The pros and cons of culinary school are discussed, argued and hashed out by chefs, cooks, culinarians and bloggers. You don’t need to go to school. You do need to go to school. It’s too expensive. It’s totally worth the investment in your future. What are you supposed to do?
One of the bigger complaints about culinary schools, is that they don’t teach you to use your creative side – your intuition. You pay a lot of money, you learn the basics and you have a lot of fun. Maybe you can even cook poached cod for 400 customers. You may even have a decent job after graduation in a corporate kitchen. But what happens after? What happens when you try to migrate to a restaurant kitchen in a busy city or you want to open your own place? You need to truly understand the food, the processes and begin to grasp instinctively how to pair product. If your school isn’t teaching you and giving you the freedom to explore your own creativity, they are failing you.
Almost everyone who applies to a culinary school gets in. Perhaps not to the ‘best’ schools, but anyone can attend. Should they? Perhaps if there was an entrance exam, step-up week or meal you need to make before you are accepted, then some potential students might think twice before engaging and investing. Not everyone is cut out to work in a kitchen, just7 as not everyone is cut out to work in microbiology. There are a lot of students attending culinary school, and a huge portion are not in the industry five years later. The kitchens are getting flooded with students who aren’t well trained and have unrealistic expectations.
Before you apply to culinary school, you should work in an active kitchen. More than 80% of the activity in a kitchen is cleaning, organizing and prepping. They are always looking for people to wash dishes and clean. Get an eye and ear on what a real day in a hot, crowded, demanding kitchen is like on a daily basis. If you can’t believe how long the hours are, how hot it is, why your chef is mean, what a pain the customers can be – then perhaps a different career path is for you.. If it inspires you and drives you to watch, learn and absorb everything you can – then research and apply to culinary school to continue your career path.
When you are ready to enroll at a culinary school, make sure to invest your money wisely. Where do you want to be in 5 or ten years – realistically? If you aspire to becoming a chef in a local restaurant, then a technical school is a great (and much cheaper) option. If you want to become a chef in a big city or in Europe, then a larger, international school might be a better bet. Perhaps a combination of the two – two years at a local community college, then move on to finish a bachelor’s degree at a larger, well-known university. Wherever you choose to attend, make sure you review the schools placement and retention rates are before you sign your college fund away. For a top-notch school, if it’s less than 70% – walk away. Culinary schools can be very expensive, and you’ll want to ensure you have the best training possible. If their former students aren’t placed well or aren’t still cooking in five years, there’s a reason.
If you are fortunate enough to find a mentor at the various stages in your career, take advantage of it. Everyone has something to teach. Learn as much as you can by watching, assisting and asking questions. Your mentors will change over time, but recognize that you can always continue to learn.
Most culinary students don’t understand that school is only one small part of a much larger career plan. A good culinary school will teach you the basics and maybe even find you employment after graduation. You will need to work hard – very hard – and accomplish the rest of your goals on your own. Kitchen work is not easy, physically or mentally. You have to love to cook because you love food, not because you want to be the Food Network star.
Lastly, culinary school can be very, very expensive. It’s not a prerequisite to be a chef or cook. Many, many famous chefs never went to culinary school, and yet command top dollar at the finest restaurants (some they own). They learned from working every position in the kitchens they were employed at – starting with washing dishes. They watched, they asked questions and they worked hard to get noticed for the right things. If you do decide to invest in culinary school, make sure you get the most out of the experience. You’ll have student loans to pay after graduation, and prep cooks and dishwashers barely make minimum wage. Many budding cooks have to work two or more jobs just to pay the bills.