Is Culinary School Worth it?
A conversation going on among culinarians for decades: Is culinary school worth it?
It’s easier than ever to get a start in the restaurant industry without going to school, and many do so with great success, some by way of luck and some by way of very deliberately sought-after goals. The endgame, with or without school, is to master your craft with the ability to choreograph a team or operation of your own one day. Will school help you achieve that?
Absolutely. That’s the entire reason trade schools exist. A school provides everything you need to learn in one place. Can you bypass school and also achieve your aspirations? Absolutely.
Culinary school in general is a tiered system. It’s rooted in a foundation to give you the basics on which you build as you progress. The environment and pace is proven to maximize your capabilities and your exposure to the culture in a streamlined fashion. Many programs provide the groundwork for both sweet and savory career paths within the same curriculum, without forcing you to choose one or the other from the get go.
Now more than ever it is common place to be proficient in both once you become an executive chef. Conquering the basics in sweet and savory is accomplished much more efficiently in a school setting where you have access to all the equipment and mentors that will expeditiously help you tackle both.
While learning the fundamentals in the two different focuses can be a much more difficult undertaking without the building blocks a school program provides, many have done so through work experience. Though it might take working in a more institutionalized or banquet setting where you are exposed to a wide variety of cuisines, both sweet and savory.
It also might mean spending a few years in savory-focused jobs before switching to a pastry position, or vise versa. It might take randomly applying to be a bread baker or pastry chef, researching the job, and then faking it till you make it (guilty, not recommended). It might be as simple as dedicating yourself to one restaurant and learning everything under the sun with respect to that one operation.
No matter what your strategy is, make sure that if you have outgrown a position, pursue more.
My point here is that the anti-school method is a completely free-form strategy that you curate on your own. You may not, and oftentimes do not, learn the basics in a systematic way as you do in culinary school. Self education, reading on your own, even studying topics you may not enjoy much, is mighty important under these circumstances. Taking an immersive approach will certainly end in just as grand of an education as one that results in a diploma.
The first couple years of your career will be spent in a preliminary setting as dishwasher or prep cook. Here you’ll learn how to hold a knife, use a kitchen towel, set up a station, cleaning procedures, and generally survive without getting hurt in the controlled chaos of a kitchen.
Going to culinary school means you’ll spend those first couple years hitting the books and go into the workforce avoiding having to work as a dishwasher or full time prep cook. You’ll likely jump right into a line cook position with light prep, or a corporate setting that may have you leading a team.
The mistake I see the majority of those who forego school make is jumping straight to the complexities of fine dining and molecular gastronomy without fully understanding the basics. It’s like learning how to run before you walk. My two favorite jobs were, yes, working as a sous chef in a 24 course tasting menu restaurant, and the other was when I was a pizza cook. I worked one before the other, and it wasn’t in that order.
It’s a fact that you can sometimes tell when someone didn’t go to culinary school. Every so often (aka very often) I have managed line cooks who rock the line like a boss and understand the use of molecular ingredients and have great ideas about food, who have clearly studied their favorite cookbooks like a religion, but when it comes to cleanliness and organization, knowing the difference between sweating and a saute, or cutting a large dice that’s not the size of a Leggo, they fall flat.
Out in the real world, when you’re asked to make a family meal, you can’t hide behind fancy plating, intricate technique, and layers of fine dining flavors. Few things are more rewarding than gaining the respect of your peers by feeding them possibly the only meal they’ll eat that day and them liking it so much that you get recognized for it.
It’s important to know how you play an active role in managing your trajectory through your career.
It is imperative that you work under a chef who will cultivate a diverse foundation for you to grow. If you’re not formally following the progression of a curriculum, you will need to create one for yourself.
Electing to forego school is signing yourself up to use work as your education as well as hands on experience, and kitchens aren’t paced anything like a teaching environment. So this task takes foresight, which you will need to think about at the onset of your career. It is all too easy to get stuck on a path that lands you as a line cook for eternity. And while that is an inevitable and very respectable ladder to climb, you certainly chose this profession with an end goal beyond the line.
One thing you can’t learn at school is how to be a leader. That is something you either possess organically or you learn over time in the field.
The framework of how to communicate in the workplace can be learned in a classroom, but leading a team efficiently can only happen in real time. That involves more than just the mastery of cooking, after all. With, or without school, at the end of the day, being a great chef, pasty chef, sommelier, or owner has a lot more to do with your ability to lead effectively.
Everything you’ve accomplished up to this moment will help decide whether you are a well respected chef whose responsibilities include sculpting young chefs, as you once were, who will work under you and learn from the way you explain technique, the way you write your recipes, the way you organize your kitchen, the way you speak to people, your overall temperament and expectations. All of those will be buttressed by the fundamentals you’ve gained along the way. So they better be rooted on solid ground.
The resounding agreement among those who have and those who have not gone to culinary school is that, in either scenario, you get from it what you put in. It is a risk either way. School will expedite the learning process and better your chance at a higher paying job, but leave you tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a basic degree, not including interest. And the price tag on having that luxury is steadily increasing.
On the other hand, going straight into the workforce might take you the long, fun, way there and relieve you of owing money through your foundation years, but may leave you with some gaps in your experience that you will have to account for later.
So, is it worth it?
If you’re asking yourself this question, it’s time to think critically about what will help you decide the answer. Ask yourself these questions: Do you thrive on the structure of going to class, even though you may hate it? Are you dedicated enough to put in the work to land you a job upon graduation that will help pay back your student loans? Do you struggle with conforming to studying and test taking but are self motivated and goal oriented? Do you have the restraint and dedication to start with the basics? Can you live on close to minimum wage for a couple years while you learn the ropes?
Look internally at who you are and how dedicated you are to your culinary dreams. The answers will define aspects of your life outside of your career, especially financially. You need to take a stance in dictating your future. What’s required of you, no matter what path you choose, is initiative. And if you choose to forego school and take on this industry armed with nothing but your ambition, make sure you first know how best you operate in this world, because both approaches can, and do, end with you fulfilling your potential.