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David Chang on Culinary School: 'The System Is Broken'

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Photo: David Sherwin/Eater NY

When it comes to culinary schools, there aren't many chefs out there more outspoken than David Chang. The Momofuku empire-builder once took his frustration to Twitter, telling culinary schools to "stop sending kids to resorts & hotels where they will learn nothing...its [sic] poisoning our talent pool." He has also advocated for the return of apprenticeship programs in lieu of culinary school.

In the following interview, Chang — who himself attended culinary school as well as a liberal arts college — further explains his opposition to young cooks getting their start in a hotel or resort kitchen. He also talks about the alternatives to culinary school, why New York restaurants are feeling the loss of good talent, and what he perceives as a pretty dismal five-year retention rate for the cooking profession. And stay tuned for a broader look at the pros and cons of culinary school.

In the past you've lamented about the talent pool coming out of these schools and said that you think the system is broken. What are those traits that you're seeing in culinary grads and why is culinary school to blame?
First and foremost, I think you can safely say that almost every form of education in America seems to be broken or needs to be improved. I don't think that trade schools or craft schools such as culinary school can be exempt from that. At end of day, we're learning a profession. We're not doctors, we're not saving lives.

For some of the larger non-profit culinary schools, there seems to be a revolving door sort of arrangement with a lot of the corporate food companies and hotels. Basically, what happens is once they graduate cooking school they get paid anywhere from $75,000 to, say, $100,000 to work at resort like Beaver Creek or Kona Hawaii. Any beautiful place. They're going to put them up, they're going to pay them a lot of money, and they're going to subsidize their housing. And they're going to do that for two years. They'll work in corporate hotel kitchen where they're not going to learn intuition. They're going to have a fun time, absolutely.

But by the time they're in their third year or so where they should be learning the fundamentals and honing their skills, they're going to want to move on and become a sous chef or whatever. But they're not going to be able to do that at that particular restaurant. More than likely, they're going to come back to the States or a major city and they're going to have two years of experience under their belt, but experience that really taught them not that much. They feel that they have a lot of experience to offer but they really don't.

I don't know how many students are like that, but it seems to me more and more students have that on their resume. If you're a 22-year-old culinary school graduate going to Hawaii and working at a hotel, that's awesome. You're getting paid a lot of money and you're not really paying rent. [Those hotels] really just need bodies. And then after two years or so, they can just replenish that with other culinary school kids.

This is something that the schools kind of make happen?
I don't know if they make it happen. But it is what it is. It would be different if [cooks] were coming into the workforce with a solid set of skills. But really they just know how to make banquet food. I know this. I've seen it. Guys and girls that know how to cook fish in large batches, but they don't know how to cook in a restaurant kitchen. What I'm saying is that it's not an important skillset to use. Being a hotel chef, that's very hard and demanding. Nobody is doing anything wrong. I just think that for where people want to go and the fact there are so many restaurants now, it needs to be fixed.

I'm sure you you've spoken to a lot of chefs and most of them would probably say there's just a lack of talent. And why would that be since enrollment in culinary school is higher than it's ever been and there's more access to this than ever before? Culinary awareness is at an all-time high in America. Where are we losing everybody?

Some of these schools turning into factories?
There are many issues at hand and obviously that's one of them. I think enrollment standards need to be a little bit higher. I think nonprofit institutions really have to ask themselves are they really being nonprofit institutions?

How so?
Let me back that up. The statistic that should be asked is how many people when they get a two or four year degree — or even six-month degree — are cooking five years after graduation? Don't promote the graduation rate or the placement rate. What's the placement rate five years after the fact? If you're going to commit that much money, say $20,000 to $250,000, what's the statistic for retention in the industry? If culinary schools won't release that information, it's because it's ridiculously low. And if it's ridiculously low then something needs to be fixed.

Culinary school is not for everybody. If by chance there was a global movement to standardize cooking like in medicine where they need to have a license then, yes, I could totally understand that you would need a certain degree for cooking. Like you need to pass the bar to do law or you need to pass all these boards to become a doctor. That's only going to happen if there's a standardization in cooking. It's completely unorganized right now. There's no governing board or culinary council that says, "This is what you need to do to be a cook." It's a relative free for all.

You could talk all day long about the pros and cons. The reality is that I think the retention rate for people in the culinary industry is very, very low. And I don't think it's very fair for people to be paying as much money as they are in a blue collar industry where they're going to be paid blue collar wages. If the argument then is you're not promoting education, then that's ridiculous. They should use that money — probably use less money — and go to a state school and work at a restaurant in a city. You're probably better off getting a business degree or a philosophy degree or an engineering degree, anything in higher education, and matching that with real work experience. To me, that's the best answer for right now.

Then if you go work as most people do in college, work at one of the best restaurants. If you're at University of Texas, why wouldn't you want to be working for Paul Qui? If you want to be a cook and you don't want to live in New York, fantastic. If you want to be a cook go to Berkeley or University of San Francisco and go work for Daniel Patterson or Corey Lee three or four days a week and work for free in the kitchen. All these cities are endless. If you go to Chicago or DePaul or University of Illinois, go work for Grant [Achatz], go work for Paul Kahan. It's endless. There's so many options that culinary school is just one of those options. It shouldn't be the only option.

What I've been hearing on the other side is that obviously that would be ideal to go work in one of those amazing kitchens and learn there, but then so many people can't get their foot in the door and that's why they go to culinary school.
There's a simple answer to that: Every restaurant needs a dishwasher and a prep cook or someone to clean. I think this is a very true statement. I would say that in any given kitchen, with a grain of salt, 90 percent of the day is organizing and cleaning. And 10 percent of the day is actual cooking. If you want an entry-level job, that is your entry-level job. If you want to look at it as a white-collar profession, start scrubbing pans, start cleaning, start prepping. Do whatever it takes and learn from osmosis.

If you really want it you're going to get it. Knock on the door every day and say you're going to do whatever it takes. You'll wash dishes. You're going to clean the trash. You'll sort the garbage, you'll recycle, whatever. It's that relentless tenacity eventually will wear down people and your feet will get in the door. If people say you can't get your feet in the door? You have to push to get your foot in the door.

Again, cooking school is fantastic. You learn all sorts of techniques. But the reality is again until something is changed in terms of its curriculum, I cannot say it's for everybody. It's for some people. I was lucky enough to get a Bachelor of Arts and I think that was more beneficial than going to a four-year culinary university.

The second argument would be if you look at all my heroes, the chefs around the world, most of them never went to cooking school. What they did is they had a great mentor. You name a chef that's awesome and people want to work for him, I'd say a majority of the time they never went to cooking school. Whether it's Ferran [Adria], Heston Blumenthal, Alain Passard, Michel Bras, Corey Lee, Daniel Patterson. The list is pretty long.

I was talking to Bill Corbett in San Francisco about this since he's one of the deans for the San Francisco Cooking School. He was telling me that, but also pointed out that you're not always going to be lucky enough to have a good mentor.
Yeah, 100 percent. And that's why it's not a perfect system. What I'm trying to say is you're fucked if you go to cooking school and that's your only option. If you choose another alternative, you have other options. You're not committed as if you only choose culinary school. Let's say you start cooking school at the age of 18, you graduate after two years and you realize that, you know what, cooking school is not really for me. I want to become a chemist. It's going to be a lot harder to enter a university.

But you can always go to cooking school later if you start with college.
Yeah. Not just that. Restaurants always need dishwashers. Restaurants always need people that are going to help. Amy, let me ask you this. You're a journalist, right?

Did you go to journalism school?

I actually did. But I probably didn't have to.
You probably didn't have to. Did you go to graduate school or undergrad?

Now you can interject yourself into this whole equation. Now that you realize you didn't really need to, you could have studied English, could have studied pre-med, whatever, and still done your path. Now the question is, do you have other friends that want to be a journalist? They've been four years out of college or whatever and they really feel that they want to become a journalist and they want to write and they ask, "Hey, Amy, I got into Columbia School of Journalism." What would you say?

Well, I actually got a lot of useful connections out of my undergrad, so I wouldn't necessarily discourage it. If they're going to college anyway it doesn't make a difference to me, I guess. But they don't need it.
They don't need it. It's not a prerequisite. What's more important, are they willing to work hard? Are they going to be committed to it and do they love it? That's more important than getting acceptance into Columbia grad school. Just because you did it doesn't mean you're going to be a great writer.

Most people I know from school are not still in journalism, so there is that.
There's that quote by Emerson, I can't remember, it's like, "Meek young men grow up in libraries accepting the visions of Cicero, Locke and Bacon forgetful that those are the same guys that grew up as young men in libraries when they wrote those books." People always assume that there's only one way to achieve success and there's only one way to achieve your dreams or your goals and that's because somebody told you that's the only way possible. And that's never the case in anything.

It bothers me. I'm not trying to be a fucking gadfly. I'm not trying to fucking piss off people at culinary school. I'm not trying to bite the hand that fed me because certainly we get a lot of great culinary students. It's fantastic. There are some people that really, really benefit from it. But the reality is that's a minority to me. The kids that benefit from culinary school is a minority and that ratio should really be changed. It should be reversed.

Part of this seems to be on the students who don't have experience and don't know what they're in for and then drop out. But culinary schools should also be preparing them for the reality of a kitchen rather than what they're seeing on TV.
That's why I bring up that the stat they should tout the most is not the alumni that have succeeded but the alumni that have failed. You grade yourselves by your mistakes or the things that didn't work out. And if I'm a prospective culinary school student and they tell me that 50 percent of our students aren't in the culinary profession after five years. Well, I'm not going to probably enter that university. But the reality is I think that number is much higher than 50 percent. The fact is for culinary school kids, it should be a five-year rule. If you're spending all this money to prepare yourself for a craft in this profession, what is it after five years? If it's at minimum — and I think it's much higher — 30 percent, if that's the rate, they're shaking down students.

I don't have the answers. But I think first and foremost thing is that then we need to recognize the problem. We're just feeding the machine because they're getting larger. Why are there schools in Singapore and California and all over the place? All of these institutions have schools all over the place and I feel that they're all pissed off at Cordon Bleu because it's so financially successful because it can license out its name to community colleges. I think you'd have dramatically less people willing to commit the massive amount that it takes for culinary school education if they see the rate of attrition is 30 to 50 percent. I actually think it's closer to 90 percent.

I'm not an economist, I don't have the statistics. But why are we having a shortage of cooks if we have more culinary school entrants than ever before? Where are they going? I didn't know the economy was so good in America that everybody could afford a private chef. There's only so many culinary professions you can actually do: hotel jobs, catering, private chef, institutional cooking. All of which are respected and very hard and God bless 'em because it's a fucking hard business. But if everyone's hiring, how come there's not enough people? If I have to pay back a student loan, an entry level in New York City is still going to pay you $10 to $11 an hour.

So you might as well take that without your debt.
How are you going to pay back your debt? That is what bothers me. I have a lot of stories. I can go back, I remember like seven years ago there was a retired police chief from a small town near Pittsburgh and he had committed an entire life savings after he retired because he wanted to open up his own restaurant, but he was told that his only option to opening up his own restaurant was to go to cooking school.

Right? How is that possible? I was honored and lucky enough to give a graduation speech at a cooking school. And I said very firmly, "Please go work at the great kitchens. Don't take the shortcut. Don't take the cash. Learn. Don't work at the crappy restaurant that's going to offer you the best package." And I swear to God that was in the Spring. So five months later I'm at this really bad Japanese restaurant [at a hotel in Hawaii] that does crab rolls and shit like that and [the chef is] like, "Hey, I don't know if you remember, but you gave our graduation speech at cooking school."

I was so pissed. He didn't do anything wrong. Somebody offered him a lot of money and a package he couldn't say no to. But what does that do? Does it really prepare for success? No, it builds he or she up that they do a great job, that they think they know how to cook. And when they come back to the respective cities they're from, they have an enhanced view of themselves that's not reflective of how they can actually cook. Again, I want to say that there are a lot of good cooks going to cooking school. But, again, that's supposed to happen. That's a given. We should be looking at what's not working.

Is this something you've noticed happening more? Has it always been like this since you've been hiring cooks?
No, I mean, there's a lot of reasons. There's a lot of restaurants to work at. New York isn't the center of the universe right now, culinary speaking. That's great. I was just in Houston and I had like the sickest meal at Oxheart. That in the long haul is going to really change American gastronomy. A kid growing up in Houston can work at Oxheart and learn some really sick stuff and solid stuff. You don't have to go to New York. New York is expensive. It's fucking hard to live and work here. I think it would be really interesting if that changed. And I think that it's great you can cook everywhere else.

But, again, I just happen to sense that with the opening of all these restaurants and cooking accepted in modern culture, there should be an equal amount of cooking school graduates. Take Johnson & Wales. If ten of those kids, guys or girls, go to New York every four weeks, that will replenish New York City. In two years, we'll have replenished the culinary school kid deficit.

And listen, I have a lot of friends that have moved on and have become private chefs. They are caterers, they work at institutional banks, whatever. They're doing it because they're making a lot more money than they ever could and they've chosen a quality of life that is better than working in a restaurant. And they are fucking amazing cooks. And God bless them because they started a family and cooking has provided them a way to live a life that is very comfortable for them. But it erodes the whole foundation if you don't replenish New York City.

I know I'm a hypocrite, I sound like it. These schools are important. I'm not saying they're not important. What I'm trying to say is we need to look at the times for the kids that it doesn't work. The era for culinary schools is more important than ever. But when I say the system is broken is we need to look at the instances where it's not a success. For me, it seems to be more of a failure after a five-year period than not. Long story cut short.

· Culinary School: The Pros and Cons of Culinary Education [-E-]
· All David Chang Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Culinary School Coverage on Eater [-E-]