Is Culinary School a Necessary Step to Becoming a Chef?

Is Culinary School a Necessary Step to Becoming a Chef?

With celebrity chefs filling the television airwaves and landing on all the current bestseller lists, and foodies taking over the blogosphere, it’s easy to understand why culinary programs are more popular than ever in the United States. In fact, enrollment at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, a culinary school with seventeen campuses around the country, rose 20% between 2009 and 2010. The current state of the economy might also be driving people into the restaurant business. With hiring in many fields at a standstill, some people are choosing to abandon their hopes of landing a 9-to-5 job and instead follow their passion; for many that passion is in the kitchen.

Some of those already in the industry, however, are warning new recruits not to make a hasty decision when it comes to attending culinary school and paying the sometimes steep tuition that goes along with it. While graduating from a top culinary school can give new chefs an advantage over other applicants and a foot in the door at some restaurants, earning a degree is certainly not the only path to becoming a chef, and most industry veterans agree that getting a taste of the restaurant business is a necessary first step for anyone aspiring to be a chef.


The Benefits of Culinary School

The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) has one of the top culinary degree programs in the country, and its website lists several familiar names among its alumni—celebrity chefs Cat Cora, Sarah Moulton, and Rocco DiSpirito all attended the school. The French Culinary Institute, with locations in both New York and California, can claim The Food Network’s Bobby Flay and Momofuku’s David Chang as alumni. Le Cordon Bleu counts Paul Qui, a recent winner of the television show Top Chef, and Suzy Singh, a runner-up on Masterchef, among its graduates. Singh’s success story is the perfect advertisement for her alma mater. A former bioengineer in neurosurgery, she quit her job and followed her “true passion” for cooking, which led her to Le Cordon Bleu’s Chicago campus and, eventually, to television fame.

Singh’s endorsement of the school echoes the opinions of many other chefs who have put their culinary degrees to good use in the industry. For great chefs, it’s all about learning sound techniques and fundamentals, and culinary school is a great place to learn those things. For Le Cordon Bleu graduate and Hell’s Kitchen winner Holli Ugalde, cutting skills were a critical part of her culinary education: “I truly feel that the knife cuts I learned in my first culinary class at Le Cordon Bleu were the most important thing I learned. Precision with a knife is the most obvious skill that separates the chef from the home cook.” Pastry chefs, who rely on precise measurements and extraordinary attention to detail, can also benefit from a formal education, particularly if they don’t have much prior experience.

Perhaps the most important benefit of attending culinary school, though, is that a degree can often open doors for graduates that would be otherwise closed. In a competitive industry, having an education might be a necessary leg-up on the way to landing a job. And many schools have connections to local restaurants and chefs that prove beneficial to students once they graduate.


Alternative Paths to the Kitchen

The most frequently cited reason to skip culinary school, particularly the two-year programs offered at the big-name schools mentioned above, is financial. Tuition costs at these schools can run upwards of $40,000 a year or more, and, unlike the debt incurred by law or medical students, the typical salary of a professional cook is often not high enough to quickly repay large student loans. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average wage for a full-time cook in 2009 was $11.29 per hour, and many make far less.) Graduates of the California Culinary Academy (CCA) are among the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed against the school’s parent company Career Education Corp. for falsifying claims of success for its graduates. For-profit schools such the CCA, a branch of Le Cordon Bleu, and the Art Institute, have been heavily criticized for receiving millions of dollars in federal aid in the form of student loans.

There are alternatives to costly culinary programs, and the most simple of these is simply training on the job. Many working chefs encourage those inexperienced in the field to work in a kitchen for a few weeks without pay to get a feel for the job—in the culinary world, this is called a stage. Apprenticeships, such as the one sponsored by the American Culinary Federation, give students the opportunity to receive professional credentials while earning money working in a real kitchen. Community colleges and vocational schools also offer lower cost certificate programs and classes in culinary arts. These smaller schools might not have the name recognition of the CIA or Le Cordon Bleu, but they are a good place to learn specific skills.

Celebrity chef, food writer, and CIA graduate Anthony Bourdain, not known for mincing words, encourages young chefs to think twice before enrolling in culinary school. “Over the last nine years,” he writes in the book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, “I have met and heard from many culinary students on my travels, have watched them encounter triumphs and disappointments. I have seen the dream realized, and— more frequently—I have seen the dream die.” The real world of restaurants, he insists, is a difficult one to live in—physically, financially, and emotionally. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Most chefs agree on at least one thing: the most important prerequisite for professional chefs is a true passion for cooking, and it’s critical for anyone thinking of entering the field to know what they’re getting into. As on-the-job trained pastry chef Shuna fish Lydon writes in her blog, “…the pay is low, the hours are long and weird, the substance abuse rate is through the roof, the physical injuries are many: so something has to drive you!” And for thousands of aspiring chefs following their dreams into the kitchen, it’s clear that even the most dire warnings will continue to fall on deaf ears.

Other sources:

LA Times – Up-and-Coming Chefs Skipping Culinary School

David Lebovitz – Should You Go To Culinary School

The Atlantic – Does Culinary School Matter

The NY Times – ‘Top Chef’ Dreams Crushed by Student Loan Debt

Chicago Sun-Times – You Want to Go to Culinary School?

Eater – Chefs Weigh In: Is Culinary School Worth It?