You know you want to go to culinary school and a career in food is definitely the goal but maybe restaurant work isn’t your thing. We hear you — we get a lot of career changers at San Francisco Cooking School, both as students and as teachers.
We make it a point to introduce our students to all kinds of opportunities in food, and it’s amazing how many of the guests we have in the kitchen have come to food as their second career. In this Changing Careers series, we talk to those brave souls who have made that leap of faith to follow their dream of a career in food.
Today we chat with Sonoko Sakai, our resident Japanese cooking expert. Sonoko came from a film background, but now spends her time teaching people all about the joys of homemade soba, rice koji, and onigiri, among other things. A trailblazer when it comes to reviving heritage grains, here’s what Sonoko had to say on changing careers and loving what you do:
What did you do in your previous life?
I was a film buyer and film producer. The last film I produced was Blindness directed by Fernando Meireilles (City of God).
What drew you to a career in food?
I saw the changes that were happening in the independent film world. Big
franchised films were in. Indie films were out. I knew if I was going to make a career change, I should just do it. It took me about a couple of years to really get going — patience is important here.
I was always interested in cooking and eating. I constantly had my foot in food, even if it was more as a hobby. I wrote a cookbook when I was in my early 30s — Poetical Pursuit of Food: Japanese recipes for American Cooks and did freelance food writing for the Los Angeles Times food section.
Can you tell us about what you’re doing now?
I’m knee-deep in so many things — I love it. I teach Japanese cooking classes and noodle making, do pop-up brunch events in Los Angeles, consult for Japanese rice growers, manage Japanese government projects to promote Japanese food and culture, write about food for Zester Daily, and am writing a cookbook on rice for Chronicle Books.
I am also working on a project to revive heirloom grains in the Southern California region. All these activities fall under my project Common Grains, which aims to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for food and culture. Within this mission, I advocate a sustainable and healthy lifestyle with grains and vegetables at the heart of a meal. This is a Japanese sensibility that translates well to eating and cooking here in the U.S.
Do you ever regret the career change?
Absolutely not; never look back. I love what I do now because I keep evolving as a person. I meet a lot of nice people. My horizon is expanding because of my interest in food and people.
How did having your prior career make you better at what you do now?
I use all the tools I learned in the movie world. Searching for good ingredients, good food, or good recipes is the same as searching for a good story. Doing pop-up events is like doing production. Prior experience in Movie PR work is also very useful in figuring out how to promote my cooking events. I also learned a lot about people in the film business — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
If you were to give a piece of advice to culinary students looking to pursue a career in food, what would it be?
Find a mentor! Russ Parsons, food editor at the Los Angeles Times and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills were two people who really helped me focus on food. And, of course my soba master, Takashi Hosokawa, remains my soba mentor today.
People like this can help shepherd you into a new industry, opening doors while also opening your eyes to opportunities you may not have even known existed.