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Culinary School: The Pros and Cons of Culinary Education

Is culinary school really worth it?

More people than ever are chasing a dream of running a kitchen or flipping an omelette on television. Culinary school enrollment has swelled in recent years, while tuition rates — and student loan debt — rise alongside it. For a profession with famously low starting wages, it's hard to know whether culinary school is worth it.


The best-known culinary schools in the country come with price tags that range anywhere from $35,000 to $54,000 for a two-year associate's degree or up to about $109,000 for a bachelor's degree. All this for a career path that traditionally starts with a $10 an hour job doing back-breaking work for insane hours and over holidays. While the salary does improve with time, cooking is rarely going to be a lucrative profession.

So is going to culinary school worth it? There's not one right answer to the long-debated question. It depends on a lot of factors, including the costs of culinary school, the alternatives, career aspirations, and temperament. There are passionate arguments on all sides.

Chefs, restaurateurs, educators, students, and newly minted line cooks from across the country shared with Eater their thoughts on the value of culinary school. They all agreed that education is valuable, but their opinions differed on how to get it for the greatest value. What lies ahead is a look at the pros and cons of going to culinary school.

San Francisco Cooking School, Photo: Patricia Chang

Education

The most obvious pro in any debate about the worthiness of culinary school is the education itself. All the various culinary school programs vary in length, class structure, and focus, but one can have a reasonable expectation of emerging from culinary school with a foundational knowledge of terms used in the kitchen. And, if the school is any good, grads will also know how to execute dishes using those terms. Some programs might also teach the history of Paul Bocuse, the basics of table service, and elementary business classes. Schools with bachelor's degrees even have some liberal arts courses such as writing and history. Perhaps most importantly, Daniel Boulud explains that culinary school students will learn skills in a very elementary fashion without any frills or shortcuts that they might learn in a professional kitchen.

" I think [culinary schools] are indispensable to a young chef who really wants to make a career in that field because I think the culinary schools give access to such a repertoire of basic knowledge one has to acquire," he says. "Because you don't always acquire that soon as you work for a chef who has too much personalization and all that. I think it's good to know the basics. You have access to libraries, you have access to time to study." He adds that he believes the U.S. is going to see "a separation between the vocational and the professional" with a higher standard for culinary schools and an increased focus on master classes for continuing culinary education.

"I think culinary schools are indispensable to a young chef."

It's also about how you learn these skills, though. In December, Amanda Cohen wrote a blog post on the Dirt Candy website about the pros and cons of culinary school in which she explained the importance of her own education at the Natural Gourmet Institute. Culinary school worked for her, she wrote, because she wouldn't have learned well in the high-stress scenario of a restaurant kitchen. As she explained, "I was shy and I needed to be in an environment where I could learn the basics without getting yelled at and a professional kitchen isn't a teaching-focused environment."

Pastry chef and and dean of the San Francisco Cooking School Bill Corbett skipped culinary school himself. But he echoes Cohen, saying that "it can be incredibly scary" to walk off the street and into a kitchen. What culinary school can give you, he says, is the knowledge that will make transitioning into a professional kitchen easier: knowing to say "behind" when you're moving behind another cook, how to use and take care of a knife, and more. Spending two years working in a restaurant might put a cook ahead of a culinary school student, he says, but it makes for a pretty difficult first year if you don't know how to hold a knife.


Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater]

The Costs of Culinary School

Tuition

It cannot be stated enough that culinary school is expensive. There are all kinds of programs in which aspiring cooks can enroll with all kinds of price tags associated with them. The California Culinary Academy in San Francisco offers a certificate in culinary arts for $19,200. The International Culinary Center in New York City offers a 600-hour Classic Culinary Arts course with flexible schedules that range from $38,500-$48,750. And schools like the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson & Wales University, and the New England Culinary Institute offer both two-year associate degree options and four-year bachelor's degrees — the former averaging around $53,000, and the latter closer to $100,000.

Even though the tuition prices are high, Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen doesn't think they are unreasonable for what these schools are providing. "Can you imagine the insurance for 200 or 1,000 19-year-olds playing with knives and fire?" she asks. And, she points out, these rates are pretty much on par with higher education outside of the culinary field. For those who are attending culinary school in place of a traditional college, the cost might then be offset. But, as Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert pointed out last month, " It's not like you're going to Harvard, where when you come out you're going to make $100,000. When you get out, you make $10 an hour, and basically are doing tasks in a kitchen reserved for beginners. So you have to start from there. You have to be humble and make that sacrifice."

"It's not like you're going to Harvard, where when you come out you're going to make $100,000."

Admissions recruiters at some of these schools don't always help make that reality clear to potential students. San Francisco pastry chef Bill Corbett recalls a seminar at the Natural Gourmet Institute that informed him he could become a sous chef upon graduation and make $60,000 within a year. "I've never met a sous chef that made 60 grand," he says. And Le Cordon Bleu's Pasadena, California campus just settled a lawsuit with alumna Annie Berkowitz, who claimed she was "fraudulently induced" to enroll in the school after having been promised she could make "$75,000 per year to start" as a pastry chef. Berkowitz won $217,000 in the settlement.

Debt

Chef Brad Spence wouldn't go culinary school if he had to do it all over again. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, the chef/partner of Philadelphia's Amis moved to New York City, where he made $8 or $9 an hour. Even though he was getting help from his dad to pay off the student loans, Spence says he "could barely live" between the low salary, high rent, and regular loan payments. And that's the norm for New York City line cooks. Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen says that generally cooks can expect a raise of $1 a year, meaning one can hope to be making $20 an hour 10 years into a career. That's still not very helpful for someone who needs to pay off tens of thousands of dollars in culinary school debt.

According to U.S. News & World Report, people who owe $25,000 in student loans can expect to pay around $150 a month. $50,000 worth of debt will jack those monthly payments up to $450 a month, and $75,000 in debt brings it to $750 per month. Depending on the terms of the loan, it could be even higher. Meanwhile, line cooks made $28,485 a year per the last StarChefs.com survey. That's $2,374 a month, but even less once you take out taxes and account for rent prices in cities like New York and San Francisco that soar upwards of $1,000 a month. Even $150 a month might end up being a significant chunk of what remains of the paycheck.

These debts are only compounded for college graduates and career-changers who enroll in culinary school. Trying to pay off two loans with a job that only pays $2,374 a month is going to be a struggle.

Scholarships

"Through great education that you gain through these scholarships and mentorships... I think you're able to better propel yourself in the future."

One solution to crushing debt is finding a way to avoid paying tuition in the first place. About 90 percent of Culinary Institute of America students "receive financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants, loans, and work-study." When it comes to scholarships, there are a number of merit and need-based options both here and at other schools. The CIA has a one-time CIA alumni referral scholarship of $1,000. Its San Antonio location offers an El Sueño scholarship program for low-income students that Edible Austin reports "can provide up to half of the program tuition." The International Culinary Center offers scholarships for international students, veterans, and students studying Italian and Spanish cuisines. And so on.

Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen argues that it's not just the schools themselves that bear some of the responsibility for drifting beyond the reach of lower income students. It's the whole ecosystem of both the educational and restaurant communities. She says she has at times considered ways that she as a chef and restaurant owner can help mitigate the costs of culinary school. "If I knew that I had a line cook who really wanted to go to culinary school, and they were going to come back and work for me for four years, it would be worth my while to pay for part of their tuition," she says, adding that it's "sort of a ludicrous idea, but I don't know how else to do it."

New Orleans chef John Besh does that in his own way. His John Besh Foundation offers full paid scholarships to the ICC (formerly the French Culinary Institute) for aspiring minority chefs in low-income communities. Dismal minority and lower-income enrollment is a significant downside of the cost of culinary school that ripples throughout the restaurant world. Besh explains, "We have this weird thing happening where we have mainly upper middle class white suburban boys that could afford to go anywhere, and they're going to culinary school and they're the ones moving to New Orleans and I'm trying to teach them how to cook Creole." His foundation seeks to balance this out.

Besh's scholarship program does include an internship at one of his myriad restaurants and the opportunity to work for the likes of Danny Meyer, Rachael Ray, Emeril Lagasse, and others. But why does it focus on culinary school? Though Besh acknowledges that culinary school (and especially a high-end one like the CIA) may not be necessary to a cooking career, he argues, " Through great education that you gain through these scholarships and mentorships then you don't have to settle anymore. You can raise your own limits and set the bar where you want it set. And I think you're able to better propel yourself in the future."

[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

The Realities of Restaurant Life

Career Possibilities

Any time you're throwing down tens of thousands of dollars on education, it helps to know what you're doing with it. Perhaps even more so in the case of a trade like cooking. Tuition is high and average salaries for many jobs in the food service industry are low. A cost-benefit analysis for culinary school tuition will calculate differently for the cook who plans to work his or her way up the line in a New York City restaurant and the cook who wants to take a higher-paying corporate or private chef gig.

There are all kinds of jobs available to culinary school grads: working in all facets of a restaurant, from the line to the host stand to the wine cellar, and beyond; research and development for a corporation like McDonald's; overseeing the kitchen at a hotel, resort or on a cruise liner; and so much more. During the 2011-2012 academic year at the Culinary Institute of America, about 54 percent of incoming freshmen expressed interest in working at an independent restaurant in some capacity upon graduation, according to communications director Jeff Levine. Another 27 percent were interested in working at hotels or resorts, while 17 percent were considering careers at restaurant chains or other corporate food jobs. And, according to Levine, about 70 to 80 percent of CIA graduates do go to work in restaurant or hotel/resort kitchens when they leave Hyde Park.

So what are the average salary expectations for these two career paths? Well, according to the most recent Chef Salary Report on StarChefs.com, in 2010 an executive chef could stand to make $65,983 ($81,039 in hotels); a chef de cuisine had an average salary of $51,114 ($55,405 in hotels); a sous chef made $39,478 ($42,906 in hotels); and a pastry chef made $43,123 ($46,547 in hotels). For those hotel and corporate chefs who are making more money than those who work in restaurants, culinary school may be less of a financial challenge.

It's worth pointing out, though, that it often takes years of working as a line cook for grim hourly wages before making that kind of money. And while salary levels for those who had obtained culinary degrees or certifications are higher than non-grads, the survey warns that "the salary gap — while increasing — isn't as big as you might think."


[Illustration: Eric Lebofsky]

Lifestyle Realities

Too many people do not know what they're getting themselves into when they enroll at a culinary school, and the Food Network is partially to thank. What these aspiring cooks know about working in a kitchen is a fantasy promulgated by Food Network shows and competitions like Bravo's Top Chef. Some of them see cooking as a pathway to celebrity. They want to become the next Rachael Ray, but they don't know that the odds are terrible for becoming a celebrity chef who jets off to Aspen every year.

Los Angeles chef and restaurateur Suzanne Goin has seen young cooks get tripped up in that fantasy. "And then," she says, "they get into the real world and realize, wait, what do you mean I have to work the pantry station for six months, and what do you mean it pays $11 an hour, and what do you mean I have to work Saturday and Sunday?"

Culinary Institute of America director of communications Jeff Levine says that the Hyde Park campus enrollment has risen from 1,800 students to 2,800 students in the 20 years since the Food Network launched. Beyond Hyde Park, the CIA has also opened new campuses in California, Texas, and Singapore in the last two decades. So, as applications rise, it's increasingly crucial for culinary school applicants to remember that the depiction of restaurant life on reality TV shows is not what the work is like in real life.

The depiction of restaurant life on reality TV shows is not what the work is like in real life.

Even culinary school administrators will tell you that you probably shouldn't go to culinary school if you're just interested in being a famous chef or Food Network personality. Levine says that the CIA doesn't want students who just want to be on TV. They want students who are passionate about food. And so the CIA requires students to have had at least six months of experience working in a restaurant — front or back of the house — for admission. Jodi Liano at the San Francisco Cooking School says her school doesn't have that kind of requirement, but that she personally talks to applicants by telephone to gauge why they want to study cooking. If they don't convince her of their passion, they don't get in.

Some chefs argue that some culinary schools have misled or failed to educate students about these realities of restaurant life. Brad Spence of Philadelphia's Amis says that the particularly egregious programs are those that admit students who have no background at all in restaurants. "I think these culinary schools are being really irresponsible to start taking kids' money that have never worked in a kitchen," says Spence.

Meanwhile, pastry chef and dean of the San Francisco Cooking School Bill Corbett thinks that this kind of misinformation is what prompted the lawsuits at places like the California Culinary Academy. "I get a lot of students from certain schools that are kind of clueless about what kitchen life is," Corbett says. "They're just tricked by the fact that the media puts chefs up on a pedestal these days and they think, 'Oh I want to be up on that pedestal.' Well, you'd better get ready to work 15-hour days. Mario Batali doesn't sit."

"You'd better get ready to work 15-hour days. Mario Batali doesn't sit."

But students don't always listen to reality. Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen was once invited to speak to a class at the Johnson & Wales Charlotte campus, where the instructors asked her to talk about the hardships of a chef's life. The students didn't believe them, the teachers told her at the time. But the students didn't believe Cohen either. "How do you get somebody to understand that part of their job is repetition?" she asks now. "You are going to do prep in my kitchen for eight hours a day and it might be one single vegetable. People say, 'Oh, well that's not why I went to culinary school.' Yes. This is exactly why you went to culinary school."


San Francisco Cooking School [Photo: Patricia Chang]

Alternatives to Culinary School

Attending a Four-Year College

Chef David Chang tells the story of a retired police chief from a small town near Pittsburgh who had dedicated his entire life's savings to opening his own restaurant. But, somewhere along the line, someone had told him he could only become a restaurant owner if he first went to culinary school. He believed that was the only option. "How it that possible?" asks Chang. If there was a global movement to standardize cooking as there is with medicine, Chang says he could understand getting a culinary school degree. But, as things stand, there's no real prerequisite for getting into the restaurant business. "It's a relative free-for-all," he says.

"There are so many options that culinary school is just one of those options."

In fact, Chang — who has attended both liberal arts and culinary schools — argues that it might be more beneficial to get a business, philosophy, or engineering degree from a four-year college while working in professional kitchen. You don't have to live in a city like Los Angeles or New York to build a career this way either. "If you're at the University of Texas, why wouldn't you want to be working for Paul Qui?" Chang says, further ticking off a list of state schools in San Francisco and Chicago where aspiring cooks could use their free time to work for the likes of Daniel Patterson, Corey Lee, Grant Achatz or Paul Kahan. " There are so many options that culinary school is just one of those options," he says. "It shouldn't be the only option."

Amis chef Brad Spence agrees. His advice for those considering culinary school — and who can afford the tuition — is to get a business degree at a four-year college while working part-time at a restaurant. "You can learn how to cook all you want, but if you don't know how to make money then you're going to go out of business," he says.



[Illustration: Eric Lebofsky]

Working in a Professional Kitchen

But you don't have to go to any kind of school — culinary or otherwise — to get a restaurant job. The tenacious will be able to get a foot in the door at a top restaurant so long as they're willing to start as a dishwasher or prep cook. Some chefs even prefer to hire inexperienced cooks: Spence explains he's really looking for an employee with a good attitude and passion for the job. He can teach his line cooks the technical skills himself.

Spence has a better idea of what aspiring cooks can do with their tuition money. If he had to do it all over again, he says, he would take a fraction of what he spent on school and use it to travel to Italy. He would work in restaurants there to learn about Italian cooking. Spence didn't know that path was possible back when he applied to culinary school. It is possible.

Bypassing culinary school to work in a restaurant is really just the beginning of a different kind of culinary education. And this kind of education is often intimidating, sometimes risky, and involves a lot of self-discipline as compared to what you get at culinary school.

Line cook Sam Brennan had to learn on-the-job when Spence brought him aboard at Amis. Brennan graduated from college with a degree in political science and English, and then spent two and half years working for a life insurance company in Philadelphia. When Brennan decided he wanted to pursue cooking instead, he looked into culinary school programs and realized he couldn't afford to tack another $60,000 onto his existing student loan debt. Fortunately, he also realized he didn't need a degree to work in a kitchen.

A friend hooked Brennan up with Spence, and soon Brennan was coming into the restaurant a couple of days a week — unpaid. After a couple of months, Spence hired Brennan full-time. Spence, Chang, Corbett, and Cohen all agree that it's easily possible to learn all the necessary technical and organizational skills just by putting in the hours at a restaurant and working hard. Corbett explains that sometimes it can even be a better way to learn because "you're learning directly within the culture that you're trying to get into." But the fast pace of a professional kitchen, where failures have actual consequences, can be intimidating.

"My first day, I had to ask questions like 'How do I carry a knife around a kitchen?'" Brennan says. "I had the sense to be like, I probably shouldn't just be waving this around as I go through, but I had to ask a question that basic. Asking a question as stupid as that, it's easy to feel like what the hell am I doing here?"

Despite all that, Brennan is working his way up the line already. "He was literally selling life insurance six months ago and now he's like a rock star at his station," Spence says. But Brennan says that his rise in the Philadelphia kitchen had a lot to do with the specific dynamics of that environment. Getting his on-the-job training at Amis "was a godsend," Brennan says. Amis is not the stereotypical hierarchical kitchen. "It's about getting the job done. Not a lot of egos," Brennan says. "I think that was huge, just in feeling more comfortable."

Bill Corbett, pastry chef for San Francisco's Absinthe Group, also learned on-the-job and admits that it's a bit risky. Corbett got his start staging with pastry chef Lincoln Carson and says he got lucky: He got to learn from one of the best pastry chefs in the country and came out of it without any student loans. But, as he and other chefs will point out, not all restaurant chefs are particularly interested in cultivating their employees. Some just scream at cooks when they make mistakes rather than explain what went wrong. Some will take the time to teach their cooks basic techniques and vocabulary, while others might expect their cooks to come in knowing those things. The risk of learning on-the-job is that you don't necessarily know what kind of mentor you're going to get. (Or if you're going to get one at all.)

The risk of learning on-the-job is that you don't necessarily know what kind of mentor you're going to get.

And since even a great mentor might not have time to teach all the necessary skills to an inexperienced cook, self-motivation is especially important for on-the-job learning. Los Angeles chef and restaurateur Suzanne Goin built a solid career despite never having gone to culinary school. But when she was hired at the legendary Chez Panisse, she knew she had more to learn.

"I was really freaked out that I had not gone to culinary school," Goin says. "I was sure I was going to get to work and they were going to ask me to make a galantine or something and I wasn't going to know how to do it."

So Goin spent a month poring over cookbooks by Jacques Pépin and others to get herself ready for the job. She stayed in Alice Waters' famed kitchen for two years, and has now built herself an empire that includes the likes of Lucques and A.O.C. All that studying might not have been necessary to get to that point but, she says, it made it easier.

Attending a Community-Level Program

There's more out there for aspiring cooks than a fancy degree from one of the country's top culinary schools. Though chef John Besh sends his scholarship students to the pricey ICC, he believes that what's important is culinary education in any form. "I don't think everybody needs to go to a CIA," Besh says. "I think it's a wonderful school, but I think there's a lot of programs on the community level that are much more accessible and affordable that people should take advantage of."

These smaller schools and community college programs are likely to be far less expensive than a major culinary school. Stratford University's associate degree in culinary arts amounts to about $33,300, about $20,000 less than the average associate degree tuition cost for a bigger-name school. And, in some cases, these schools might be more hooked into their communities, too.

Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore executive chef Oliver Beckert checks in with the local culinary programs when he's hiring. His team will visit these schools, but Beckert says the schools themselves can be quite pushy about helping their students find employment. (Another potential upside of culinary schools.) Though some big-name chefs might prefer applicants from big-name schools — Eric Ripert noted last month that he likes to take students "from the good schools" such as the CIA, ICC, and ICE — attending a small school won't necessarily put one's resume at the bottom of the pile. Beckert says he does a bit of research into a school when he comes across one with which he is unfamiliar.

But, as will be explored a little more later on, it is supremely important to research a community program and to have realistic expectations of it. Not all schools will be that active in creating employment opportunities for their students, and not all employers will be impressed by a resume that consists mainly of community college courses.

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships might be one of the best ways to get into cooking if they were not so rare in the United States. Beckert, the chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, was born in Nuremberg, Germany, where he also apprenticed at a one-Michelin-star restaurant named Bammes. After a short time of working for one meal and one beer a day (and somewhere to rest between shifts), Beckert enrolled in a formal three-year apprenticeship program. Rather than paying for culinary school or staging without compensation, Beckert's apprenticeship was paid. It wasn't very much, Beckert says, but it was "enough to survive." And the program was hard. While Beckert started off with five apprentices in his class, there were only two of them left at the end of the three years.

Apprenticeships were once the most common way that cooks learned their trade, but aside from the more informal stage system, it hasn't quite taken root in the United States. Some programs do exist: the American Culinary Federation offers four apprenticeship options: 1,000 hours, 4,000 hours, 6,000 hours, and a hybrid program. And apprenticeships still happen in Europe, where even celebrity chef Jamie Oliver offers a yearlong program for 18 young cooks that is 65 percent kitchen time, plus some courses and other professional development like sourcing trips and team-building activities.

David Chang has long made the case for instituting apprenticeships, telling Big Think back in 2008 that he believes "the education system should probably encourage people to become cobblers, tailors, or whatever. It's like these are professions that are honorable and there's only one way you can really be great at it, and that's learning from people who have done it a long time." This is essentially what happens when one stages or secures an entry-level job in a kitchen, but without the structure to make it officially an apprenticeship.

Daniel Boulud thinks young cooks who train in a kitchen rather than a school "deserve to have a valid certification."

So if apprenticeships are already happening naturally, what's the point in institutionalizing them? Well, Daniel Boulud says that he thinks young cooks who train in a kitchen rather than a school "deserve to have a valid certification" of their experience. "I think what's important in that is then the chef has to be accredited so we know he's going to take care of that apprentice," Boulud says. "And after two years or three years, the young cook can have the full accreditation the way he can have it in school if he passes a certain degree." Boulud is putting this theory into action, too: He says he's working with online culinary education program Rouxbe to bring back apprenticeships in the United States.


San Francisco Cooking School [Photo: Patricia Chang]

Comparing Schools

Skills

There's also the matter of picking the right school teaching the right skills, as the many culinary school grads who have sued their alma maters might attest. While San Francisco pastry chef Bill Corbett has plenty of criticism for culinary school, he says, " I don't think damning the whole system is appropriate." According to Corbett, there are some schools out there that are teaching the various skills beyond knowing how to wield a knife, such as how to properly season and taste food, how to organize your day, and how to master techniques using repetition.

"I don't think damning the whole system is appropriate."

These skills are precisely why Jodi Liano opened the San Francisco Cooking School — of which Corbett is one of the deans, along with Daniel Patterson and Craig Stoll — this year. Conversations with local chefs had persuaded her that some culinary schools were not really teaching their students how to taste their dishes, operate outside of recipes, and fix their mistakes. These are the basics of "culinary intuition," as she calls it. And so with the SFCS, Liano has set out to correct what she perceives as a deficiency in culinary education.

Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park dean of culinary arts Brendan Walsh says that from their first day of school, CIA students are also tasting, touching, and feeling ingredients, and building their perceptions of seasoning. In their freshman year, students have a physiology of food class that teaches things like why comfort foods have such a profound psychological effect. "A lot of schools don't have this model, but a lot of schools try to mimic our model," he says.

And there are other skills, too, that Walsh thinks culinary schools ought to be teaching students in order to become successful restaurant chefs. Seeing restaurants close, he says, you realize what those skills are in terms of long-term thinking and knowing how to work with other people. Even just figuring out how to make your restaurant concept right for its community is valuable. "That requires lots of different skills, not just how to cook," he says. And communications director Jeff Levine agrees, saying, " We're preparing them for life, not just how to cook an egg."

Curriculum

Each school has its own way of building an education. The San Francisco Cooking School offers tiny classes of 14 people that culminates in a culinary certification after six months. Working chefs come in fairly frequently for full-day sessions to show students things like how to break down a pig. Students take field trips. Repetition is key, and so are the externship placements.

"We're preparing them for life, not just how to cook an egg."

SFCS has also tossed out some elements of the traditional culinary school curriculum, such as sous vide, which San Francisco chefs told Liano they could teach new cooks themselves in two days. Rather, she says, SFCS is teaching students things like how two fats react together or why mayonnaise breaks and how to fix it. "Every single thing students learn in this program come from that perspective of how and why things happen in the kitchen," she says. "And they're taught with repetition all the time." Corbett points out that one of the benefits of SFCS is that its class of 14 students allows it to be hyper focused.

The Culinary Institute of America is a much bigger school, but it also keeps class sizes to 16 students per chef-instructor. Each graduating class has four groups of students enrolled in the culinary arts program and one in the pastry program, so there are about 80 new students every three weeks. Classes rotate in three-week blocks, though the introductory culinary fundamentals class lasts for five three-week periods. After the culinary fundamentals course, students will begin to cook for each other and eventually even the public before graduation. The CIA program offers two sets of three-week "classes" spent operating the school's on-site and very real restaurants, and it also has an externship requirement. After the two-year associate's degree program, a student can choose to stay for a bachelor's degree that involves some liberal arts courses.

Other culinary schools overlap and differ with these programs. Prospective students should do their research into all of these options and figure out what type of curriculum best suits their own goals and temperament.

Controversy and Protests

It helps to examine a school's history with controversy, too, when deciding where to spend your money. Earlier this year, a group of undergraduate students staged a widely publicized protest of what they perceived as the school's weakened educational standards. But one student, Kwame Onwuachi, insists that the small group was not representative of the student body at large. The protestors had asked him to take part in it, too, and he refused. But it's hard to know for sure the scope of the protest. One of the walkout organizers told the New York Times back in April that "many, many more are with us, but they're afraid to publicly show their support for us."

Regardless of the incident, the CIA remains generally well-regarded within the chef community. Daniel Boulud defends the school, calling the incident "embarrassing" and "ridiculous," and explaining that the students, "should have known way before they were stepping in where they were going."

But protests and lawsuits at culinary schools in other parts of the country have not elicited such vigorous defenses. In 2011, the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, and San Francisco's California Culinary Academy were all sued by former students who claimed to be misled about their post-grad career opportunities. As noted earlier, the Pasadena-based Le Cordon Bleu school recently settled its lawsuit and was ordered to pay $217,000 to alumna Annie Berkowitz.

The CIA's dean of culinary arts Brendan Walsh and communications director Jeff Levine say that the for-profit culinary schools — which can afford to blast their message to a wider audience with TV ads — complicate matters for non-profits like the CIA. The difference, Walsh says, is that the CIA's core business is education, while money is the core business for the for-profit institutions. But, of course, costs are a critique for all schools. "I think nonprofit institutions really have to ask themselves are they really being nonprofit institutions?" says David Chang.

Faculty

It's also key to research the faculty before going to culinary school. Just as not every chef is going to be a good mentor, not every culinary school instructor is going to be an engaged (or engaging) teacher. Corbett sees it as even more dire, saying, " I think there are few culinary schools that actually have really talented educators within the schools. Most culinary schools are staffed by people who are done with the restaurant industry." Culinary school tuition is a lot of money to spend on learning from someone who isn't passionate about food and doesn't pay attention to what is happening in restaurants today. It's up to the schools to make sure they are hiring the right faculty, and it's also up to culinary school applicants to make sure they are seeking out the right teachers.

"I think there are few culinary schools that have really talented educators."

It is with all this in mind that Tony Liano of the SFCS argues that some programs are worth the tuition. "Are you going to throw rocks at Juilliard because you're going to graduate and be a grunt musician?" he asks. "No. But, I mean, that brings the question, is the program you're offering the Juilliard of culinary school?"


San Francisco Cooking School [Photo: Patricia Chang]

Post-Grad Job Opportunities

Networking

Networking is an area in which culinary school has a distinct advantage over going straight to work in a kitchen. And not just for aspiring restaurant chefs, either. At culinary school, students get the opportunity to meet chefs and food service professionals from the owners of a small California vineyard to the legendary Thomas Keller. The CIA recently hosted an entire day devoted to the French Laundry chef, a huge booster of the school, that involved presentations and Q&As with Keller and some of his most famous protégés, such as Grant Achatz of Alinea:

Video: Thomas Keller Day Highlights

Many culinary programs also involve some sort of externship program that provides another opportunity to interact with professional chefs and potential employers. Through the externship program at the San Francisco Cooking School — a program which SFCS' Tony Liano says is highly curated — students are able to make contacts at the likes of State Bird Provisions, Coi, AQ, Bar Tartine, and more.

It's not that way everywhere. When Bill Corbett first arrived in San Francisco to work at its two-Michelin-star Michael Mina restaurant, he reached out to one of the local culinary schools to build connections and bring in students. The school never responded. "If my school is not even fostering those connections with the culinary community around me, then how is the student going to do that?" he asks. Now, though, he expects to take in some students from the SFCS pastry program once they reach the externship phase.

The CIA's approved externship list includes four of the top five kitchens on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list.

The CIA's approved externship list includes four of the top five kitchens on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list (Copenhagen's Noma being the exception). Students might also do their externships at the Food Network or the San Francisco Chronicle, depending on their interests. To help manage these, the school has a dedicated externship office that ensures students will be doing more than just getting coffee for the chef.

Beyond these kinds of opportunities to meet established chefs, culinary schools are also a place to meet a side swath of similarly minded fellow students. These students might someday be the key to a future job or partnership.

Applying For Jobs

While externship and networking opportunities are helpful for obtaining a job, some culinary school programs do go a little further. The CIA, for example, has a placement office that its alumni can use throughout the course of their careers to help find available positions. And the school hosts career fairs at the campus gym where independent restaurants, resorts, cruise lines, supermarkets, representatives from the New York State school system, and healthcare professionals turn up to recruit graduates. These are top restaurants, too: Daniel Boulud says his restaurants tend to tap into culinary schools such as the CIA, Johnson & Wales, ICC and ICE for entry-level jobs. So culinary school is certainly a useful leg up in job hunting.

That's especially true in the hotel or corporate chef career path, where the application process is fairly rigorous. Oliver Beckert of the Four Seasons explains that candidates have to go through four to five interviews before they land a position. He likes to hire culinary school graduates and says he would probably consider them before a candidate who didn't go to culinary school. While Beckert knows that there are plenty of cooks who learn on the job, he's looking for someone who already knows the basics. That is something that culinary school does provide.

But having a culinary school degree or certification doesn't necessarily give job applicants an edge, as several other chefs have indicated. Los Angeles restaurateur Suzanne Goin says that if she had a resume in hand from a cook who had spent a year working in a restaurant with which she was familiar, she "would take that person long before I would take the culinary school person for sure." (Goin does, however, emphasize that she has many talented culinary school grads on her team, too.)

Having a culinary school degree or certification doesn't necessarily give job applicants an edge.

Chicago restaurateur Paul Kahan and Philadelphia chef Brad Spence both agree that there are a couple factors above all else when they're hiring: attitude and passion. Spence hires mainly on attitude, explaining that he can tell immediately when a cook is passionate and interested in food regardless of experience or background. " I just want the guys that are going to work hard," he says. "They're always going to do better than some guy that went to culinary school with an attitude."

Kahan says that it doesn't matter whether a person went to culinary school. All that he's looking for is someone who is passionate about food and not the celebrity that has become a part of the restaurant world. "I certainly don't aspire to [being a star chef], and I don't think any of my guys in the kitchen necessarily aspire to that," Kahan says. "We all are like-minded, we want to make people happy and cook great food. The younger guys want to be rewarded for that and be a Food & Wine Best New Chef and win a James Beard Award. That comes with the territory. But the kid that comes out of culinary school and wants to have a TV career and make a million dollars is not really what our company is all about."


CIA [Photo: Amy McKeever/Eater]

Switching Career Paths

Is a $50,000 school the right place or a terrible place to be discovering one's career path?

Kwame Onwuachi already had a catering business and an endorsement from the New York Daily News as an "emerging chef to the stars," but last year Onwuachi decided he was hitting a ceiling. He needed to broaden his skills and tighten his grip on the fundamentals of cooking to take his two-year-old catering business even further. And so he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America.

The plan was always to go back to his catering business upon graduation. He even kept the business up and running during his associate's degree program in order to help pay for school. But now, Onwuachi says, his plans have changed. The 23-year-old CIA sophomore completed his mandatory externship at Thomas Keller's New York City restaurant Per Se, where he says his "mind was blown." When he graduates this year, Onwuachi plans to go out into the field of fine dining. He'd like to study kaiseki in Kyoto, or perhaps, if they'll hire him, return to Per Se. It was a discovery he may have never made had he not gone to the CIA.

Though communications director Jeff Levine doesn't have any specific numbers, he suspects that a good chunk of the CIA student body switches course at some point in their studies. Some simply may not have realized that they could make a career out of research and development or nutrition, while others might learn somewhere along the way that the difficult life of a restaurant chef is not what they want. School gives them a framework to see that there are other jobs out there that still involve cooking or food. The San Francisco Cooking School's Tony Liano puts it this way: "How will you ever discover you have a passion for pastry if you go work in an Italian restaurant for two years?

On the other hand, it's a hell of a lot cheaper to change career tracks if you figure out you don't like cooking in restaurants before you pay any culinary school tuition. Sure, you might still end up enrolling in a culinary program to enter a different field such as catering or nutrition or working in a resort, but this is why chefs like David Chang argue for aspiring cooks to get real-world kitchen experience before (or instead of) committing that kind of money.

David Chang speculates that at least 50 percent of graduates who go to work in restaurants are no longer cooking after five years.

Chang speculates that at least 50 percent of graduates who go to work in restaurants are no longer cooking after five years, pointing to record-high enrollment rates and claims of a line cook shortage in New York (a shortage which Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen has noticed as well.) Even if the five-year attrition rate were 20 percent, Chang argues that would still be too high. It would be like finding out that 20 percent of a school's medical students were no longer practicing medicine five years later, he says.

Yes, these cooks might find work as a private chef or elsewhere that puts their degree to good use, a decision that Chang says makes absolute sense as "all are respected and very hard and God bless 'em because it's a fucking hard business." But, he says, there's something wrong with the system when that many people are leaving restaurants.

On the flip side, he says, there's another problem with the system when cooks take jobs at hotels and resorts straight out of culinary school. While those jobs are better paid and usually located in beautiful locales, Chang says the skills cooks learn at some of these resorts don't always match up to the needs of a restaurant kitchen. So when those cooks are looking to move to New York and move up to a sous chef level at a fine dining restaurant, they're not necessarily qualified even if they have put in the years.

CIA provost Mark Erickson takes issue with this line of thinking. "Culinary literacy has so many ways of value," he says, arguing that this would be like saying a pediatrician had wasted his time in med school because he doesn't do surgeries. Erickson argues that one of the most powerful people in food that nobody knows is Jorge Collazo, the executive chef of New York City schools. While the CIA certainly holds working in restaurants in high regard, Erickson says he hopes students come to the school for a foundation in the culinary arts. " Culinary school is not worth it if you're just looking to fill a space on your line," he says.

But Chang says he does recognize the value of culinary literacy. He stresses that his critiques of culinary school are to address the times when students fall through the cracks. "These schools are important," he says. "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."


San Francisco Cooking School [Photo: Patricia Chang]

Is Culinary School Worth It?

Culinary school is not always the right choice. But it can be. Culinary school can be the right choice if you can afford it. It can be right choice if you're sure you want a food-related career. (Work in a restaurant before you decide to make it your life, seriously.)

It can be the right choice if you get into a good school with great teachers and useful connections. It can be the right choice if you need or prefer a more patient and forgiving learning environment before plunging full-time into the abuse of a kitchen. And, maybe more importantly, culinary school can be the right choice if you're willing to work your ass off.

But it's even more important to be willing to work hard if you skip culinary school. While cooking skills can be picked up on the job, it's not easy. It takes years. Some would argue it never ends. Seek out a kitchen where the chef has a reputation for teaching and mentoring. Work for free or take a thankless job just to get in the door. This path has plenty of risks, but it certainly doesn't have the risk of an automatic $100,000 debt.

Culinary school can be the right choice if you're willing to work your ass off.

Some chefs believe that working in a restaurant can put a cook ahead of a culinary school student. Others agree with Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert, who argues that, "If you are apprenticing, the first year you peel carrots, second year you peel potatoes. You don't learn as much, you're not exposed to as much knowledge as at culinary school." But Mark Erickson, provost at the CIA, perhaps comes closest to the truth when he says, "If you're looking for a shortcut to success, there is no shortcut. Even going to a great culinary school. There is a lot of hard work to do. That said, it's better than going to a bad school."

It's up to aspiring cooks to decide for themselves what kind of education they want to have. But chefs and educators have a responsibility here as well. Like it or not, they are all teachers. As Erickson argues, once students leave culinary school, it is their employers who "have an obligation to cultivate them, develop them, provide them a ladder." It's up to the entire culinary ecosystem to make an education worthwhile.


Further Reading

· David Chang on Culinary School: 'The System Is Broken' [-E-]
· The Price Tags for 11 Culinary Schools Across the Country [-E-]
· Chefs Weigh In: Is Culinary School Worth It? [-E-]
· Interview: Eric Ripert on Culinary Schools [-E-]
· All Culinary School Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Features [-E-]

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