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Starting a new life as a line cook in Charlotte

Jim Harris at Bistro La Bon

Jim Harris former military man decides to switch gears and become a chef
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Jim Harris former military man decides to switch gears and become a chef

Jim Harris has a degree from West Point, two master’s degrees and is an Army veteran who was at the Pentagon on 9/11. But he’s just another line cook at Bistro La Bon.

Actually, he’s not quite just another line cook. At 58, he may be older than most of his co-workers. That doesn’t bother him.

“I can take orders from anybody,” he said.

Harris, a 2014 Charlotte transplant from Washington, D.C., said the military prepared its members well for careers in the civilian world. “You learn discipline, to show up on time, be motivated and to handle responsibility,” he said. All those traits are important to a chef – or any boss.

After retiring from the military in 2005, Harris held management jobs in two large corporations over a seven-year period but ultimately grew weary of the corporate life. His wife, Jill, was able to transfer to Charlotte with her job, and Harris decided to start over – again.

He enrolled at Johnson & Wales as a full-time student and earned his culinary arts associate’s degree in a year. (The 9/11 GI bill helped pay for the private Johnson & Wales. It’s a great deal for veterans – tuition, books and a stipend – but you’ve got to be a full-time student to take advantage of it.)

The Harrises chose Charlotte because their daughter, a teacher with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, has lived here for about eight years. She often took her dad to dinner at Bistro La Bon in Plaza Midwood, and he loved the eclectic menu and vibe.

So when it was time to choose an internship, Harris knew exactly where he wanted to work. His 11-week internship in Bistro La Bon’s kitchen started June 1. His first assignment? Peel the spuds.

“I laughed to myself,” he said. “In the Army, when you’re on KP duty, peeling potatoes is one of the first jobs a soldier might get assigned.” Colonels don’t typically peel potatoes. But Harris isn’t a typical retired colonel.

He’s starting over and understands he’ll have to prove himself again.

So far, he’s enjoying the journey. “I’m on my feet for eight or nine hours at a stretch,” he said. “But Johnson & Wales prepared me well for the task. I had the skills. I knew the terminology and the tools.”

He finds restaurant kitchens to be similar to the military in some ways. But he also sees another analogy as even more apt. It’s like an orchestra, he said. “Everyone’s got to be reading the same music,” he said. “If one person’s out of key, the whole kitchen will be out of key.”

Harris may have had more years of life experience than his fellow Johnson & Wales freshmen, but he said most of them had an advantage over him: They had worked in the restaurant business before. Harris had been just a home cook.

He’s still figuring out his next move. He may launch a food truck. Or he might teach military theory, leadership or management.

Or he may decide to work in a restaurant kitchen. He said, “I’m highly trainable.”

Making a midlife career switch

A drastic career change is less intimidating when you have a guaranteed pension. But there are resources available to help take you from attorney to animal trainer or financial analyst to food truck operator.

Nextavenue.org advises those who are 50 and up and considering switching careers to establish a strong online presence, hone technology skills, and consider the new freelance economy. Another tip: Make sure your credit report is accurate – hiring managers may be checking it.

Check out aarp.org and an AARP-published book, “What’s Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond.”

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