Getting Real About Culinary Schools and Restaurants

Read Being a Chef in the Modern Culinary-Arts Field for more information.

This is an interview with a former executive chef who cooked and worked in restaurants since he was fourteen years old. My goal was to compare my personal experience and perspective of culinary schools and the restaurant business with that of someone who had many years of experience and traveled the path I wanted to take. Here is what I learned.

What is your background?
I’ve been cooking ever since I was fourteen years old. I started in the culinary business as a dishwasher, and I worked my way up to the manager of Bob’s Big Boy restaurant and similar restaurants. I eventually took a culinary course at a French cooking school with Victoria Emmons. I did private catering with her for a number of years. Then I did a three year internship at the San Jose Athletic Club for three different chefs. I learned about garde manger, entrees, sauces, soups and meat cutting. I eventually went to a restaurant management company in San Francisco where I started as a sous chef and became the executive chef for about four to five years.

Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently in guiding your own career?
I did what I wanted to do. I started out as a dishwasher and I wanted to be an executive chef. I have been an executive chef and I still can be. I’ve entered a lot of cooking contests. I think I’ve done what I wanted to do and accomplish in this business, short of being a master chef. I’m not interested in becoming a master chef.

What has been the best part or aspect for you about working in the culinary profession?
Meeting the people and working with a lot of different people. I’ve had opportunities to design kitchens. I love writing menus, and just working with food.

What are the biggest drawbacks to working in a professional kitchen?
To me, it’s all about the people. It’s all about the person you’re working under. There are old style chefs and there are new style chefs. The old style chefs believe in yelling, and screaming at people. That’s a big drawback because it becomes an unhealthy work environment. A lot of chefs who were chefs when I was a sous chef don’t believe in that, because they were treated that way. I always said that once I was an executive chef I would never treat anyone like that. No matter how much they knew, no matter what they did, I would never belittle anybody. Some kitchens still believe in yelling. They’re still living in the old world.

What is your experience with culinary schools?
I ran the training kitchen when I worked at the restaurant management company, and trained a lot of chefs, sous chefs and executive chefs before they went to our other accounts. My company paid for me to go to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco for six months to see if it was a good pool to pull from. Once I got there and sat through a lot of classes, I found that it wasn’t real life training. I thought the chefs deceived the students about what they were going to get out of the school and where they were going to go when they graduated. I felt they were trying to tell people they could become executive chefs, saucier’s, and pastry chefs immediately once they got out of school, but their training didn’t reflect that. I learned that the school was basically, in my opinion, geared towards housewife cooking, not everyday restaurant cooking where you have to be able to multitask four or five tasks. You need to have the knowledge of meat cutting, and working grills. They glossed over training students on the equipment in the schools. A lot of the people that I hired from the school, as a result, I had to let go within a few days. They didn’t understand the restaurant business, even though they spent eighteen months in the school. I thought it was deceiving, in my opinion, about what they were teaching students and what these students were going to do once they left the school.

You didn’t think they were preparing people for the real world of cooking in a restaurant?
No, not at all.

What is housewife cooking?
It’s just like cooking at home. They give you some good ideas. They take you through some stuff. Being an executive chef these days, you have to be into food costing, people, and multi tasking. You have to know the whole business of catering and being able to do more than one thing at a time. A lot of people I hired were only able to do one thing. The school taught students, for instance, about turning potatoes, but they didn’t teach them how to do it fast. They didn’t teach them that, in some cases, you don’t need to turn potatoes. There were students who were into the culinary aspect of it, but didn’t know how to do the production aspect of cooking.

What is the biggest misconception that young people have about culinary schools?
The biggest misconception is that they’re going to get paid big money immediately when they graduate from school. They think they can do an executive chefs job better than the guy whose been doing it for twenty years. That’s the biggest misconception that I’ve seen. People I hired thought they could do my job, but really had no idea what my job was. When they found out what I had to do, they realize they wasted a lot of money in culinary school.

What is your advice to someone beginning a culinary career?
Try to get a job making salads or starting from the bottom (dish washing). Learn and watch in a restaurant so you can see if that’s something you really want to do for the rest of your life. It’s kind of a hard business and sometimes it’s thankless. A lot people don’t think it’s a hard job; working with the pressures, the heat, and everything else that goes along with the kitchen. I advise them to go in and get a temporary part time job to see if it’s something they want to do, before they enroll in culinary school. They could be wise about the school they choose.

What questions would you recommend students ask before enrolling in a culinary school?
Ask about credentials, class size, and exactly what content you’re going to learn in a program, from semester to semester. How in-depth are the classes that you’re going to be taking? Will you learn at the beginner’s stage and stay in the beginner stage, or are the instructors going to show you advanced cooking techniques in the class, once they get you started? Ask about the job placement once you graduate. Ask if the chef instructors are going to teach you “real life” skills, so you can hold a job in the culinary field once you graduate.

What is the most important quality that a student needs to have to succeed in the culinary profession?
Patience and the willingness to learn. Prospective students also need to have the willingness to adapt to different situations, because the job is different every day. You need to be able to work with people. You need to learn how to hold your temper, and not yell at people when stress gets high. It’s important to stay a team player.

What, in your opinion, is lacking in culinary schools today for students to be comfortable with restaurant work?
From my experience, it’s the lack of real world training. Another thing that’s lacking is teaching students people skills. I think that should be an important course in culinary schools, to learn how to work with your co-workers. As soon as a lot of cooks get stressed, they start yelling and they think it’s okay. In the old days chefs were privileged. They would yell and fly off the handle. A lot of people think that’s what the chef is about these days. To me, the real world of cooking is being able to hold the kitchen together and not spread panic throughout the kitchen when it gets busy. Pick the proper time to talk to people. What they need to teach in culinary school is how to work with people and be flexible.

What are some of the differences between kitchen work at school and kitchen work in the real world of restaurants?
You are on a time schedule in the restaurant, and you still need to be clean and neat and follow health regulations. You’re often given more than one task. In school, instructors give the students one thing to do each day. The students don’t get to experience the whole job they have to do. They usually have five or six people working at one job that you would normally be doing in a restaurant all by yourself.

In what ways do you think culinary schools could improve their training of students?
There’s a lot they could do. They could lower the class sizes. The classes are way too big. They could hire chef instructors that care about the students. They’re there to teach new people that are in the field. When I went to the Academy, I felt that the chefs didn’t care. They picked their favorites (students) and that was it. I thought it was just wrong. Some students kissed up to them, to put it mildly. The other students who were paying the same amount were basically ignored, from what I saw at that school. Those were the people I took under my wing, and helped out. They need more chefs that care, and have the patience to teach a student from the start. That’s what the school is supposed to be about, getting people into the culinary field.

Do you think age is an important factor in the culinary profession? In other words, would you recommend this career for someone over 40 or 50?
If they have the passion for it. I believe that if you have the passion for something, then it doesn’t matter what age you start at. Some people do believe it’s a young person’s game when you start out. But to me, I hired older people because they think smarter. They’ve been through real life and so they’re able to adapt and change a little bit easier. It really depends on what your passion is for the field. If you have the passion, it doesn’t matter what age you are.

Many years ago I tried to get a job in a restaurant in San Francisco, but no one responded to me. Is it still difficult to get into restaurants without a culinary school training?
When I was coming up, it was a lot easier. Because of these culinary schools, a lot of chefs have gone ahead and hired people out of schools. They don’t always work out because they aren’t trained well enough. I gave a lot of graduates a chance, but I don’t have a lot of time to do that in a restaurant. It’s harder nowadays. People aren’t going to give you that much of a chance, unless you’ve gone through school. You need to find somebody who understands that you want to get into the field and is willing to give you a chance. Nowadays it’s pretty hard to get into the field without any type of training. You could start as a dishwasher.

What about young people who start out at fast food restaurants, and short order cooking? Is that an entry way into more professional cooking and a better restaurant? Or is that a dead end road?
It’s good because you get to learn about a kitchen. It’s a different thing than a professional culinary restaurant. You have an opportunity to learn different things about cooking; temperatures, food handling, and team work. It’s a good stepping stone, even if you’re just flipping burgers. At least you have some kind of training in the field. When you apply as a grill cook, you can at least prove that you’ve done a little bit of cooking. You’ll have the knowledge and are able to at least start work. You won’t look as though you don’t know anything.

How long does it normally take for students to find a desirable position after they graduate?
I’ve talked to a few people and it’s taken them awhile. Some have even given up on it, because they have to pay back the loans. It takes a long time.

On the first day of culinary school we were asked what we wanted to do with our culinary education. Most students said they wanted to own their own restaurants. As a restaurant start up consultant, how much does it cost today to start a new restaurant?
It depends on many factors; the restaurant, location and cost of rent and equipment. If you start from the bottom, it could cost you one or two hundred thousand dollars or more, just for a small breakfast place.

Do you recommend brand new equipment or can someone buy used equipment?
Yes, a lot of times we’ve gone out and bought good used equipment from restaurants that have closed down. That’s a good way to go sometimes too.

How many years should a person typically work as a cook before they are qualified to open a restaurant?
Someone might catch on quick. But for myself, I’ve been in this field for twenty five years, and I don’t think I’m ready to own my own restaurant. It’s what I know and what you have go through and what you have to put into it, because it’s your own business and you have to put a hundred and fifty percent into it. You’re going to need to be there all the time. It’s hard and a lot of restaurants fail. You have to know what type of restaurant you want to start.

In what ways, other than culinary school can young people get involved in the culinary field?
They can get into selling restaurant supplies, working with different produce companies, or food companies such as Sysco. You’re still in the restaurant business, but that’s another aspect of it. You can do deliveries. That’s what a lot of people do.

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