The primary difference between a culinary college or institute and cooking school is not just about the degree you get upon completion; it’s also the education you receive while you are in school. While culinary colleges offer Associate’s degrees (2 year) or Bachelor’s degrees (4 year), cooking schools only offer certificates of completion or cuisine/skill specific classes. Your career goals will determine which option is the best for you.
Cooking classes or schools often focus on one particular skill or the very basics. You might take a specific class on Tuscan or Asian foods, how to make an Autumn Brunch, a Couples Class or you could possible begin with a course in basic knife skills or an introduction to wine. A full college program however will take you far beyond the basics of slicing, plating and serving.
Culinary colleges offer the latest techniques in all types of food preparation, design and development. You learn the business side of being a chef or restaurant owner, about managing budgets and inventory, as well as staff. You will learn about innovation, quality and the various roles within a working kitchen. A college program will not only expose you to international cuisines you might not have experienced before, but will encourage tasting and touching, learning how to replicate these meals properly and how well prepared foods rely on all senses, not just taste.
There are many specialties you can pursue in college that a cooking school cannot offer. You could become a specific type of line chef – such as a butcher, roundsman, grill chef or sauté chef. You could specialize in pastry and breads (patissier) or be a Garde Manger (pantry chef). With experience you could become a senior chef, a sous chef or even an executive chef.
Aside from positions that are directly responsible for cooking, there are also positions such as kitchen manager, sommelier, banquet/catering manager, or front end manager (maître d’hôtel). A quality college program will introduce you to every kitchen position and teach you, hands-on, what each role is responsible for – from a dishwasher and waitress right up through a chef/owner.
There are many different choices for culinary schools. The type of degree, level of education and cost vary greatly, so it’s important to do your research and target the schools that closely align with your own career goals. Here are some of the top schools in the country:
- Johnson & Wales University, Various locations
Johnson and Wales offers both a two-year and a four-year program. The four-year (Bachelor’s) program offers five different tracks, depending on your goals. Annual tuition ranges from $54,000 – $105,000 per year.
- Kendall College, Chicago, IL
Kendall offers an Associate’s degree program (2 year) as well as a Bachelor’s degree (4 year). The annual tuition cost is approximately $56,000 per year.
- Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, NY
The CIA offers both Associate’s degrees and Bachelor’s degrees, in either Culinary Art or Culinary Science. Tuition cost for the full program (not annually) is approximately $55,000 for the 2 year program and $110,000 for the four year program.
- New England Culinary Institute, Vermont
NECI offers many different programs, including certificate up through Bachelor’s degrees. Tuition cost for the 4 year program is $114,000 for the full term.
- International Culinary Center, NY
ICC offers a wide variety of programs, but not formalized Associates or Bachelor’s degrees. The majority of their professional programs are 6 months long, with an average cost of approximately $50,000 for the session. There are night and weekend classes available, as well as advanced training and recreational classes.
- Institute of Culinary Education, NY
Boasting small classes and a shortened, more focused curriculum, ICE has a wide variety of options and schedules. A typical class ranges from 6-18 months, with a cost of $35,000.
- L’Academie de Cuisine, Washington, D.C.
LADC offers a multitude of programs that include over 1600 hours of training. A three phase program that includes classroom learning, kitchen training and a paid externship. Program tuition is $30,500 for the Culinary Arts Program.
- Le Cordon Bleu, Various Locations
LCB offers a diploma program (certificate) as well as an Associate’s degree, with carious tracks of interest. Average tuition costs range from $20,000 – $45,000, depending on program.
- San Francisco Cooking School, California
A newer school, the SFCS offers certification programs that last from 6-9 months. With small classes and an internship placement upon completion, the SFCS is competitive with some of the larger schools. Average tuition costs are approximately $25,000 for the program.
- International Culinary Center, NY & California
The ICC offers certification programs that last between 6-9 months. They run their own restaurant in NYC where students get hands on experience. Students in CA get experience working at top notch local restaurants and eateries. Program tuition is between $30,000-40,000, depending on track.
If you want to become a chef, you first need to research the field and understand your own personal goals to decide if becoming a chef is right for you. You will need experience and education no matter what level of cooking you aspire to, so plan accordingly. Look for jobs in excellent kitchens – even if it’s as a dishwasher – and watch everything and learn. Be indispensable no matter what your position. Work hard and smart, not one or the other. Becoming a head/executive chef takes years of education and experience, so use your time wisely at restaurants that will help you succeed.