A Different Kind of Fork

by: Tessa Arias

I get asked a lot about my decision to drop out of regular college and enroll in culinary school but have yet to write much about it. I could say it’s because I enjoy my privacy. I could say it’s because I don’t want to treat the internet as my diary and bore everyone to tears. I could say those things but the reality is I’m scared. Terrified, actually. I still don’t know what I’m doing and for a long while I didn’t want anyone to know it. As young people we feel the pressure to pick a school to attend, choose a major to study, investigate career paths to pursue. Basically decide our lives before they have really begun. A few years ago I would look at the people around me and feel left out. All my friends seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do in life. And the ones who didn’t know seemed not the slightest bit worried how things would turn out.

I, on the other hand, was a bit of a mess. I would stress endlessly about the fact that I hadn’t found my calling yet. I worried extensively about my future and what it would hold. Would I ever be good at anything? Would I be able to feed myself and put a roof over my head? Would I wake up every morning happy? After having spent months watching cooking shows, reading food magazines, and drooling over the photos on Tastespotting, I had a realization. I loved this stuff. I didn’t mind grocery shopping and planning our family’s meals. I could think about recipes and menus and flavors and cooking and baking techniques all day long. To this day, years later, I’m still surprised that I haven’t grown tired of it all.

Now I had the confidence that being passionate and enthralled with something can bring a person. But I still didn’t know what I wanted. I graduated high school and started college, announcing my major as Communications. I was doing what I was supposed to do. I was doing what everyone else did. Two semesters went by. Sure I enjoyed classes like philosophy, sociology, and English, but what kind of career could I pursue with vague interests in the liberal arts? I was told liberal arts degrees like that rarely lead to a good job, especially in this economy. After completing my first two communications classes I realized I didn’t even like them; they were boring. I started to panic. This wasn’t what I wanted to spend the next three years doing, let alone my entire life. But what could I do? I felt like I had no choice but to continue down the road I was on.

By now my own blog had grown into something more than a hobby and I was ecstatic. I started fantasizing about pursuing a career related to cooking, baking, and just being in the kitchen. I figured that after I had graduated college, found a job, and begun my life, I would one day fulfill my dreams by going to culinary school. It was a lovely thought that got me through those boring communications classes. Just a fantasy, until I had another realization. I didn’t have to do this. I didn’t have to do what everyone else was doing. I didn’t have to make my life decisions based upon what other people would think or how much money it would make me. For the entire first half of last summer I spent countless nights tossing in bed, going back and forth between my two options. Do I stay on the same path and go to college and get a “safe” degree that will lead to a “safe” career? Or do I create a new path and enroll in culinary school? I had come to a fork in the road, and not the kind you use to swirl pasta. This decision weighed heavily on my conscience. I felt if I chose the wrong path my future happiness would suffer. I felt like everything in my life to that point depended on this decision. It was burdensome, to say the least. I started to realize that the more I thought about the classes I would have to take in college the following semester, the more depressed I became. I discovered that I hadn’t really let myself fully imagine what going to culinary school would be like on. I would actually want to read my textbook and do my homework. I would actually want to remember what I learned instead of just memorizing to pass the next test. I found myself saying out loud, “I want to go to culinary school”.

Now, almost a year later, it seems funny that I struggled so much with that decision. I feel like I’m on the right path now. Sure, there are days when I wake up and wonder what’s next. I haven’t ruled out the option of going back to college and getting a regular degree in time. I feel like right now, at this moment, I’m doing what I want to be doing. And what more could you ask for from life?

All photos © Tessa Arias of Handle the Heat

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March 07, 2011 | Print This Post | Share & Bookmark | Font Size: a A | 32 Comments | Leave a Comment

  • Stephanie
    March 7th, 2011

    What a great post. It’s tough to change your mind in the middle of a commitment. I grappled with this just recently and it took a lot of reflection and self-searching to ultimately choose my own path. To follow your heart and pick a route that isn’t safe takes gumption and more than a few ounces of courage. Thank you for sharing.

  • Anna
    March 7th, 2011

    Being a senior in highschool, college has been on my mind a lot lately. And, like you wrote, I could get a ‘safe’ degree and have a ‘safe’ career.. but what I really want is to be a photographer. And so I’m choosing the road less traveled- I’m pursuing my dreams instead of doing what is ‘right’ or ‘good’. And, although it’s a little terrifying, it’s also freeing. Thanks for sharing your story, it was very encouraging :)

  • Adrianna from A Cozy Kitchen
    March 7th, 2011

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized there is in fact no “safe” career; if you’re not into what you do then it’s actually quite dangerous. If you don’t love it then it’s incredibly difficult to be successful at it. And I’ve further found that if you love something and try really hard then the money and security will come. Once you get out of college and start working, you never really stop until you retire. What we do everyday is such a huge part of who we are–so why not love it! Life is too short not to.

  • Susan
    March 7th, 2011

    I’m so happy for you! As has been said, I too think that it’s very important to be happy in your job because that is where so much of our time is spent. Since I work for a university, and tuition was free for my children, they went ahead and received their degrees in “safe” subjects. My daughter (27) has been subbing for a few years and just this morning I dropped her off at the airport to embark on a trip to Honduras, just because. She has chosen to work for the travel fair and then to take off. I’m very happy for her that she is living the life she wants to. My son, is also working in a career that has nothing to do with his degree, but his career is in a field that he never thought about working in.
    I say go for your dreams.

  • Elissa's Dad
    March 7th, 2011


  • Karen Robertson
    March 7th, 2011

    As the mom of a freshman in college and a high school sophomore I know all too well what you are talking about. It took courage to make the switch and to explore another path and you will always be able to use your culinary skills. Thank you.

  • Hallie @ Daily Bites
    March 7th, 2011

    I hear you! I myself have struggled with the same back and forth conundrum in my life. I was brought up homeschooled and so alternative learning has been something I’ve grown accustomed to, but choosing the road less traveled is by no means easy. I agree with you, though. When you’re in the right “lane” in life and enjoying the journey, that’s where the joy is. :)

  • Alison
    March 7th, 2011

    Good for you! It can be so hard to know what you want to do when you are teenager and the standard path right out of high school is college. I believe it takes time to figure out exactly what you want to do. It is so important to be happy in life and if it is having a career you love or having a side outlet that provides that fulfillment it is absolutely necessary. Congratulations on figuring it out earlier than most and having the courage to pursue it!

  • Jordan @ Kitchen Karate
    March 7th, 2011

    Good for you! I’ve been struggling with a similar decision myself, having almost completed three years of university. I’ve realized that what I’m studying isn’t really what I wan to do, and I feel like I’m sort of wasting my time by focusing on things that don’t interest me as much as they use to. Congratulations on making a decision for yourself and not based on what other people would expect! :)

  • Katy
    March 7th, 2011

    Our stories are somewhat similar it seems… :)
    Someone once told me that you can’t make a wrong decision because no matter what you decide will be right. Yes, it’s weird and convoluted. Yes, it doesn’t necessarily apply to everything. But it can apply here. I’m the girl who went to college early and missed her senior year of high school to start studying Culinary Arts. The girl who left 2/3 of the way through the year and finished the year in high school. The girl who then went to a different school after graduation and studied Elementary Education. The girl who decided that that really wasn’t what she wanted and who went back to her first college with a switch in major to Baking and Pastry. So believe me, I know a bit about not being sure what you want, bouncing between different ideas of what you want to do. I’ve always had problems with figuring out if I made the right decisions in my life and if I made the right choices for me. And the truth is, I don’t regret a single decision I made. Because it all worked out for me. And it will work out for you too. Because it’s never too late and go get a “traditional” degree if you decide that’s what you want to do. But until then, at least you’re doing something you love, right?

  • Zita
    March 8th, 2011


    you made the right choice. Not the right, the BEST! There is no such a thing like “safe” degree, “safe” career, “safe” job. You say: “…going back to college and getting a REGULAR degree…” – see, that is only a REGULAR!!! You will have a CULINARY degree! :)

  • Cristina
    March 8th, 2011

    I spend so many years at the University I have two degrees, a master and so many courses, I been working for 10 years and finally after being thinking too much, I decided to leave my country and go to NYC to be a Pastry Chef at The French Culinary Institute and I can tell you that was the best decision I made in my life. I lost a lot of time doing things that I really didn´t like it. And the decision that I made was not easy everybody though that I was crazy and things like that, you have a good job… what r yu doing,…. is to much money,….. well I will do again, and again. You have to choose the way that it make you happy you only have one live and try to be happy every single minute.

  • Sara
    March 8th, 2011

    I’m a college freshman and struggled with this question a lot. Ultimately, I decided to attend the “regular” university. By no means does that mean I am “settling” though. I think the key is too stay passionate about whatever it is that interests you and pursue it as best you can. For some, that could be attending culinary school; for others, not so much.

  • Carly
    March 8th, 2011

    Wow. You have absolutely no idea how miraculous the timing in this universe is. You and I are floating in identical canoes :) I’m finishing up my second semester of my second year of community college right now. The past 24 months I’ve been doing the same thing, taking (not awful, but not particularly fabulous) basic GE courses, pecking away at getting my Sociology and Anthropology credits out of the way. My initial plan after graduating high school was to do this, and somewhere along the way find out what I wanted to DO, because everybody always wants to know, ‘What do you want to DO?’ As far as classical schooling is concerned, I don’t really love any of it. I like learning, I really do.. but not about equations and dates of historical events. For years people have said out loud to me, ‘You should have a restaurant/bakery one day, you’d be great at it’… and I always said, ‘Yeah…’ Until a few months ago, when I was in the kitchen for the 5th hour that day, determined to make this particular recipe work the way I wanted it to. I had this epiphany.. that I do have something I love. I love THIS. And I called my Dad, and the next day we started looking at culinary schools. And that’s my plan, and it’s so refreshing to finally have a plan, right!? A plan you’re excited about, and proud of sharing with people. I am personally, so so thrilled for myself, and after reading this, for you.. because I seriously, seriously understand exactly what it’s like. Congratulations.

  • Kate @ Diethood.com
    March 8th, 2011

    Thank you for sharing this with us. My first two years of college I had no idea what I wanted to do… I did want to go to culinary school, I knew that, but I didn’t do it because it wasn’t “safe”. Here I am now with a degree in Organizational Management and a MBA, but without a job because all I really ever wanted to do was cook. :)
    I’m glad you changed your mind in time. Just follow your heart. Good Luck! You’ll do great!

  • Gloria
    March 8th, 2011

    Great story! I too struggled with the choice you did and I opted for culinary school in time when no one had even heard the term “celebrity chef”. In my first class at culinary school our chef instructor told us to “look to our right and then look to our left and that in 10 years only one out of two would still be in the food service industry. Well it’s over 30 years since I sat in the class and the profession has never failed to enthrall me. I love it.. and it sounds like you have many years of fun and passion ahead of you in a very noble profession!!

  • Robin
    March 9th, 2011

    This is so amazing to read, because it puts me at such ease. You have no idea! I, too, have had a hard time figuring out my path in life. After being undeclared for a year, I decided to pursue an English literature degree. However, I always get asked, “Do you want to teach?” and my answer is always “No.” But really, that’s one of the few options I’ll have. Now, with a semester left to finish up, I have decided that what I truly love is baking. If I’m not busy, I’m searching food blogs, looking up recipes, scrolling through pictures, watching food shows on TV, etc, etc, etc,. Food is always in my head, as it seems for you. So now, I plan to finish getting this degree (only because I’m so, so close), and next year I hope to go to school for an Associate’s in baking & pastry arts. I wish I started this earlier to save myself some money, but what can you do? If I’ve got to pay loans back anyway, I’d rather be working at a career I love, not a job I hate.

  • Ryan @ Ryan's Baking Blog
    March 11th, 2011

    thank you so much for this post! I’m literally going through what you went through. I was attending college for communications and just recently dropped out to take a semester off and re-evaluate everything and just finished my application process for culinary school. I’m still trying to decide if it’s right for me but this helped me realize that maybe it isn’t a big dumb mistake.

  • Jamie-Lee
    March 13th, 2011

    I’ve just come to the same realization. I planned to go to university for English, but now I think I’d rather go to pastry school instead. I love baking, and writing about food. It’s really scary though to be so uncertain of my future.


  • Rachel
    March 14th, 2011

    Your story is exactly the same story of my second year in college, except that I didn’t go to culinary school. I couldn’t afford financially to make that change, and I had lots of pressure to finish my chemistry degree. I really like the job I have now (and the pay isn’t too bad), but I really regret not going to culinary school. I still have that chance, but I have other dreams I want to get to first (buying a house, getting married, etc.)

    Good for you, having the courage to follow your dreams. I really admire that.

  • Lynn
    March 15th, 2011

    Hi Tessa,

    When I was 18, I went to university and got a standard 4 year degree in fine arts. I was very ambivalent about the work but felt like I needed to get a college degree, get a good job, etc, etc…After spending roughly 6 months as a graphic designer, I quit and got my first cooking job in a local restaurant. I spent 11 years cooking and catering and I was glad I didn’t continue working in a field/job that I hated. Now I’m going back to school for something totally unrelated (Spanish) and am happy about the decision. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that it’s nearly impossible to know what you want for the rest of your life right now and you can always make changes. Go with your heart and go to culinary school! Follow your passion and I wish you good luck :)

    From someone who has done the same

  • Fragolina
    March 16th, 2011

    Wow…great post. You’re probably in early 20′s and I’m in early 30′s and I feel the same as you do. Having dreams is such a beautiful way of hoping, yes for me it is a hope, to dream. Hope to do what I really desire, not doing a routinely boring “safe” job where i’m forced to do for several reasons. I’m glad you knew what you wanted to do, which career to follow, and you still young, ‘coz here, we know what we want but there is no choice, no opportunites, but to leave for another country where we could be what we want to be, at least try our potential,(and I know we have them, i’m using the “we” ‘coz it’s the way here for many persons. My dream also would be to go to a culinary school, be the chef I want to be and start working on my career not only hoping. Great blog.

  • Terry
    March 17th, 2011

    My daughter who is 20 years old, attending a great college, and is also on the Dean’s list sent me this link on Facebook and said read this. From the first line I felt I was talking to her. Thanks so much for sharing you story. I know she must have read this and felt relieved to know she is not the only one who wants to toss the books and pick up a set of mixing bowls. Thanks!

  • Kate
    March 23rd, 2011

    WOW! I am SO excited for you! I can’t imagine you going anywhere but culinary school!

    I woke up at 30, realized I didin’t want to do what I was doing anymore, and am now in school (again!), following another career path. The things I learned while getting my first degree and the jobs that followed give color to my life story, and I am not sad that I “wasted” years of my life figuring out what I did not want to do. But I am very happy that I will be doing something different.

    I’ve learned is that no degree is safe. We all have our own path, our own story. I’m glad you have the courage to follow yours.

  • Olivia
    March 26th, 2011

    Thank You so much for this post. I needed it.

  • michelle
    March 28th, 2011

    you pretty much put into words exactly what i was feeling this past year. After three years of doing what is expected, i finally got the guts to tell my parents what i really felt. While i would not trade the education i got at my college, i definitely wish i had made the move sooner. once i graduate from school this year i will hopefully be in culinary school come this time next year.

    so, good for you. i love when people decide to realize their passionate dreams.

  • Kari K
    March 31st, 2011

    More power to you! The fact that you realized what you really wanted and went for it is great. It wasn’t until 7 years after college and a successful career that my passion started to shift and I knew I had to go to culinary school. I always said that is what I would do some day, but I finally did it.

    Good luck with everything!

  • Jacqueline
    March 31st, 2011

    I went straight from four years of undergrad to law school. I knew within the first week of law school that I had made a big mistake, and that the law was a terrible career choice for me. But I stayed, graduated from law school and became a lawyer because it was what others expected of me, and I was afraid to step off the “safe” track. Now, twenty years later, having “retired” from the legal profession more than a decade ago, I am a happy mom of two beautiful kids and a newly-minted yoga instructor. It took many years for me to learn what you have already figured out. You are wise and brave.

  • Skylar
    April 21st, 2011

    Wow! you put a lot of great stuff in such a short post tessa, you truly amaze me! I’ve been going through the same thing for the past couple of years since I discovered my culinary obsession and I still have my senior year left to figure out just what road I want to take. I’m in a culinary school part time right now, which has been an incredible experience on its own, but I know my next choices are probably going to be a lot harder and will make a bigger difference in my life. it’s been such an encouragement to read the comments from other readers with the same feelings. I’m so glad you had the courage to change your path and follow your passion, Tessa. I hope if I ever have the same choice I will do the same! Thanks everyone!

  • Veruska
    June 28th, 2011

    I couldn’t help but notice and recognize the picture of the wonderful (albeit retchedly heavy) Pro Chef. It reminds me of all the wonderful times I spent in those bakeshops, and how much I miss being at school. You seem to grasp an understanding of food far beyond most of your peers, but the key is never to forget how much you love doing what you do. There have been so many times where I’ve met other bakers that allow “career baking” to ruin their love for food. Just remember that what you do and what you create, make other people happy, and that, at least for me, is the biggest reward.

  • Sylvia
    August 5th, 2011

    Hey Tessa,
    You know, I read this when you first posted it, and remember at the time how much it meant to me, to know that someone felt the same way about their life, school, etc. It was right during exam time for me, and was such a comfort.
    Anyway, I recently thought about it again, and just re-read it, and let me say that I have totally learned that it is such an easy thing to say that it is a cliche to “not do something just because people expect you to”, but it is so true, and so important. I find that SO many people still don’t get what that means, or what it entails. Anyway, you, clearly, totally do. :)

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