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Breaking into the Restaurant Biz... By Accident

Breaking into the Restaurant Biz... By Accident

Carrie Strong | Chef's Blade

Many people ask this of me, whether they are guests conversing with me about food and wine, new friends or just great people I meet on the side of a mountain. I always look up into the sky, searching for the perfect answer. My path from a small town in New Hampshire, where people worked 9-to-5 jobs, to New York City, where my time is adapted according to when people eat and drink, has not been a normal career path. I excelled in a formal collegiate education, but did not take specialized classes to be in the restaurant business nor work as an intern to make key business connections. I had to map this path out on my own.

I attended Lafayette College intending to pursue track & field for as long as possible, not really knowing what my next life steps would be. By my senior year, I had completed many goals I had set for myself including a double major in English and Art and an East Coast Track & Field championship. I felt very proud of my academic, athletic, and extra-curricular accomplishments – yet I felt unfocused. With no career goals in mind, I accepted a position as an Assistant Track & Field Coach at The College of William & Mary, but I didn’t find the job fulfilling. While there, I began brainstorming possible career paths for someone with my interests and background.

Communications seemed like a logical step. I contacted my alma mater’s alumni working in public relations, marketing, advertising and writing. I sent out thirty letters which turned into fifteen phone conversations. From these phone calls, I lined up eight informative interviews in three days in New York City, Trenton, NJ and Philadelphia. It’s amazing how these connections line up when you are in a “normal” career. I succeeded in landing two consecutive advertising positions for two great companies in two years. But I was still unhappy. Needless to say, I quit.

I left New York for the sunny beaches of San Diego, where an advertising job awaited my arrival. Yet when I landed in California, the job I’d lined up fell through. After three more months of job searching, interviewing and planning, I hopped in my brand new convertible for a solo drive back to New York.

Unsure, broke and generally down-trodden, I took a position as a host paying $10 an hour at a popular restaurant in Union Square. This wage was common at the time, but was not enough to cover even one month’s rent. I found a job as a cocktail waitress at a small bar on St. Mark’s Street that paid in cash. Being the only English speaking waitress earned me the head bartender position after learning how to work the bottles. Learning the bar was imperative to make cocktail recipes, pour wine and pull beer taps quickly. I memorized all of the beverages by heart to keep the bar and my tip bucket moving, and to keep the guests satisfied.