“Your body can only take you so far working in a kitchen”: Why a Toronto pastry chef left restaurants to become a paralegal
The hospitality industry is facing a severe staff shortage, as many longtime bar and restaurant workers departed the industry during the pandemic. While both labour and management voices cite money as the root cause—frustration over low wages, or the continuation of government benefit payments, depending on your point of view—there are other factors, too.
Cora James worked as a pastry chef in Toronto restaurants for over a decade, eventually reaching the level of executive pastry chef. But she felt like she had hit a wall, and made the bold decision to leave the industry to pursue a career as a paralegal. Her starting salary is as much as she earned at the peak of her pastry career, and as she watched the pandemic unfold, she felt no regrets about leaving her previous life behind. Plus: no more having to eat lunch standing over a garbage can. We spoke with James about her career, and her decision to pursue a different path.
James: “When I started my pastry career, I knew I wanted to work for the best, and in 2008 that was Splendido. At the time it was one of the top restaurants in Canada, and there was a level of service and a sense of camaraderie with everyone who worked there. It was my first introduction to high-quality local ingredients and old-school service, where servers would stand off to the side of the room, swooping in unobtrusively with a crumb brush every now and then.
I worked there for about a year creating and plating the desserts. It wasn’t my creation, but the most popular one was the chocolate soufflé with house-made brown butter, and toasted pecan ice cream on the side. It was intense. Splendido taught me how to work under pressure and how to deal with the stress of the kitchen. I became a better pastry cook. The hours were long, but I was okay with it. For me it was a learning experience and that was my ultimate goal; to get in and to learn. It was also my first restaurant experience, so I wanted to learn the art of service. And I did. The high intensity influenced how I worked service thereafter.
In 2012, I moved on to Museum Tavern, where I spent just under two years, and then on to Buca for six months before moving to Bar Buca for a year. The hours there were long. Initially, I started my days at 4 a.m. and I wouldn’t go home until 7 p.m., as many as six days a week. I was making a salary of about $40,000.
It was during those grueling days that I began to feel frustrated with the industry. I started thinking about starting my own business: a dessert bar. My idea was to pair high-concept plated desserts with really good cocktails. I even did a few pop-ups to test out the concept. I served a balsamic cheesecake–stuffed profiterole with a peanut butter praline, peanut butter sauce and toasted pecan crumble; the bartender created a Hakutsuru sake flip with ginger and burnt honey to go with it. It was a hit. But I needed to be somewhere with better hours in order to get that started. Working so much, there was no time to concentrate on anything else.
I went to work at Mamakas Food Group in 2015, and I did good work there while continuing to workshop my dessert bar idea. But I had a hard time getting investors, many of whom didn’t fully understand my concept. Meanwhile, the banks asked if my husband would be a part owner, and when I said no, I didn’t receive any funding. It’s hard being an independent female entrepreneur.
That’s when I knew I needed to change careers. Working in hospitality you hit a point in your career where you either open your own business or you move on. Your body can only take you so far working in a kitchen. When I couldn’t find the means to open my own business I thought, what am I going to do instead?
I was an executive pastry chef, making around $55,000 a year, but I knew that I had maxed out. I was exhausted, and it just wasn’t enough. I had hit the peak of my career and I wanted a better life. I loved being a pastry chef, and I still love baking, but I needed to move on. So while I was still at Mamakas, I enrolled in a two-year paralegal studies program at George Brown in September 2019, knowing I had to start planning my exit.
I chose law because when I was a teenager, I had wanted to be a lawyer. I went to the University of British Columbia and York University for my undergrad before going to George Brown for pastry. Whenever I felt frustrated with academia, baking had always been a stress reliever.
In 2020, I left the kitchen to take on an administrative role at Forno Cultura, the Italian bakery, when I wasn’t studying or in class. That’s when the pandemic hit, and I witnessed first-hand what the hospitality industry had to go through, in terms of lay-offs, pay reductions, hostility from customers and fear for personal safety. It validated my decision to leave.
I recently graduated, and the next requirement toward becoming a licensed paralegal is passing a licensing exam; I write it in February. Another requirement is doing a 120-hour work placement, which I did this summer at G.S. Jameson & Company. The principal lawyer, Glenford Jameson, hired me as a legal assistant and I start this month. The hours are better, and the starting salary is the same salary I earned after 13 years of baking. Plus, I get benefits, which are practically unheard of in the hospitality industry. I am also allowed a lunch break, which means I don’t have to eat standing over a garbage can. And I don’t have to hold my pee until it’s convenient to go.
It feels right, especially because Glenford’s practice is in food law. So, in a way, I’m not abandoning what I’ve worked for up to this point. I’m just continuing my passion within a more humane environment.”
Have you recently left the hospitality industry for something entirely different? Let us know at [email protected].