Making the decision to attend a culinary arts school is not a decision to be taken lightly. Culinary professionals often work long days and even longer nights, in unbelievable heat and in hazardous, cramped conditions. Working as a chef de partie, also known as a line cook, in a brigade system (think assembly line cooking), requires the ability to stand for eight hours or more during a shift; to repeatedly handle scalding hot pans and utensils without oven mitts (you are given wash towels); to lift and carry heavy loads, weighing more than 20 pounds, throughout the shift; to quickly handle carving, filleting and slicing of meat and vegetables; to safely work with scalding hot oils; and to perform all the above while meeting health and safety standards.
In short, there is no profession in the world that is quite like being a cook.
While many line cooks have started out as dishwashers and risen to the title of head chef, the responsibilities of a chef include more than simply being a great cook.
Chefs must be able to do all the work of a line cook in addition to managing other cooks, waiters and waitresses; creating menus; running a profitable business; and above all, creating dishes for customers.
Chefs supervise the sous-chef and line cooks; they check the freshness of food and ensure there is enough to meet the needs of the day; they manage the kitchen’s supplies of food, pots, pans, towels and general inventory; they create the restaurant’s menu and determine how to present the food; and they hire and train line cooks and various specialty chefs.
While on-the-job experiences can adequately, and in the eyes of some, better, prepare you for the general act of cooking, culinary school is designed to prepare you to be a chef and actually run a kitchen. Classes expose students to the world beyond the kitchen, teaching them the science behind a soufflé so they know what they can do with it, not just how to make it.
While work experience in a restaurant may teach you to properly cure a prosciutto, it's rare to find a restaurant that can teach you to prepare avant-garde level dishes in molecular gastronomy. Culinary schools aim to foster creativity in addition to a reverence for tradition, allowing students to push the envelope of food and re-invent the bagel and cream cheese.
Culinary school can be an expensive proposition, especially when much of the trade of cooking can be learned while on the job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment of cooks and chefs to grow by up to 8 percent nationally from 2010 to 2020, which is slower growth than that projected for all U.S. occupations (BLS.gov, 2012), and in the case of chefs and head cooks, no growth is expected (BLS.gov, 2012). In this environment, investing your time and dollars in culinary school can seem risky.
However, if cooking is more than a job for you, if it is a passion, a joy -- your life -- culinary school may be the right choice.
Culinary school prepares students for more than grilling a steak; required courses can include classes in language and history, food science, business management and marketing. Pastry and baking classes will teach how to create a creampuff but also what separates a puff from a pastry and why. This education forms the foundation for culinary creativity that in turn fuels some of the most well known restaurants in the world. The elBulli Foundation website describes cooking as a language through which creativity, happiness, poetry and culture can be expressed.
If you aspire to be more than a line cook, to do more than mash potatoes, to provide an experience and not just a dish, culinary school may be worth considering.
Adhering to a rigid culinary system that expects perfection can be extremely trying at times. The culinary field is not for the weak-hearted, it is for those who have passion for food and view it as more than just a meal.
Perhaps for exactly this reason, many culinary schools, notably the Culinary Institute of America, may require six months of employment in a non-fast food kitchen, or the completion of cooking classes while in college, prior to enrollment. The CIA describes the reasoning for the requirement as a way to “help you understand the realities of working in the foodservice industry” or, as a successful chef Anthony Bourdain put it in his book Medium Raw: My Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, “I have seen the dream realized, and— more frequently—I have seen the dream die.”
In a 2007 New York Times article, Erica Reichlin, executive chef at a Long Island yacht club and graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, said only three of her 32 fellow graduates were still cooking two years after graduation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov, 2012) notes that in May of 2011, only the top 10 percent of cooks made more than $15.46 per hour.
Chefs agree that the hours can be long (10-12 hour days for months at a time), the conditions are not ideal, the pressure is immense and, perhaps because of all of it, the shouting, bombastic bully-chefs on reality-food-shows are both real and commonplace, as described in the International Journal of Hospitality Management. And that without the necessary work-experience, even a degree from a prestigious culinary school such as the Le Cordon Bleu (Julia Child’s alma mater) may not prepare you for, or land you above, a job as a line cook.
Concerns remain about student loan defaults for recent culinary graduates. According to a New York Times article, in 2007, 11 percent of culinary school graduates defaulted on their federal student loans, twice the rate for loans made for non-culinary degree programs.
Lydon is a self-made chef, who worked her way up from dishwasher to pastry chef without ever setting food into a cooking school, and recommends aspiring chefs work for free and learn what they can while on the job. Bourdain is a graduate of the CIA, and recommends extensive work experience in addition to a degree.
Bourdain's personal preference lists the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson and Wales and the French Culinary Institute as leading culinary schools. However, based on the success of chefs from the French Laundry and the importance of work-experience, and that chefs who have worked at prestigious restaurants are referred to as the restaurant’s “alumni,” a list of “top culinary schools” (even as brief as Bourdain’s) wouldn’t be complete without listing some of the equally important restaurants to work in post-graduation.
Per Se in New York (sister restaurant to the French Laundry), Alinea in Chicago, and Eleven Madison Park in New York have been ranked as the sixth, seventh and tenth best restaurants in the world in 2012 by Restaurant Magazine. For a post-graduate experience in California or Texas, Austin’s The Congress and Barley Swine were ranked as the top two restaurants in the state for 2012 by Texas Monthly, and Restaurant Magazine has ranked The Golden State’s Los Manresa in Los Gatos and Berkeley’s Chez Panisse as the 49th and 98th best restaurants in the world, respectively.
Additionally, EDinformatics has ranked the Texas Culinary Academy in Austin (the only Cordon Bleu affiliated school in the state), California Culinary Academy and Kitchen Academy in San Francisco and Hollywood California and the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Austin Texas as four of 2012’s best culinary schools in America. While the schools are not ranked, their placement is based on affiliation, education standards and alumni.
ElBulli, the former world famous restaurant for molecular gastronomy dishes, and which dominated Restaurant Magazine’s Best Restaurants in the World for five years, is currently closed but plans to reopen its doors in 2014 as a foundation for culinary learning. The brainchild of ElBulli’s famous head chef Ferran Adrià, the ElBulli Foundation is likely to offer coursework in molecular gastronomy.
Many people have come to the misunderstanding, probably due to the Food Network, that a chef is just a really talented cook. “Chef” does not mean “really good cook,” chef means chief. The head chef is the chief of the kitchen and is responsible for more than making menus and pairing wines. They lead the line cooks during rush hours and keep multiple meals, which are prepared by separate people across the entire kitchen, synchronized. They determine what food should be used when and how to keep the restaurant profitable and teach line cooks how to prepare new dishes.
While an education from a culinary school can help with the managing of employees and running a restaurant, the kitchen demands experience and a chef must demand the best, not only from their cooks and sous-chefs but from themselves as well. Becoming a skilled chef requires a dedication to perfection, passion and, above all, hard work.
Marco Pierre White, dubbed the first celebrity chef and the youngest British chef ever to be awarded three Michelin Stars for a restaurant, lamented the rise of young, wannabe celebrity chefs, rather than real chefs prior to his early retirement. He felt these new chefs lacked both the energy and passion for cooking and, in the words of Chef Chris Cosentino, “White’s words are as true today as they were in 1999.”
“It seems few culinary graduates want to work hard and pay their dues. They want it all now: money, fame and awards,” Cosentino wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007. “White's career is an example of how a passion to work tirelessly to be the best is its own reward.”
While celebrity chefs may foster an idea of fame and fortune for culinary graduates, the reality is hard work and long hours (see the SF Weekly article, Burnt Chefs). Becoming a master chef requires a passion for both the food and the craft of cooking. This passion is not taught in culinary schools or while on the job, it is something that must be present in you before enrolling in culinary school or before employment as a cook. It’s what drives students to stay in the low-paying, hard working and nearly thankless profession of professional cooking.
"I have had [culinary] students who have done well and those who didn't do well, and I've had employees with no experience do well. It's all about individual personality," executive chef for the Portola Restaurant and Cafe and in-house catering service at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Dory Ford told U.S. News & World Report in 2008. “I look for passion, whether they've gone to school or not, because then I know they will pay attention, that their answer will always be, 'yes, chef.'"