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Chefs Weigh In: Does Culinary School Get Cooks Hired?

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Welcome to Hot Topics, in which food industry people chime in on a major issue in food.

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It's no secret that culinary school is expensive, and that the pros and cons of attending have long been a subject of disagreement amongst members of the culinary community. Earlier this month, Eater reported that a group of former International Culinary Center students have sued the school claiming it engages in an "ongoing fraudulent scheme" to attract and keep students, claims that have been made in similar lawsuits filed against schools in Portland, Oregon and Pasadena, California. Their chief bone of contention: that graduates can't "walk straight into a top culinary job."

Does going to culinary school actually open doors for alums? Are chefs more likely to hire cooks that have culinary school experience? Here now, chefs and restaurateurs Mario Batali, Barbara Lynch, Suzanne Goin, Spike Gjerde, Ashley Christensen, Michael Mina, Marc Murphy, and Andrew Carmellini weigh in on the issue. They have a diverse background when it comes to their own culinary education, but what they have in common is overseeing multiple restaurants. Here's what they have to say:

mario-batali-culinary-school.jpg

[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

Mario Batali

Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group
Culinary School: Some time at Le Cordon Bleu, London in 1984

How do you view culinary school when looking at applicants?
We only hire entry level positions. I put a culinary school degree on par with equal time of good level hotel experience.

It is a great start from which a good and awake cook can pick up a lot of valuable info. I went to the Cordon Bleu in London in 1984 and then went to work for Marco Pierre White where I learned a lot more in a big hurry.

ashley-christensen-culinary-school.jpg

[Photo: Poole's Diner]

Ashley Christensen

Ashley Christensen Restaurants, North Carolina
Culinary School: None

Does culinary school have an impact in your hiring decisions?
It doesn't effect a candidate's eligibility for employment with us. I think any degree is a sign of dedication and commitment, but I feel the same way about a resume that celebrates extended periods at one job, and continuing education through stagiaire opportunities.

What about for entry-level cooking positions?
I think this can go either way. The folks that I have seen make the most of culinary school spent time in the field before heading to school. I think this helps folks to know what they are looking for while in school, and therefore provides them with the opportunity to make the most of the formal education.

"A stage or an internship is just the best damn way to get your foot in the door." — Ashley Christensen

Like most things in life, what you get out of it has everything to do with what you put into it. I think there is a bit of a stigma for kids who go to culinary school before working in the field. I can't say that I'm on either side of this thought. I can say that a 30 minute interview, and the way a cook spends his or her time during a stage tells me far more than a resume or a degree ever could.

A stage or an internship is just the best damn way to get your foot in the door.

spike-gjerde-culinary-school.jpg

[Photo: Dusan Vukosanovic]

Spike Gjerde

Foodshed (Woodberry Kitchen, Parts & Labor), Baltimore
Culinary School: None

Is culinary school a plus or a minus when you're looking at resumes?
To be honest, neither. For us, it is more about the person. Any restaurant that has a really defined approach as we do, the right person is going to need to connect with that.

At Woodberry Kitchen, we want people who connect with our commitment to local sourcing, our ideas about feeding people and about hospitality. I don't think culinary school adds or subtracts to that equation.

What about for entry-level cooking positions? Does culinary school help there?
Nope.

In general, do you think going to culinary school opens doors for alums?
Surely it opens some doors. Not the door to Woodberry Kitchen necessarily, but to some doors of course.

andrew-carmellini-culinary-school.jpg

Andrew Carmellini

NoHo Hospitality Group
Culinary School: Culinary Institute of America, Class of 1991

How does culinary school factor into your hiring decisions?
Culinary school is not the first factor I consider. How long they stayed with their past employers and general attitude are the two biggest factors I look for in hiring someone. With entry-level cooks, it is a nice addition but not necessary.

I went to the CIA in 1991. I'm glad I went when I did. I was 19 and didn't know all the different routes of the business I could try my hand at.

[Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Carmellini]

barbara-lynch-culinary-school.jpg

[Photo: Susie Cushnero]

Barbara Lynch

Barbara Lynch Gruppo, Boston
Culinary School: None

How do you view culinary school when you are considering job applicants?
I hire my kitchen staff based on their past experience, drive, and skill set. I think it is very hard to grow into a chef during culinary school because the curriculum is just too broad. Students are required to learn all about other roles in the restaurant when it would be far more valuable to focus specifically on the kitchen. It also makes me a little angry that they do not graduate with experience of working with great food products (that includes farm fresh goods).

What about with younger, entry-level cooks?
Ideally, we would love our chefs to receive a culinary education, pay off their student debt (in a timely manner), afford their living expenses, and have the ability to focus on building a career. It should not be a total struggle to pay for a cooking education and be a working chef. This industry changes so quickly and often the education they have received is redundant on entering the workforce.

Perhaps we should take another look at the European apprenticeship model. Instead of paying thousands on an education that is potentially out of date by the time they have graduated, an enthusiastic (destined to be) chef can save their money, and learn on the job.

"One of my dreams is to develop a state-owned, entrepreneurial culinary school in Boston." — Barbara Lynch

Do you see culinary schools opening doors for younger cooks?
Networking through school with alums and teachers can certainly help you to land a job, but I think most of the cooks we meet (and eventually hire) stage or apply to the position. They are familiar with our group, have dined at our restaurants, and might have worked or externed at a restaurant that we respect and admire. There are not influencing factors that replace a strong work ethic, passion, drive, the ability to collaborate and work in a team. Nowadays, there are a number of hospitality industry employment websites and social media sites that offer young and aspiring cooks great tools to connect with restaurants, each other, and to learn about job openings.

I am self taught. I feel that culinary school teaches discipline and networking, but not skills and goal setting. One of my dreams is to develop a state-owned, entrepreneurial culinary school in Boston, affordable to anyone who dreams of being a chef. I am currently drafting up a proposal for my local Massachusetts government.

Michael-Mina-Culinary-School.jpg

[Photo: Courtesy of Michael Mina]

Michael Mina

Mina Group
Culinary School: Culinary Institute of America, Class of '89.

Are you more or less likely to hire someone if they have culinary school on their resume?
It really depends on the candidate and where they are in their career. If they're just starting out, then yes I'm more inclined to hire someone who has the culinary school background. Culinary school sets a good foundation to continue learning on the job. In school, candidates develop the basic concepts and techniques of cooking, but are often ill-prepared to deal with the pressure that comes from restaurant service.

"If they're just starting out, then yes I'm more inclined to hire someone who has the culinary school background." — Michael Mina

I am more likely to hire a culinary graduate that also has work experience. Yes culinary school definitely gives entry-level candidates a leg up on the competition. They've been taught the basics, now it's time to work their way up and continue their education in the kitchen. However, there's no preferential treatment. Everyone starts off in prep, they need to be safe and fast with a knife, once they've proven themselves they go on to garde manger, and so on — whether they worked in a corporate restaurant, a catering company, anything that really gives them a preview of what the energy is like in a restaurant kitchen.

Now if the candidate has multiple years of experience as a cook, and has demonstrated an ability to rise through the ranks in other kitchens, then culinary school becomes obsolete at that point.

Do you think going to culinary school opens doors for alums?
For certain schools, yes. Namely, Culinary Institute of America (CIA), New England Culinary Institute, and Johnson & Wales University.

Marc-Murphy-culinary-school.jpg

[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

Marc Murphy

Benchmarc Restaurants, NYC
Culinary School: Peter Kump's New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education), Class of 1990

Are you more or less likely to hire someone if they have culinary school on their resume?
Not necessarily. Having hands on industry experience is key and culinary school is a great addition but not a necessity. I definitely look for enthusiasm in candidates, a willingness to learn and open to being a team player.

Culinary school can give entry-level candidates an edge for all the technical training and skills required to be successful within the restaurant. I think it can help but it doesn't guarantee you a job or success. You still have to be willing to work hard. It's a great industry to be a part of but it's not an easy one!

Suzanne Goin

Lucques, A.O.C., Tavern, Los Angeles
Culinary School: None

Are you more or less likely to hire someone if they have culinary school on their resume?
Generally I hire based on experience. If there were two applicants that had both worked at Gramercy Tavern, for example, I would be no more or less likely to hire the one with culinary school experience.

What about for entry-level cooking positions? Does culinary school help those applications?

"If I see the culinary school background paired with good work experience it tells me that that applicant is dedicated to the field." — Suzanne Goin

Even for entry level positions we generally do not hire anyone without experience (even if they went to culinary school). We do take on unpaid interns (often from culinary schools) and those interns are often hired on if they do well. The nice thing for us is that we can take the time to train and mentor these interns without the financial pressure of them needing to be able to fill a position or work a station.

So I would say that culinary school helps those people get internships. Although we also take on interested people as unpaid interns without the culinary school background. We do make them try out and make sure that they are a good fit and capable. If I see the culinary school background paired with good work experience it tells me that that applicant is dedicated to the field.

I didn't go to culinary school, but I was extremely fortunate to work under talented chefs in restaurants that I revered. That training was the best education possible.


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