance of food in our lives,” adds Mark Erickson, vice president/dean for The Culinary Institute of America. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that food is a topic on the national agenda. People are thinking about the health, social and political implications food has, and it’s a wonderful time to think about a career in the food profession.”

A growing but competitive industry
While many individuals like Bernowitz have aspirations of working in a restaurant kitchen, cooking jobs can be very competitive.

The jobless rate among food preparation and related occupations in 2008 was 9.5 percent, compared to the overall national unemployment rate of 5.8 percent last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But take heart, the food job opportunities go beyond the standard restaurant digs.

“Food is the second-largest employer after the federal government,” says Irena Chalmers, author of “Food Jobs: 150 Great Jobs for Culinary Students, Career Changers and Food Lovers.”

When people think of food-related jobs, they tend to think of cooks or chefs in a restaurant, Chalmers says, but that’s just a small part of a huge industry.

There are a host of other opportunities, says Chalmers, including jobs as a cook in nursing homes or retirement centers, personal chefs in people’s homes, and even behind-the-scenes at supermarkets, which are offering more prepared food for time-crunched consumers.

Non-cooking jobs run the gamut from nutritional experts to food safety jobs to research and development positions for corporations, she says.

Dennis Pitchford, 40, used to work for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra doing marketing but decided to take his business background and combine it with one of his other loves: food.

He graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in June and is now working as the corporate chef for Noble Communications, conducting market research and testing of new food products.

When he went to culinary school, he admits he wondered whether he’d be a famous chef like the ones he’s seen on TV. “But school straightened me out,” he says.

Sara O’Brien, 27, was a former chemical engineer who quickly grew bored with her job and wanted to do something more with her life. She is now studying at Boston University to be a dietitian, with plans to work in pediatric nutrition.

“I’m a borderline foodie. I get Gourmet and Food and Wine magazine, and “Top Chef” is one of my all-time favorite TV shows.”

But she also was inspired to enter the field in part because of an incident that occurred when she was younger. “A dietitian helped me get over some health issues and that affected my life positively,” she says.

With obesity rates soaring and the population aging, more people such as O’Brien are looking to careers in nutrition, says Joan Salge Blake, clinical associate professor at Boston University and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

In order to become a registered dietitian, though, you’ll need a bachelor’s of science degree, 1,000 hours working in the field, and you’ll have to pass the ADA exam. However, those who already hold a degree may just have to take a few courses in order to meet the requirements.

There’s also a burgeoning food safety sector, given all the news lately about contaminated food and a new administration that promises to beef up the regulatory environment.

Gonzalo Checa, who worked for Kimberly-Clark in its business-to-business division, decided to leave his career behind in February and join Steritech Group, Inc., in Chester Springs, Pa.

Checa, now president of the food safety division, became interested in the industry after hearing about the cases of tainted foods like spinach and peanuts. “I thought there were opportunities in food safety, and I also wanted to work for a smaller company,” he says.

A passion for food
While there are many food-related jobs to be had, you don't have to rule out the traditional restaurant route.

By the end of this year, there will be 13 million people employed by restaurants and other food service outlets, according to the National Restaurant Association’s forecasts.

“Employment in the restaurant industry outpaced the overall economy in 2008 for the ninth consecutive year, despite several months of modest industry job losses, and is expected to continue to outpace the economy in 2009,” the group reported. “The industry is expected to add an additional 1.8 million positions over the next 10 years, boosting the industry’s workforce by 14 percent to 14.8 million people in 2019.”

John Stephano may have a restaurant in his future.

Stephano, a former vice president of sales for a financial firm, is now a 40-year-old student at The Culinary Institute of America.

He saved for a year before he left his financial job in 2006, and then took a 90 percent cut in pay to go work as a sales associate at a Wegman’s supermarket in Pennsylvania.

“I wanted to get into the food business and get as much exposure to high-end food and service as possible,” he says.

After three months, he worked his way up to a position where he was training staff at the store in selling and merchandising products, and soon he decided to go to culinary school. He rented out his house in Malvern, Pa., acquired a host of scholarships and enrolled in January.

When he graduates, he either plans to develop a high-end food importing business; get into food business consulting; or open up his own restaurant.

While he says the food mania in recent years ignited his passion to get into the sector, it was the late Julia Child who fostered his food passion.

“When I was in grade school and I was home sick, I wasn’t like the other kids looking for cartoons to watch. I always would look to find Julia on PBS,” he recalls. “She became the love of my life.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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