The cost of attending culinary school can sometimes cost more than $40,000 per year, sometimes more depending on the area. There are some less expensive options (such as community colleges), but the majority of culinary arts students graduate with a few thousand dollars of debt to look forward to after graduation.
The culinary world can be highly competitive and offers low starting wages, so it’s very important to plan ahead. Is culinary school worth it in the long run? How do you know if you are getting the best bang for your buck? What happens if you hate it or can’t find work anywhere? There are a few steps you can take to make sure that you get the most out of your educational investment.
First, the best advice is to work in a restaurant before deciding to spend the money on culinary school. Once you start attending school, you are already in debt. What if you don’t like it? What happens if you find you are not physically up to the task or you have an allergy that will prevent you from working with food or in a kitchen? What do you do if you discover you cannot stand making food for people for twelve hours a day, making less than $10.00 an hour?
You should always work in the style of restaurant that interests you. You won’t be able to cook at first in all likelihood, but you can perform prep work, waiter/waitress, bus dishes or wash them, or even cashier or hostess. These positions will give you a behind-the-scenes view to what really happens on an average (or busier than average) day in a professional kitchen. You’ll get to know the hours, the activities and responsibilities, and the pros and cons of each position in the brigade. The romanticized version you hear about is not reality – television shows edit the boring, gross, dangerous and even the some of the not-so-pretty moments. Make sure it’s really how you want to spend your days before you invest thousands of dollars in making your dream come true.
When you do decide to attend culinary school, opt for the full degree instead of the certificate. Diploma and certification courses are acceptable in restaurants or shops, or for advanced training, but they are not as sought after in the real world as degrees. Earning an Associate, Bachelor’s or an advanced degree will help you hedge your bets for your future. In addition to studying Culinary Arts, you will have a solid background of transferable credits as well in case you decide to continue your education at a later time. Companies are seeking educated and well-rounded employees, ones who have a solid foundation at a reputable institution. Protect yourself and your career by thinking in advance. And, if you ever decide to change careers or maybe advance beyond the kitchen – you’ll have the background to support a move in almost any direction, and be one step ahead.
Related to attaining that sought-after degree, every student should add business courses to their repertoire. A sous chef, executive chef, and if you are very fortunate – owner, should have a firm understanding of business processes. You might not be in those roles right now, but if your goal is to progress to them, you should make sure you have the basics.
Also, while many kitchen positions start at a very low hourly wage, hospitality positions offer some of the highest paying jobs in the industry. But to even apply for one, you’ll need a degree and a solid business background to be considered. Hospitality positions may be another step in your career path, so plan wisely. If you ever want to change careers later, a business degree is applicable to many different classifications of employment.
Lastly, make sure your eyes are wide open and you know what to expect throughout your chosen career path. In truth, reality can hit hard and fast – and can be costly. For instance, if you imagine you’ll graduate culinary school, put on your executive chef jacket and manage a Michelin starred restaurant, you’ll be in for a painful (and costly) awakening. Within the same realm of impossibility is the expectation of becoming the next star chef on the Food Network. Completing culinary school is only one small part of a larger portfolio you’ll need to achieve your dreams. You also need experience – years of it – plus advanced training, a well-rounded education and even a bit of luck.
Culinary school doesn’t have to put you into decades of debt and it’s never a final stop in your career. As long as you are clear headed and you make contingency plans to ensure you have multiple and varied options in case your goals take a side-turn, the monetary investment in your education is a solid endeavor.