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To School or Not to School

November 10, 2010

I often get asked by people wanting to enter the food industry if they should go to cooking school and if so, where. The answer isn’t that clear. It depends.

I went to college and received a BA in Sociology. After college I moved to New York City and decided I wanted to go into cooking. To start, I went to a short course at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Having been to four years of school I wasn’t too excited about being in the classroom. I wanted to work. Instead of participating in the CIA’s extended program I attended the newly formed New York Restaurant School. It was a six-month course designed for small independent restaurants. It was one of the first of its kind.

When I moved to San Francisco in the mid 1980’s and started working at Stars, people in the kitchen were pretty much a mish mash of  just-graduated high school kids, culinary graduates and people with advanced degrees in other areas like literature or biology. People were driven into restaurant kitchens because of their passion for food. We didn’t really know how it was going to work out. We were living in the moment and believed we would figure it out as we went along. We had few role models and no Food Network. In that period there were a lot more people in the kitchen without formal training than you see today.

Some of this is because there weren’t that many cooking schools and those that were around were not as well known. Now that cooking is a career, the number of schools has increased greatly.

So is it necessary for someone to get a culinary degree if they want to work in restaurants? You can learn how to make an omelet, bone a chicken, and make puff pastry without going to school, but you do need to get that knowledge somewhere.

You need to find work in a kitchen where there is a chef or other cooks who are willing to put in the time to teach you.  You can read professional books and cook at home, but that will only get you so far. You need to be in a restaurant. Hook yourself up in a place where you like the food and the people who work there. Be willing to start as a dishwasher or prep cook. Do the grunt work and keep your eyes and ears open to see what others are doing around you. In your free time, volunteer to peel potatoes, hull strawberries or whatever you see someone else doing that isn’t part of your job. People will be more apt to teach you if they see you are hungry for information.

However it can be difficult to find a restaurant that will give you on-the-job training. Restaurants are fast paced with hundreds of things going on at once. There often isn’t time to train people with no skills.

Culinary School gives a broad hands-on education and overview of the field. A well designed curriculum can expose you to a wide variety of things in a short period of time.  You are immersed in learning, as professors teach you all day long, not just in spurts when a restaurant chef has a minute.

There are plenty of restaurants, but there are also many cooks looking for jobs. The good news is there is a shortage of good cooks and chefs; cooking school will give you an advantage to get that first job.

Cooking schools can be expensive and you must understand that even with a degree you will still be near the bottom of the restaurant hierarchy when you graduate. For years, cooking schools were criticized for not explaining this to students, but they now set more realistic expectations. That being said, with a diploma your chance of rising up faster through the ranks is better.

The best and the most expensive cooking schools are The Culinary Institute of America, The French Culinary Institute and Johnson and Wales.  As a less costly option, city and community colleges have culinary programs where you can get a good education. I meet smart and not so smart people from both. The key anywhere is to maximize your time there. Engage with professors and study hard.

You can be successful in the food world with or without cooking school but you have to have passion, a palate, some natural ability and cooking fundamentals. How you get them is up to you.

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