Author: Wayne Chien, Graphics: Rose Lee
THE BRB BOTTOMLINE
Culinary schools advertise themselves as offering professional training that prepares students to tackle the challenges of working in a professional kitchen. This article will look at the rate of returns for culinary school while also recommending alternative options.
Anyone Can Cook
A principle shared by many culinary schools in the United States is the idea that anyone can become a chef. Culinary schools occupy a unique space in education as they present themselves as offering a combination of both a liberal arts education and vocational training. Many schools such as Johnson and Wales and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) offer bachelor and even Master’s degrees, much like a traditional liberal arts or research college. But is going to culinary schools a worthy investment for those who have a passion for cooking? I aim to paint a better picture of what a culinary education looks like and how it compares to other routes of entry into the cooking industry.
Why Culinary School?
For the aspiring chef who has no experience in the cooking industry, attending culinary school might seem like a good first step to get one’s foot in the door. Culinary schools promote themselves as teaching practical cooking skills and providing relevant networking needed to succeed in the culinary world. They offer various types of culinary degrees such as hotel management, food business, and wine-tasting, but the main allure for students comes from the success stories of famous alumni. Many notable media personalities and Michelin Starred chefs began their careers in culinary institutions such as Anne Burrell, Grant Atchez, and Julia Child. The rise of food personalities and the expanding cooking culture in the United States has given the culinary world a new prestige, fueling the growth of commercial cooking schools.
Though many of us were first introduced to the culinary world by famous television chefs, they represent an inaccurate picture of what the life of a working professional chef is like. Before we can evaluate whether or not attending culinary school will be a worthy investment, it’s important to separate the professional chef who works in a kitchen from that of the food-based media personality.
One of the best narratives that highlight the divide that exists in the culinary arts industry and the food entertainment industry comes from Anthony Bourdain. In his New York Times Bestseller “Kitchen Confidential”, Bourdain details the unpleasant and sometimes haphazard occupation of working as a chef. The conditions involved long hours of monotonous work, constant yelling and pressure, and a high level of criminality and drug use. Though he enjoyed his profession as a chef, he believed that it was ultimately a role for misfits, for those able to handle long hours and a high-stress environment. After publishing his memoir, Bourdain became a national food celebrity, quitting his day job and instead hosting more lucrative programs on the Food Network.
What Bourdain realized after giving up his day job as a chef and transitioning to television was that his fellow stars did very little real cooking. In his second memoir Medium Raw, Bourdain describes the food being pre-cooked and presented in stages, with only one real stove in use at any given time. Hosting a cooking show is a completely different profession than that of the professional chef but is still highly sought after by chefs because of how well it pays. Becoming a famous cooking personality, however, is not the norm for even the top graduates of the most prestigious culinary institutes, which is why the rest of this article will focus on how viable culinary school is for those looking to stay in the business of cooking.
Investments to Make
Although many who have attended culinary school have a positive view of their learning experience as a whole, I will mainly focus on the rate of return for a culinary arts degree. One of the main reasons why going to a culinary school might not be a good investment is because of the sheer cost of attending. One semester as part of a nine-semester program at the CIA costs roughly $12,950, which, upon graduation, totals a whopping $116,550 before taking into account the interest one would pay in loans. The average salary for an American chef ranges from $28,370 to $86,990 not to mention the competitive industry ladders to climb before they can reach such a position.
One would expect that getting a degree from a reputable culinary arts institution would allow someone to shoot above the median salary range, however, this tends to not be the case. Graduates of culinary schools often only earn 11% more compared to chefs who have a high school diploma. Not only do they not earn significantly more than other chefs, graduates coming right out of culinary school would usually not begin working as a head or executive chef, often having to serve in the lower gauntlets of the brigade before moving up. Having to start at near entry-levels leads to an accumulation of debt through the interest incurred in taking out the loans required to attend culinary school. The low rate of return coupled with the various other viable alternatives that exist makes culinary school a poor financial choice and something I recommend future chefs to reconsider given the routes available.
How to Develop Your Skill Set
For you to move up the ranks of the brigade and land a prestigious executive chef job, one has to demonstrate that they have the required skills to adequately run a restaurant. Though schooling and formal training is one way to learn, there are often other ways to apply yourself for competitive positions even without a degree. One of the most important things to demonstrate for a potential employer is to simply see how well you cook. A test that many famous chefs remember when they first started working in the kitchen was being asked how to make an omelet. For many chefs, being able to cook a perfect french omelet shows your technical skills in the kitchen, which is the easiest way to determine your competency. There’s no need to present a degree if your omelets taste fantastic.
Though culinary schools claim to offer the best and most detailed instructions, there are many different avenues to learn these skills yourself with little cost. There is no reason why one could not watch Jacques Pepin or Marco Pierre White and learn from their different cooking techniques and philosophies. Learning and developing your skills is going to be a more important factor in determining your success as a chef in the future, regardless of how you got these skills.
If you still have a passion for the food industry and cooking but don’t have any relevant experience, there are alternative options to help you get to the position you want to be. My first recommendation is to find an entry-level position at a restaurant where you can learn about the machinations of a kitchen and become acquainted with various skills. It doesn’t matter if you start as a waiter or a dishwasher, as long as you let your management know that you want to work your way up to the kitchen. Not only will you learn similar skills to those taught at a culinary school but you’ll also be getting experience and a regular paycheck instead of taking on tens of thousands in debt. The advantage of this route is threefold: you eliminate the cost of a culinary education, get real working experience, and develop your skills under already seasoned chefs. You will need a local food handlers certification that demonstrates your knowledge of food safety, but other than that, the barriers to entry are low. There are usually no further requirements needed for an entry-level position, and in most cities there are usually at least a few vacant positions available.
Another recommendation for those who want more guidance in their culinary journey is to take community college courses. Unlike four-year or for-profit institutions, community colleges are relatively cheap and offer some top-notch programs as well. This helpful website offers a list of all the community colleges in the United States by geographic location, which a prospective student can browse through to determine the program best suited for them. Community colleges often offer the same specializations as culinary arts institutions such as pastry and restaurant management, giving specialized training as well as a resume boost. Getting an associate’s degree from a community college is more versatile and will help you transition to a four-year degree at a reputable college should you want further specialization or even a career change.
Culinary school is extremely expensive and won’t increase your future expected earnings by very much. Though many successful T.V and media personalities did begin their careers at culinary school, their experiences are rare and often do not represent the realities of working as a chef. If you know that cooking is your passion and you want to make it your career, start early by getting relevant restaurant experience and take advantage of all the courses community colleges have to offer. By taking advantage of working opportunities or choosing alternative education pathways, those interested in the culinary arts can get a jump start without becoming burdened with debt.