Name: Aaron Hutcherson
Undergrad: Washington University in St. Louis, School of Engineering
Majors: Systems Engineering
Graduate: Washington University in St. Louis, Olin School of Business
Activities: RA (Resident Assistant), NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers), ABS (Association of Black Students), club volleyball, Social Justice Center, DSP business fraternity
1st Job: Assistant Vice President, Bank of America Merrill Lynch
2nd Job: Line Cook, Northern Spy Food Co.
3rd Job: Operations & Technology, Momofuku
4th Job: Freelance Chef / Contributor, Food Network
5th Job: Applications Support Specialist, Maison Kayser USA
6th Job: Editor + Community Manager, Tasting Table
Current Job#1: Editor + Social Media Manager, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate
Current Job#2: Food Writer + Recipe Developer, TheHungryHutch.com
Internships: Ballibay Camps, Food Network
A math whiz with a penchant for cooking, Aaron Hutcherson had a somewhat meandering path from his home in Chicago to WashU, Wall Street, and into the world of food media. What started as a personal blog, The Hungry Hutch, spurred Aaron’s love for all things food. Looking back, Aaron connects the dots and shares how he savors the sweetness life has to offer.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. My parents still live in the same
house that I’ve known my entire life. I went to high school in the suburbs at a boarding school, Illinois Math and Science Academy, for kids from all over the United States. It’s a three-year program, so I went my sophomore through senior years. Most students end up going to their local high school first, then applying and transferring. A few people, like me, go straight from eighth grade. As a result, I’m a year younger than everyone I graduated with.
What did your parents do for work?
My dad was an administrator for the Cook County Hospital. When I was younger, my mom stayed at home, but once I was in middle school she was a substitute teacher. When I went to high school, she started working full-time as a teacher’s aide.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Many things! One, which is probably similar to the dream job of most kids, was a marine biologist. That dream job was mainly so I could swim with dolphins, although I can’t really swim that well. At one point, I think it shifted to be something in finance or accounting because I’m good in math. That’s kind of what ended up happening, at least in the beginning of my career.
What was your first paid job?
My first real job wasn’t until my freshman year of college, where I completed a work study program in the alumni and development office at WashU doing administrative tasks.
How did you choose WashU for school?
One of my criteria for choosing a college was diversity. I wanted at least 5 percent of the student population to be black. I also wanted a school with a strong academic program. I was an Ervin Scholar, so I got a scholarship and reaped the benefits from being a part of that program.
What did you study and how did that come about?
I earned my undergrad degree in systems engineering and my master’s degree in finance. I didn’t realize in filling out the application that in marking the schools you were interested in you were actually applying to those schools. I was surprised when I learned I was enrolled in the School of Engineering my freshman year. Once I was in the engineering school, systems engineering called out to me because I like math a lot more than science, and systems is 99 percent math based in terms of what you’re learning. That was sort of an easy decision for me. With finance, I was looking for something to apply math skills to, and finance seemed like the obvious choice. I started taking a couple of classes sophomore year. Originally, I planned to get a minor or double major in finance. But then another student who was a year ahead of me had done the master’s program his senior year and convinced me that it would be a good idea.
When you weren’t studying, what else were you doing at WashU?
I was an RA (Resident Assistant) and part of NSBE, which is the National Society of Black Engineers, ABS, the Association of Black Students, and I played on the club volleyball team for a couple of years. I also did some volunteering through various clubs and I was part of the Social Justice Center in the beginning of my time in college, and I was in DSP, the business fraternity.
When did you start thinking about what you would do after school?
Sophomore year. I feel like a lot of people are trying to get internships
the summer after sophomore year. By that point, I had decided I wanted to go into business, and I knew it would be a good idea to get an internship if possible. I wasn’t able to get one, so I ended up working as a camp counselor that summer.
How did you switch from engineering to finance?
I was looking for like a slightly more practical application of my analytical skills and I felt business would be a good way to make a lot of money. Even during sophomore year, I felt that I had already gone pretty far in the engineering degree requirement. I didn’t necessarily want to leave that entirely, plus I enjoyed the classes and I thought it would still be applicable to what I might do in the future.
What was your initial plan for life after college?
It was working a finance job somewhere, either in banking in the Wall Street world or for a corporation if I were able to get one of those General Mills or Target internships or jobs. It was still a bit up in the air exactly how it looked and where I would end up, but it was definitely something finance related.
How did that plan evolve?
During my junior year I applied for SEO, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, an internship program for minority students to place them in finance and accounting related industries. I was placed in one that would have been based in New York. At the same time, I got an internship through a family friend at JP Morgan in Chicago, and I also got a corporate finance internship offer from ConAgra as well, but at that point I had an inkling I wanted to be on Wall Street, so I wanted to find that out rather than doing something else and then trying to get into it later. I chose to go to New York for the summer. I was placed on the wealth management team at Merrill Lynch.
What impact did that internship have on your job search?
I enjoyed the experience and I got an offer from Merrill Lynch following the internship. I had applied to a couple other Wall Street firms: Goldman, JP Morgan and others. The offer from Merrill Lynch was in the fall of 2008, just before the market crashed. I think it was announced that they were getting bought by Bank of America the same week I was supposed to accept the role. I talked to the HR recruiter and asked if I still had an offer. She said yes, so I accepted it. For the most part, I tried not to think about it for the rest of the year, because I was set with what I would be doing after graduation.
How did you prepare for the Goldman interview?
I don’t know how much preparation I did for it outside of researching the company and making sure I was aware of where the markets were. It was so close after having finished my internship that I was still very abreast of all the happenings of the financial world.
Did you negotiate the offer with Merrill?
I tried, but there was no movement on their end. I don’t think it ever hurts to ask for more money, but make sure you do your research first. I don’t know if I knew about Glassdoor back then, but that’s a good resource in terms of finding out what various people are getting paid. It will give you an idea of whether the offer is reasonable. It also very much depends on the company, because bigger firms like Merrill Lynch are hiring an entire class, and everyone is getting the same offer. But if it’s a much smaller company and it’s just you being hired, there’s always room for having a conversation.
If a company gets mad at you for asking, then I think that’s an indication that maybe that isn’t the place you should be working.
What does the negotiation look like?
If you’ve done your research and know what you should be getting paid, even if the offer is within a reasonable range, you should always ask for more. State the reasons why you think you deserve it and reiterate that you want to work for the company. Ask if there’s any room in the budget to increase your salary, or you can ask for alternatives like stock options or more paid time off. There’s always room to ask. If a company gets mad at you for asking, then I think that’s an indication that maybe that isn’t the place you should be working.
Any other ‘red flags’ that a company is not for you?
I think a lot of information can be gleaned from the interview process in terms of how responsive they are in communicating with you. There have been instances when I email people and it takes them weeks to get back to me, which is never ideal. Another indicator would be if you get bad vibes from whoever your interviewer is. Trust your instincts.
How was your internship different from your full-time job?
When I went back to Merrill Lynch I was in the same general group I was in during my internship, but I shifted to a different team within that group. During my internship I was in mutual fund due diligence, researching mutual funds and seeing which ones were worthy of recommendation to offer to clients. When I went back, I was part of the portfolio management team. We managed fund of fund portfolios based those mutual funds that the other portion of the team researched.
How representative was the internship of working a full-time job?
Overall, it was a good representation. The biggest difference had to do with the market crash. During my internship, I would stay there with the rest of the younger employees until ten, eleven, midnight, just working. When I came back people were clocking out at 5 or 6 o’clock at the latest.
When I looked around I never really wanted my boss’s job or the job of anyone else on my teams.
How did you decide when it was time to leave?
It was one of those things that sort of happened slowly over time. In the finance world, the big thing a lot of people do is get their CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst). My boss and other more senior team members encouraged me to do it, and I had zero interest. When I looked around I never really wanted my boss’s job or the job of anyone else on my teams. I could have done them, I just knew I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my career. That’s when I knew it was time to go.
I quit my job and graduated culinary school all within the same week.
How did you figure out what to do next?
I always had an interest in food. In my free time I was working to nurture that through a blog I started a few months into my job. I started taking recreational cooking classes shortly after. I was still on the fence for a little bit, but then I ended up enrolling in culinary school part time while still working. Toward the end of culinary school I made up my mind that food was what I wanted to do. I quit my job and graduated culinary school all within the same week.
How do you make that big of a career decision?
I had a couple of friends lose their parents around that time, and that played a role in me realizing that life is short and that I might as well do something that I enjoy with all the hours spent working. Though I was good at finance and I liked it sometimes, I didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t happy waking up and going to work every day. For me, it was one of things where I might as well pursue what makes me happy.
How do you define what makes you happy?
I think you have to do some exploration and soul searching. I feel like I am fortunate that I was able to find what I wanted to do relatively early on. I know for a lot of people that isn’t the case. I didn’t just all of a sudden enroll in culinary school. It was a gradual process. I am very methodical, and I don’t like to make rash decisions. For me, it’s about doing research and seeing whether an option is actually viable. There are some things that make people happy that are great as hobbies, but they wouldn’t be as happy if it was their career. There is no concrete one-size-fits-all answer for this, unfortunately.
I saw examples out there and I knew if others could do it then why couldn’t I?
How did you determine it was not just a hobby, but also a career?
I knew that there were other people out there who had the jobs I wanted. There are people on TV with cooking shows, people who work at the various food magazines and food websites. I saw examples out there and I knew if others could do it then why couldn’t I?
How did you get into food writing?
Coming from business, I thought you could just get an internship and then you get a job. That’s not how it works in food media. A lot of people get multiple internships. There are very few actual full-time jobs available for people who want to work in the industry. Often, even very experienced people freelance. If you can, start an alt weekly or to a local newspaper or magazine doing food coverage and start getting those bylines. That’s one of the first things people look for when you apply to jobs: what have you written and where have you been published, so you need to make sure you have examples of that, even if it’s just for a blog.
How did you know to continue investing in your food hobby?
It was one of those things that once I started a tiny part of it and kept doing it for a while, my interest didn’t wane. If anything, my interest only grew. I wanted to do more, learn more, know more. Once you start investing a little bit and you like the payoff from that investment, when you’re happy with the results and putting in the time and energy, you’ll know you should invest more.
You did in your 20s what most people do at 40.
When I was leaving Merrill Lynch, one of the more senior people on the team pulled me aside and we talked for a little bit. He said, “This is so amazing. I wish I could do that, but I’m married and have kids now.” That’s when I realized that it gets a bit more difficult to make a big shift the longer you wait. If people have a serious suspicion that they want to do something different, there’s no time like the present. That’s not to say you should be changing jobs or careers and entire industries every two years, but if you have a strong sense that something is right for you, then find out if it is.
How do you feel about closing the door on finance?
In the beginning, I knew if I really wanted to, I could go back. In most instances, the door is never fully closed unless you burn bridges. I had made enough connections and friends to where I knew if I changed my mind a year or two later, those connections would help me find some place to land.
How did your friends and family react to your big decision?
Leading up to it, and then for like a solid year or so afterward, my mom always asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?” That was her standard question when I talked to her every week. I grew up on the south side of Chicago in a lower middle-class family, and at that time I made a lot of money in my finance job. I think I made as much as my dad. Their main priority was to make sure that I was able to support myself, but once they saw what I was doing and how much I enjoyed it, they were fully on board.
When did you know that you were not going back to finance?
Once I made the decision to give my notice, I knew there was a very slim chance that I would go back. Early on, it was a nice safety net to have in the back of my mind. If things completely blew up I could go back, but once I made the decision to tell my boss, my mind was made up.
Was there a time you realized you made the right decision?
It may have been early on. It was the first time I could tell people what I do. “I’m a food writer,” “I’m a cook at a restaurant,” or whatever I was doing. People looked at me in shock, awe and amazement. I don’t think people expect that to be an answer they hear. For the first few months after I quit, I was working seven days a week, so it was probably not during that time. But after that, it probably began to sink in — once I was able to sleep a little bit.
I wish I knew that there aren’t any rules for what you’re supposed to do with your life after WashU.
What do you wish that somebody would have told you during your job search?
I wish I knew that there aren’t any rules for what you’re supposed to do with your life after WashU. At WashU, everyone around you is applying to business school, getting internships and finding jobs with big companies. Knowing that there are more opportunities than just at these big Fortune 500 companies available to you is powerful. Also, the rest of your life is a long time, so as much as you can, try to find something you enjoy doing day in and day out.
How do you think students should go about figuring out what that thing is that they enjoy doing day in and day out?
The best way is trial and error. It’s hard to look at a job on paper and see what you
actually do. It’s harder to figure out if something is completely different than whatever picture you painted. Once you find something you think you might like, just go and do it and see if you were right. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind.
What do you think has been your most valuable learning experience?
I got a lot out of being an RA at WashU. It teaches you a lot about dealing with various types of people, which is always useful in the business world. Outside of that — I don’t know necessarily when this happened, but I was a little bit more soft-spoken and reserved in the beginning of my career. I’m definitely not now. That could have been me growing into my own confidence, but if you have ideas, you should speak up and share them, assuming they’re well thought out and vetted. One of the things I’m most thankful for over my career is finding my voice and turning up the volume at times.
Do you have any specific projects, clubs or classes that would help students do that?
Any group project that happens in class is an opportunity to share your thoughts and learn to speak up. It’s definitely one of those skills you can develop over time. For me, it was just one of those things that happened through experiences like finding myself in those group situations time and time again. If you find yourself not speaking up, force yourself to and make sure you always ask a question or provide at least one piece of input. You never want to be the person who just sits there quietly and then no one remembers that you were a part of something.
Were there any other professors or clubs, departments or classes that you found extremely valuable when you were at school?
Being a part of the Ervin Scholars Program was valuable. I also found being a part of DSP really valuable. It helps a lot with the professional development aspect of how to interview and put together a resume and learn about different careers and job opportunities.
I got fired from one of my jobs after a year.
What career or job-related mistakes have you learned from the most?
I got fired from one of my jobs after a year. It was a somewhat chaotic environment earlier on in my career. My manager told me to just go and do what I thought needed to be done, which required me to take a lot of initiative on my own. At that point in my career, I needed a lot more guidance. I was very new and didn’t know what initiative to take. The one question I ask all the time in interviews now is, “What does it look like to be successful in this role and how is that measured?” That gives me an idea of whether I can do whatever this person wants in terms of what success looks like and helps me understand the yardstick by which they use to measure that.
If students were to take your question and use it during interviews, what do you think would constitute a good or bad answer?
It’s very much case by case depending on the job, student and what they’re comfortable with. If the person comes at you and says this role requires that you are on-call all the time, you might have to work on weekends and you’ll be successful if you respond to every email or inquiry within 12 hours, you should go through each requirement and ask yourself, “Am I ok with this? Yes or no?” and go from there.
What advice would you give to your freshman self?
I would tell my freshman year self to take a writing class even if it was just English Comp. That’s what I do now — I’m a writer and editor. As part of the engineering school, you could test out of taking the writing course, which I did. Taking more writing courses would have been helpful.
In Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech at Stanford, he told a story and came to the conclusion that you cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect the dots looking backward. As you look backward from where you are now to applying to WashU’s School of Engineering, can you connect the dots?
Yes, I certainly can. I have had a very meandering path, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Even though if I had started in food right away I would be a little further along, I did have an interest in finance, so I’m glad I tried it out and I know for sure now that it’s not for me. It helped set me up for other opportunities in terms of culinary school and the food-related jobs that I’ve had.