Becoming a Chef After High School: One Man's Journey

People rarely know how, when or what they want to do professionally at age 18. Most chefs today usually have at least one career before making the leap to full-time work in the food and hospitality industry. For some, however, it's the only thing they've ever considered. Becoming a chef after high school takes serious commitment and maturity. Daniel Holloway, the executive chef and co-founder of Toronto's Urban Acorn, a vegetarian and healthy eating ("flexitarian") catering company and market, is one such individual. He's been in the business for over a decade and a half and has even cooked for celebrities like Prince and writer Margaret Atwood (he catered her daughter's wedding!).

Holloway's after-graduation plans, between the parties and goodbyes, quickly involved becoming a chef after high school. "I always enjoyed being in the kitchen with my mother, cooking with her as a young adolescent," says Holloway. He took a year between high school and culinary school to save up, while working in restaurants to pay the bills and pursing his other passion, music. "I was always drawn to the arts. But I quickly realized the culinary industry was something I was really good at and I enjoyed the pace of the work involved," he says. He chose to study culinary management at the Toronto campus of Humber College for its solid cooperative program.

He started in what he calls "mom-and-pop restaurants" and worked his way through cooking school in 2000. It was a two-year culinary management program and Holloway apprenticed at the now-defunct Red Canoe Bistro in Burlington, Ontario. He recalls his first industry job was at a fine dining restaurant called The Old Barber House, followed by a stint at The Metropolitan Hotel. "I started off plating desserts. Then I took over the station and started doing simple recipes like creme brulee and cheesecake," he says. This all led to him to being the chef behind Urban Acorn.

When asked about his biggest cooking school takeaway, Holloway's quick to point out that it laid down the essential groundwork from which to build his skills. He was never enamored with the finicky technical aspects, but understood the importance of mastering them. "I learned more in the field. School was very technical and I've always liked being creative." But, he adds that culinary school was the backbone of everything he referenced once he began his career.

This is a career that, Holloway says, you've got to love to excel at. "I was earning $10 an hour, which means I worked for beans but I didn't care. I was hungry to learn and get really sharp with my skills," he explains. During the quiet season, he might have worked 24 hours a week when he was starting out. But during the holidays, that could shoot up to 100 hours a week.

Is he happy with his choice of becoming a chef after high school? "Yes, absolutely. I found what I am supposed to do in life." His pearls of wisdom for any aspiring culinary worker include this: keep your ears open, leave your ego at the door and always remember you can learn from any situation, good or bad. He adds that if you're serious about the industry, save up and invest in good knives and equipment, become a perpetual student and always read. But most importantly: "Keep clean, because no one, and I mean no one, likes a dirty chef!"

Photo Credit: Chef Daniel Holloway