What You Should Know Before You Enroll in Culinary School

I’ve often said “food is king and restaurants are our most popular form of entertainment.” I see proof in the incredible popularity of the Food Network channel and other television cooking shows. Television audiences are amazed at the speed and creativity of Iron Chef competitions. Celebrity chef’s chop meats and vegetables with accurate precision. Each dish looks beautiful and tastes fabulous. “I can do that” you might say to yourself. It looks easy and fun. What we don’t get to see is behind the scenes, and all the hours of tedious preparation before the camera is ever turned on. The chef stands before you in the studio kitchen, and expertly and effortlessly creates a masterpiece. We’re getting our cooking education and entertainment all rolled up into one time slot. What we don’t know is what it took to get to that moment in time, when the camera starts rolling and the chef appears before you with all that talent and expertise. It’s the exciting world of culinary delights. It looks good. It sounds good. It smells good, but is it all good? Or does something stink? The goal of this article is to prepare you for the realities of culinary school, the vehicle to culinary expertise. If you or someone you know plans to enroll in culinary school and become a serious chef, here is some valuable information you should know. I’ll share with you my first hand experience; the good, the bad, and the ugly of culinary school.

Many great chefs, but not all, went to culinary school. Some of the most famous chefs, like Thomas Keller, Executive Chef of The French Laundry in Yountville, California learned his culinary skills while growing up. He had a passion for cooking and he had parental connections that got him his restaurant experience. He spent many years learning his craft. He now has several world famous restaurants. If this is your dream, you may want to know how you might become a famous chef and restaurateur. There are a couple of ways from which to start.

It’s still possible to work your way up from a fast food or short order cook. If you go this route, it takes many years and a lot of lucky breaks to get into a decent professional restaurant. The good news is that you will find more open doors in small towns and less popular areas of the country. More good news is that there are places where you won’t have a lot of competition for cooking jobs.

California is another story, and can be an ugly one. The larger metropolitan areas are some of the most difficult places to get hired as a cook, especially if you don’t have any experience. That may be surprising to you, as there are so many restaurants in California. It’s one of those catch 22 situations. It’s difficult to get hired if you don’t have experience, and yet no one wants to give you the experience. Most high end restaurants in large cities like San Francisco want you to get good on someone else’s dime. They won’t take the risk that you might burn a steak or undercook the chicken. They want you to make mistakes in someone else’s kitchen, then come to their restaurant “perfected”. You will find it almost impossible to go from Denny’s to the Ritz without a culinary degree and some connections.

The other route is to attend a culinary school. Culinary schools are hot these days, due to the incredible popularity of cooking show programs. New schools are popping up everywhere and old ones are expanding as quickly as American’s waistlines. Many young people want to become the next Emeril or Iron Chef. Restaurants are opening at a rapid pace, and by the way, are the #1 business that fails in the United States. The food industry is the second largest employer of individuals in the U.S., after the Federal government.

You don’t become a famous chef overnight. You may spend anywhere from a year and a half to four years in culinary school, depending on the school’s program. You will not only spend that amount of time to get an AOS degree, which is Associate of Occupational Studies, but you will spend many, many of your hard earned dollars to get this degree. Is it worth it? You need to decide for yourself.

Not all culinary schools are created equal. Do your research. Explore their modern facilities, research their chef instructors and inquire about their training program. Visit the schools in which you are interested and ask plenty of questions before you sign on the dotted line. Ask yourself what you want to do with your culinary degree? Do you want to open a restaurant? Do you desire a position as a personal chef, a caterer, a food writer, an instructor or another food-related occupation? Maybe you don’t need to attend an expensive culinary school. Maybe a good short term, less expensive school will give you the needed skills. Community Colleges also offer good courses. Talk to graduates, and ask critical questions before you leap. Otherwise it can get ugly rather rapidly, especially after you graduate and are looking for a job. It gets even uglier when those financial aid statements start rolling in, and you are still unemployed. I naively thought it was going to be easy to get a cooking job, since I had a classical culinary school education. It still took nearly six months to get a part time job as a pastry assistant. To some executive chefs, culinary school doesn’t mean diddley squat unless you have a year or two of experience to go along with it. It’s a sad reality.

Call or email the culinary schools of your choice and they will send you an expensive four color booklet showing you the fabulous part of culinary school; successful chefs, beautifully photographed foods, and happy smiling students. It’s a visual delight, very warm and appealing. It’s meant to be that way, to lure you into enrolling. Then you’ll meet with an enrollment counselor, who will give you a tour of the school and tell you how much you’ll make as a chef. They may even show you documentation from a website that tracks the earning potential of various cooking positions. They’ll tell you that chef’s earn about $35,000 a year. A pastry chef may earn upwards of $60,000 a year, because it’s a niche, they say. That’s the good part, but what about the bad?

What isn’t revealed until later is that when you graduate you’ll be a cook, not a chef. You’ll become a pastry assistant or pastry cook rather than a pastry chef. The word “chef” is French for chief, meaning the “chief of the kitchen.” No one that I’ve heard of is going to let you be a chef or chief and run a kitchen right out of culinary school. You don’t have the experience to do that. Your ego may tell you otherwise, but the reality is different. The bad news is that it takes nearly five years of cooking experience just to become a sous chef, who is basically in charge of the cooks, and other tasks that the chef assigns. The only way you’ll be a true chef is if you open your own restaurant. First do your research on what it costs to open a restaurant. I’ve been told that it’s a minimum of $200,000.00. Otherwise it will take many years before you ever become the chef in a top restaurant or hotel kitchen. The only exception to this is if you already have many years of restaurant cooking experience before you enroll in culinary school. Then you are likely to get a higher position and pay as chef or sous chef when you graduate.

Here’s the ugliest news of all. After you sign over $50,000 or more of your future earnings for a classical French culinary training, you are essentially a cook making $9.00 an hour, sometimes less. That’s only $18,720 a year if you get hired full time, and half the salary your counselor quoted you. You may luck out and make a little more. Knowing somebody who is already employed in a kitchen might open doors for you. When you get into a kitchen, you learn that everyone pays their dues right from the start with low pay. You’ll most likely start out working pantry, better known as chopping vegetables and making salads. You’ll work nights, weekends and holidays. You’ll work long hours. You’ll be standing all day or night with no chairs in sight. Two places where I worked had no break room for employees to sit and rest or eat. We sat outside the establishment, regardless of the weather. You may only be offered part time work or be scheduled on-call. Then you must find another part time job just to pay the rent. The divorce rate is high and alcoholism is rampant. You’ll be lucky to receive any benefits. Many independent restaurants will offer no benefits and no vacation pay. Like many occupations, it’s a mixed bag. There are good things about it. There are bad things and unfortunately, the ugly. You don’t get that understanding by watching the Food Network.

What about the school’s curriculum? Read through that glossy brochure to see what classes are offered. Most schools will have a similar curriculum, but some classes will be more detailed. A longer curriculum will give you a more thorough training. One day I overheard some students talking about what we were learning. Each one confirmed that we would not learn to cook in culinary school. That took me by surprise. I was there to learn how to become a fabulous cook. I expected to learn advanced culinary techniques. I would make great tasting sauces, tender mouth watering meats and seafood. My professionally designed plates would awe the public. A chef instructor later confirmed our suspicions by telling us that we would be taught to be chefs. Did that mean cooking would be secondary, and not a point of emphasis? Ask questions that will help you reach your goals. Will you only get to sample-cook ethnic cuisines or get to study and cook cuisines in detail? Studying the curriculum will give you a good idea of the training you will receive, and the preparation to meet your goals.

When looking at the curriculum, notice if more than half of the classes are business-related. Then you are being trained to be a chef, not a cook. There are advantages to being trained as a chef. Chefs must be able to handle the business part of restaurant work. You may not be hired as a restaurant or hotel chef unless you can also work with food costs, scheduling, payroll, writing menu’s and other tasks. If you already know how to cook, then chef training may be what you need.

As a beginning culinary student, you’ll start out with a basic skills lab and food science classes. A safety and sanitation class will help you get your HCAAP certificate, which will give you a good understanding of the knowledge and importance of food safety. Many students enjoy garde manger, which is known as cold buffet. You’ll be learning to make appetizers, salads and terrines. You’ll learn to create mirrored platters of beautifully placed food. Your school may offer a focus on ethnic food classes; Asian, European, and cuisine’s of the Americas. There will be wine appreciation classes. You’ll spend some time in baking and pastry, even though you may never make pastries in a restaurant. It’s still a good class to take, especially for the bread baking experience. You’ll find value in business, computer and catering classes. You’ll probably also get some food history thrown in somewhere along the line. I found food history to be one of the most interesting classes.

Remember that cooking is a discipline. You will spend your first few weeks in culinary school learning the basics. You might as well call it “basic training.” I wasn’t prepared for the disciplinarian part of culinary school. After the first week I questioned the experience, “Was I in the military or in culinary school?” Our chef barked out orders and made us stand at attention while he inspected our uniforms, ties, aprons, shoes and hats. Our presence had to be perfect or we lost points that affected our grades. Yes, there are grades and tests galore. You fail a class and you take it over, and pay for it again.

Ask about the size of classes at the school you are considering. The culinary school I attended crammed a lot of students into a classroom. There should be no more than fifteen students and two chef instructors in a kitchen. My class had at least 30 or more students, one chef instructor and one chef’s aide. You can’t possibly hone your skills under these circumstances. There are only so many recipes the students prepare in class. When there are too many students in the class, the competition to get experience becomes fierce. Everyone is paying the same high price for their education, and they want to get the most out of their schooling. So they fight to get the opportunity to cook certain dishes, and meats in particular. This kind of competition creates an environment of hostility. Very few students learn anything and no one is happy.

Kitchens will vary according to size and their modern facilities. We stuffed thirty or more students in old kitchens that were built for fifteen students. The situation becomes bad when you’re running into each other with sharp knives and hot pans. Students stand arm to arm trying to get their work done. Here’s an example from my butchery class. We were slicing salmon with sharp fish knives, and standing shoulder to shoulder in a freezing room. I wore thermal underwear to keep warm, and ear muffs to protect my ears. One afternoon an overzealous student stood next to me and swung her knife through the salmon and came within an inch of my forearm. I could feel the wind of the knife flying past me. I was upset. Fortunately my arm was not sliced, but I lost several nights of sleep from the anxiety of that near miss.

In this environment of competitiveness, it’s usually the most aggressive students who get the most hands-on experience. That’s another ugly situation. As a woman, you will have a more difficult time getting the learning experience you need to be a good cook. Granted, some classes have a different energy than others. I happened to be in a class with many extremely aggressive students, therefore it was an extra challenge to get hands-on experience. Seventy five percent of my classmates were men. Some men were conscientious enough to share the cooking tasks with the women. Many men in the class had huge egos and made certain they got first choice in what they wanted to cook. They relegated the women to prep the vegetables and make desserts, unless one of us forced our way in front of them. I remember one young man who was part of our team, but worked furiously to do everything himself, and shut the rest of us out.

There are also opportunities to have fun and learn more about the culinary profession. Many of the students cultivate valuable friendships and socialize together. A lot of students developed very close bonds, and also dated classmates and other students at the school. There are social events and field trips. A classmate and I attended a culinary festival at the SUNSET magazine headquarters in Palo Alto, California. The school sponsored a bus to the event, and we had a great time sampling cuisines, tasting wines, and watching cooking demonstrations.

The school’s brochure will include the credentials of the chef instructors. Credentials are important, but they don’t tell you about the personality or teaching skills of the instructors. I felt that ninety percent of our chef instructors and chef’s aids were excellent. Some of them had more passion for the profession than others, and it showed. Some chefs truly cared about our learning experience. Many were good teachers and a few just stood around and didn’t say much. I remember two chefs in particular who were just plain rude and arrogant. They were good cooks, but were difficult to be with in a kitchen. They’re job is to train you, not abuse you.

When you tour a culinary school, you spend a very brief time in the kitchen and classrooms. Make certain that the school you attend has plenty of working equipment. When you tour a school, you don’t notice that the ovens are broken, or that there are only five Kitchen Aid mixers for thirty students. There may be only four baking ovens for the whole class. Time will run out and you still have not baked your bread. Some kitchens are continually dirty, don’t have enough pots and pans, or other necessary utensils. It may look like there’s plenty of equipment, but when thirty students are making the same recipe, the competition for bowls, pans and tools can be overwhelming. Our advanced baking and pastry class was spread out over two large rooms. We spent half our time searching for what we needed, which always seemed to be in the opposite room. It became a frustrating experience. We usually had enough ingredients, but occasionally there would be a lack of some necessity, such as lemons or certain flours and sugars. A half hour or more would be spent searching the school for those ingredients. By the time we returned to the class, it was time to go home.

Very few students are lucky enough to get through culinary school unscathed. There weren’t many students who escaped getting painfully burned or cut. Several students had to go to the hospital for stitches, and one student accidentally cut off part of his finger. Students need to exercise more care at school than at home, because the kitchen is a dangerous place. Students are careless and don’t put things away correctly. One day a knife fell from the top of a locker onto my head. Fortunately I wasn’t hurt. Pots and pans were not put away properly and fell on me, giving me large bruises on my shoulder and arm. I’ve watched many students slip and fall. You’ll need to develop a kitchen awareness that is safety-based.

Every cooking school will allow you to eat the food you make, but they don’t always allow you to take the leftover food home, even though you pay for it. They would rather throw it into the garbage. The school I attended allowed us one meal a day. Sometimes culinary schools unexpectedly change their policies. At one point the school did something ugly. To save money, the school decided not to allow the culinary students to eat from the same kitchen as the pastry and culinary management students. Instead of getting our usual four or five food choices from the student kitchen, they sent us to the basement dining room to eat pre-made cold cut sandwiches. Part of the culinary experience is that you have the opportunity to taste different foods and recipes. That ugly incident eventually changed after a few months of student protest. We again received a better selection of hot meals.

When all the classes are completed you’ll participate in an externship program to give you a sample of real world experience. Culinary schools have a placement department, and offer job fairs to students. They usually post jobs on a bulletin board or send you an email with job listings. They’ll help you with your resume and your interviewing skills. Be aware that no one can guarantee you a job.

My purpose in writing this article is not to dissuade you from attending culinary school if that is truly your dream. I don’t think it’s fair to not know the reality of it. I wish someone had been honest with me. I may have made a different decision. I often wondered if I made a huge mistake. In the beginning I was concerned about my age, and my lack of physical fitness. Ultimately that made no difference. Sometimes it was hugely frustrating. I was brought to tears many times, and towards the end of the school year I could no longer stand most of my classmates. I’ve talked with graduates who attended various culinary schools and learned that schools, instructors and classes will vary. It’s the luck of the draw.

I wanted to attend culinary school for nearly fifteen years before I finally decided to enroll. For myself and many students, it can be a rewarding experience. It can be a lot of fun, and you will learn valuable processes. There’s a wonderful camaraderie that can be created in a professional kitchen. Students bring their own unique personalities and creativity to the kitchen, and a lot can be learned from each other. I loved what I learned about the cooking field; ethnic foods, wines, business, catering, baking, sauces and all the rest. Under different circumstances I may have learned more and had a better experience. I felt I chose the best school at that point in time. You attend culinary school to primarily learn a profession. The school is there for two purposes; to teach you that profession, and also to make money. Schools that cram too many students in a class care more about the money than they do about your experience. Remember that if you make a mistake in choosing a culinary school, it’s an expensive mistake and you will pay dearly.

Many well-known chefs didn’t attend culinary school, and Rachel Ray from the Food Network didn’t either. She was in the right place at the right time, and became a culinary star. Culinary school will definitely open some doors for you and give you more career options. If you choose to attend culinary school, I hope you get everything out of it that you desire, regardless of it being good, bad or ugly.

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