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Careers

Cooking Up a Satisfying Career

Chanette Purser-Smith, 27, of San Francisco stirred up trouble as a teen before studying the culinary arts. Now she follows her own recipe for success as head chef at a West Coast wine bar.

As told to Deanna Pan

What was your life like before culinary school? I was in and out of small jobs and the legal system. I had a lot of missed court dates, and I had a possession charge for a small amount of marijuana.

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What was your breaking point? I was into drugs and living out of my car or staying with friends when I realized I couldn’t live like that anymore. I called my dad, who works for the U.S. Department of Labor in Boston, and told him I needed to change.

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Why did you decide to enroll in Job Corps? My family suggested that I look into it to learn a trade. The Shriver Job Corps Center, near Boston, would provide me with housing and a stipend, then send me to San Francisco for advanced training. I came to the conclusion that it was either jail or Job Corps.

Why choose culinary training? My grandmother is a great cook. And I put my all into my cooking, just like my grandmother.

What was your training like? I could work at my own pace, so I excelled and finished basic training quickly. In advanced training, I learned how a restaurant works. At that time I was also working at Town Hall, a Michelin Guide–rated restaurant in San Francisco. That was like graduate school for me.

How did you get your current job? I did a birthday-party gig for a restaurant owner. After the party, she asked me to come in for an interview, and I found out she wanted to open a wine bar, Pauline’s Wines.

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What do you like about your job? My proudest work has been at Pauline’s Wines because it’s my own menu and I get to play with different flavors. For example, instead of duck, I use chicken thighs to make a confit. I crisp the skin and put the chicken on cremini mushrooms and kale.

How do you feel about the progress you’ve made? I have a sense of pride and strength now that I’ve worked in this industry. My name is worth something now, and it travels well. Good word of mouth is so important in this industry—that’s what gets you a job.