Chefs Answer the Age-Old Question: Should I Go To Culinary School?
We asked several chefs and kitchen managers about culinary school to get their opinions on the age-old question. If you have been thinking about going to culinary school, take into consideration the feedback we received from industry professionals.
I started in a fast food restaurant in 1984 at 16 years old. When I got to college I continued to work in restaurants as it was a good job whose hours worked around my class schedule. I was able to work my way up the restaurant food chain. By the time I was 20, I was a line cook in a 40 seat fine dining restaurant in California. I was working with a good chef who was willing to teach me what he knew and let me have the room to experiment and explore. This chef would later move on to be a Culinary Instructor at CCA in San Fran.
By the time I got my degree in Mathematics, I was more interested in being a chef then using my degree in any meaningful way. In 1992 I decided that being a chef was sexier than being a Math teacher so I applied and was accepted to CIA in Hyde Park. On my way to enrolling, I did a campus visit and I spoke to Career Services. They claimed their average graduate entered the job market as a Sous Chef making about $30k/yr. At that time I was a Sous making $30k/yr. I found it difficult to justify adding another $50k in student loan debt to my student loan debt from a degree I was not using. In the end I did not go to culinary school. But I did use my liberal arts education to help me become a better person and my on the job training further my career. This has served me well leading, ultimately, to me opening my own restaurant 6 years ago. -cheftlp1221
Important Things to Consider Before Attending
- Have a good understanding of your final destination; do you want to own your own restaurant? Do you want to travel and have a skill that can always get you a job? Saying I like to cook is not enough.
- There is no rush to attend. Get some experience first. The great thing about life is culinary school will always be waiting and can be attended at any point in your life. I attended mine when I was 26 with 8 years experience already in the industry.
- The culinary schools will expose you to a large variety of things in a much shorter period than you will in a restaurant.
- The prestige schools can get you into jobs around in the whole food industry, not just restaurants. Large corporations hire from CIA and Johnson Wales
- Try to avoid taking on a lot of debt
- Know that cooking is a lifestyle choice as much as it is a career choice
Important Things to Consider When Choosing Your School
- Cooking is a trade and cooks are the tradesmen. If you want to become an electrician you attend a trade school, train, and get your license. You don’t go to university and study electrical engineering. Same thing with culinary schools.
- This industry is merit-based and culinary school will help get you a foot in the door, but if you do not have the skills or passion you will be exposed.
- Be ready to work. You get what you put in regardless if you went to a prestigious culinary school or community college.
- Watch out for schools that are for-profit and high pressure such as Le Cordon Blue.
- Always reach out to speak to some alumni and do your due diligence.
If you do not have a desire to serve people, a hunger to learn, the drive to be perfect, and the ability to think on your feet, then I do not recommend entering this industry. The great equalizer of this industry is that you can pay for your knowledge or you can figure out how to get paid while acquiring your knowledge.
I did not attend culinary school, and I own and operate a restaurant. I am very involved, In the course of a week I cook on the line, prep, help the dishwasher, write the schedule, and lots of other stuff. We serve breakfast and lunch, all made from scratch, lots of local ingredients.
We are lucky to have a loyal following and good reputation. This industry is unique in that it is completely about the individual, and very very little about where you come from. What’s important is that you are an efficient, hard worker who can execute under pressure.
When hiring I don’t look for the most qualified person, I look for the individual who is hungry and interested in working as part of a team. I want the guy who is going to have my attitude. If the grease trap is backing up, I want the guy who’s running towards it to fix it so service is not interrupted.
I want the guy who throws away the cooked item he just dropped on the floor, even through it would be easier to sell it. I want the guy who stays a bit late because he thinks he can fix something rather than calling in the appliance guy. I’m not going to automatically hire you because you have a culinary school degree.
Your knowledge does not mean shit if you’re going to be working slow, putting the kitchen behind, costing the servers money, and hurting our reputation. While I don’t regret not going, I lack a lot of the broader knowledge that culinary school would have helped me with. If I were an employee who wanted to move to a new place, the learning curve would be steeper than if I’d gone.
If you feel that culinary school is the right move for you, then for the love of god go work in a restaurant first. If you have no experience, knock on some doors before 11 or between 2-4:30 and ask if you can start washing dishes. This job is dismissed as simple, but it is going to give you an idea of what’s required to excel in a kitchen. Put in some time there, you are choosing to make this your profession and this is a chance to learn. Even better if you can find a mentor.
If you still think culinary school is the best route, then plan what you want to do. Do you want to own a place? Be a chef of a restaurant? Catering? Take classes that will help you achieve this goal. Accounting, marketing, and management will all serve you very well, and for some reason the culinary school people I have met never do any of this, and find themselves only partially prepared. -ether_bandit
It Comes Down to Attitude and Hard Work
Most of the chefs we asked to respond were more than eager to give their responses. It is no secret that most culinary students are seen as naive, entitled and wanting an easy way up the ladder. Most chefs are not looking for a degree. Most chefs are looking for hard workers, team players, and those that can perform under pressure.
I think culinary school can be great, IF you go in with the proper expectations. Don’t go in assuming you will get one size fits all education. Every single kitchen is different. The culture will be unique and the way things are done will also be so.
However, if you want something specific like knife skills, mother sauces, and so forth, it can be worth it. Do your research and choose a school that has a chef you’d kill to work under and go there.
Avoid the big name schools. They charge you directly out the asshole. If you’re ever thinking of going to Cordon Bleu, say, realize that their tuition is like fifty grand. Not worth it. Look in to community college programs. Some of them are quite good and will definitely give you some foundations.
That said, there is nothing that will replace a restaurant in some ways. For example, after you’ve diced a hundred onions you will suddenly realize a bunch of little ways to do it better. It’s volume that you need in order to improve. The other day I was cutting apples, a thing I haven’t had cause to do much of, and little light bulbs were going off because it suddenly made sense how to get the most out of them. I could only get that by doing the same thing over and over.
However, it may be the case that you don’t have many restaurants in your town that will give you the proper experience, so you might consider culinary school for the networking.
So in short, it depends on whether a restaurant or school will be your best bet.
Experience is King
Learning the foundations and skills can be useful for technical skill, but those tricks of the trade come after hundreds of hours of working at the same task over and over. The same can be said for many things that culinary school cannot prepare you for.
Ok so i’ve never been to culinary school. I worked in the industry since I was 17. Started cooking at a truck stop. Eventually started cooking at some chain franchise. From there I moved around to a few others to a smaller one with a focus on higher end chain food. My chef there got a job at a very exclusive golf course and recruited me to come with him.
I got an opportunity from there to my current job that I’ve held for 2 years at a 240 seat fine dining restaurant in a major league sports arena. Im in the extreme minority there in that i’ve never attended culinary school.
However because of this job, I have the opportunity to take an apprenticeship course at culinary school. It’s half the time of the regular program which is appropriate because I already know how to cook. People will teach you lots on the job. They can’t teach you everything. I’ve been doing this for 8 years and I look forward to going to school to learn the more advanced techniques. I don’t need to go to school to get the job. Im going so I can do it better.
…But So is Knowledge
At the lower rungs of the industry, culinary school can be overkill for what you will be doing on a regular basis. Running the fryer or cooking as a line cook demands certain skills that can be trained on the job. But once you start climbing the ladder, you will start realizing that those highly technical skills need to be refined or in some cases, developed. That is where a good culinary school comes in.
The Bottom Line
I went to culinary school after 8 years of cooking experience in various restaurants. I needed to learn the foundations and the why’s behind what I was doing. I needed to know the method behind the madness.
Culinary school can be a productive step for most people, and depending on your goals it might even be a productive first step. Just know what you are getting into what you’re getting out of it.