With the relatively recent fascination with cooking channels, food bloggers and video instruction, some culinary schools have developed online curricula – some partially online and some are all online (no classroom/hands-on education at all).
So, is it really possible to learn online? Sure! Can you learn enough to become a head chef at The French Laundry? No – nor would you want to try. If you are looking to learn the basics of culinary arts, then online education is a great way to begin. Whether you are looking to start on-site at a higher education site or if you are simply trying to expand your repertoire, then online education can get you started easily, conveniently and relatively inexpensively. However – keep in mind that most fully online programs are not accredited, so you are basically learning for the sake of learning, and not to further your degree. In addition, don’t expect any of these ‘certificates of completion’ to be accepted as a degree by a restaurant chef when applying for employment.
If you are intending on going to work in a kitchen upon graduation from a program as a cook, then a fully online education is not going to help you in the long run. Culinary arts is a hands-on program, and needs to be touched, felt, smelled and tasted. Even if you have a mentor that you video chat with, it’s impossible to tell if the brioche is too salty, the steak cooked beyond medium rare, if the smell is ‘off’ on the egg mixture or if the feel of the salmon isn’t right.
Yes, we have technology to allow for video and sound in the kitchen, but there is no substitute for having a seasoned chef right next to you providing guidance while making a sauce for the first time. You can learn the ingredients in the five mother sauces, but the process, smell and taste are something that is tactile and needs to be performed in a lab/kitchen.
The majority of restaurants are more interested in real-world, real-kitchen experience. Yes, it’s wonderful that you have a bachelor’s degree, but do you have experience? Book skills are nice, but performing in a working kitchen under stress, time constraints, temperamental coworkers and demanding customers is a very different proposition – and can’t be taught in a video chat.
If you are simply seeking to expand your skills from the home kitchen, either for personal use or as a prelude to an accredited culinary school, then an online option might be the right answer for you. You’ll learn the basic ingredients in mother sauces, the difference between cilantro and parsley, how to tell a medium rare steak from a rare one without cutting it, the safety procedures for food prep and the basics knife cuts. You can learn the business side of culinary arts via online classes, such as management, marketing, logistics, hospitality and more.
Aside from the hands on requirements for culinary methodology, there is also the issue of equipment. Most home cooks don’t have access to the equipment utilized in culinary school kitchens. Yes, you probably have an oven, sink and maybe a dishwasher, and if you are lucky a stand mixer and a food processor. You might even have purchased a nice knife set and some additional tools. But – do you have access to a fryer, a salamander, ice cream maker or a meat slicer/grinder? What about a (inside) grill? Walk-in cooler or freezer for all the prep and storage? And, if you have interest in some of the cutting edge styles of cooking such as molecular gastronomy or sous vide, you will need additional (expensive) equipment. Not even mentioning all the sheet pans, hotel pans, bowls and more!
The decision to attend an online university, brick-and-mortar school or none at all is determined by your goals and finances. There is no doubt that an accredited school can offer education, training and contacts you might not be able to acquire on your own. If you have no intention of trying to become a head chef in New York City, then an alternative option might work better for you. Do you need hands-on experience? You might prefer a local community college and an associate’s program or a certificate or specialty classes such as Asian cuisine or pastry. If you are simply trying to learn the basics and have $5,000 extra to spend, then an online option might work for you. Alternatively, you can learn the same content from books, websites, television shows and YouTube videos – and spend a lot less money.