Should I Go To Culinary School? Aspiring Chefs, Read This First

Do you need to go to culinary school to be a chef?

There are many responses I receive in casual conversation, whenever it comes to light that I cook professionally.  None more frequent than some variation of, “Really? You know, I’ve been thinking about going to culinary school,” or “my son/daughter is thinking about going to culinary school,” or “this person I knew twenty seven years ago went to culinary school.”  You get the picture.  Once people are done relating to me, the questions come: “did you go to school for cooking?” and “do you think I (or he/she/whomever) should?”

Yes, this is when I give you my answers and thoughts on the “why?”.

First of all, I did not go to culinary school.  After completing four years of undergrad at a liberal arts college in Southern California with a degree in Psychology, I spent another nine months pursuing a career in writing, before finding my path towards a culinary career.  I learned everything I know from the jobs I got, the people I worked with, and the things I picked up on my own.  That being said, there are things I’ve never learned cooking professionally that I would have at least gotten a lesson on, had I gone to culinary school.

Now, as rudimentary of a career as it may seem to be to the naked eye, cooking shouldn’t be thought of any differently than any other profession:

Any line of work, when taken seriously, requires some mix of knowledge, enthusiasm (many people romantically refer to this as “passion“),  and experience.

These are all (arguably) equally important elements of being competent at a given job or profession, and the culinary field is no different.

The way in which cooking differs though, is that while most professional arenas are comprised of 95% of people who’ve received some quantifiable level of formal training  (even if it’s just a bachelor’s degree in a vastly unrelated field), you’ll invariably find that no more than a third of the staff of a given kitchen in the United States possesses a culinary degree (or an advanced degree of any kind, for that matter).

Food service and hospitality are a results-based business — and this fact can NOT be understated.

If the food the guest/customer puts in their mouth doesn’t taste good, you are deemed a shitty cook — and this is something a degree cannot fake or reliably account for.

So before you throw away thousands of dollars on a culinary degree, my advice is to first go and spend 3-6 months in a professional kitchen.  Just because you can whip up a good chicken saltimbocca at home, doesn’t mean you can do it twenty times, perfectly plated, in a given night, while cooking a million other things at the same time.  The real point is to get a feel for what the day-to-day is like in a professional kitchen.  This is important, because…

Kitchens — and more specifically, hot-lines — are intimidating as shit.  I know, because I remember how I felt when I walked into my first professional kitchen having taken on a part-time job as a food-runner.  I worked that job (off and on) for three years, and maybe went behind the line twice, and not before I’d worked there for well over a year.

working in a professional kitchen
Photo by Fabrizio Magoni on Unsplash

They’re scary for good reason.  Ever see The Rock?  That part where Sean Connery is first entering Alcatraz rolling through that fiery tunnel (“Welcome to the Rock!”)?  The prospect of walking behind a line doesn’t feel too dissimilar from navigating an incinerator chute, on a number of levels: full of bursts of fire, you need to perfectly time your movements with those around you (the unspoken “kitchen dance” choreography), and have a body that can physically execute all the functions your brain knows it needs to carry out  when you’re physically and emotionally exhausted.  Not to mention, there are bad-ass people who clearly don’t give a shit about you, yelling profanities at anyone who disrupts anything… and they’re holding knives and seem to be able to manipulate open flame at will.

Cooking isn’t for everybody.

This is something that is genuinely difficult to communicate to people through words, but it’s arguably the most important thing for a person to grasp when considering a culinary profession.

I’ve written a different blog post that talks about the realities of professional cooking: working during the hours your friends are free, then being free during the hours your friends (and the rest of the world) sleep.  Not making enough money to do anything more than get by.  Putting yourself significantly in harm’s way every single day, and working in conditions that, by all accounts are, officially speaking, unsafe and inhumane.

Get an actual taste

Quick story: I recently had the pleasure of creating porchetta which requires tying countless knots as tightly as you possibly can around the meat using butchers twine.  Let’s just say tying twenty of them is not easy on your outer hands.  Once we were all done, I took both layers of latex gloves off only to reveal two pinky fingers with gaping blisters between the second joint and the knuckle on on each hand.  Each blister had formed, festered and popped  during the process.  I showed off my matching bloody fingers to each of my superiors who were also taking part in the tying process, and, well… let’s just say I had a little bit more currency in the “respect bank”, and that’s all that mattered to me.

Before you shell out $60-80k for a culinary degree, do some on-the-job research.

man cooking hot line
Photo by John Legrand on Unsplash

My first full-time cooking job was at a live-in conference center, as part of a 6-man crew, tasked with cooking dinners for up to 250 people (wait for it) a night.  It was, as a previous mentor proclaimed it to me at the time, a “cush’ job.”  I didn’t realize it at the time, because it seemed daunting as shit to me, but he was 100% correct.

Before I learned all these lessons, when I decided I wanted to pursue a culinary career, I asked that same mentor what I should work on first, and without breaking rhythm, he responded with, “knife skills.”  He was again, absolutely right, as it wasn’t until my peers/superiors determined that my knife skills were up to par, that they started teaching me how to cook.

During my first cooking job, four things were imparted:

  1. I developed a chopping callus (this is what cooking can do to your hands)
  2. I realized how much carrots can stain your skin/clothes
  3. Peeling kiwis sucks ass
  4. So does every member of the broccoli/cauliflower family. Especially when cooking for over a hundred people.

These are all menial tasks/lessons, to say the least, but they’re important ones for aspiring chefs to learn.  I know from experience that I never would have gotten them at a culinary academy: The feeling of having done it day in and day out until one day, after surrendering to your role as a human vegetable-processor, your head cook comes up to you and says, “hey, man.  Wanna do the fish today?”

Then, and only then, did I earn being taught how to cook.

The difference between learning to cook dishes and learning how to be a cook

The way I have come to illustrate the difference between learning on the job versus learning in a classroom is that school teaches you how to cook dishes.  On-the-job training teaches you how to be a cook.  The difference is worth noting because, while it’s important to know the methods of cooking something “correctly,” almost nothing done in a professional kitchen is done “by the book.”  The reason for this is that few are the kitchens that have the time and space to make a 18-24 hour chicken stock, and nobody ever has the 15-20 minutes to make hollandaise sauce over a double boiler like you’re “supposed to.”

Some cooks learn on the job and get the opposite education: they only learn the shortcut ways, and this in many ways, is just as detrimental as the formal training extreme.  In my opinion, cooking is like writing: once you know all the rules, you can break ’em.  I was lucky enough to have an early mentor teach me how to make hollandaise the correct way, which does take about fifteen minutes, and it’s a huge pain in the ass.  Once I got that down, he said, “nice job.  Now, that’s the last time you’ll ever have to do that.”  Because then he showed me one of many ways I’ve come to learn how to make it in under two minutes.

After working alongside and learning from various peers who did go to culinary school, I can confidently say that it doesn’t make a cook out of someone who wouldn’t have been one anyway.  A culinary education won’t make someone who doesn’t want to work as hard as a kitchen requires all of a sudden love scrubbing down counters every night.  It also won’t rob someone who has that fire and that drive of the “it” factor that makes someone a good cook.

Final thoughts and what I hope you takeaway

The options are twofold. Spend three months learning on the job, practicing the basic skills you’ll use forever absorbing that knowledge in the environment it’ll be used.

Or, pay a tuition, absorb the knowledge and be taught the skills in a controlled setting that you’ll never work in.

The kind of skills one needs to survive in a professional kitchen can’t be taught — they need to be encouraged, experienced and honed.  This cannot be done in the classroom.

There are benefits to the madness of choosing this career though: you become a part of a close-knit and very exclusive community. At times you get exclusive access to the best food on the planet. You’ll acquire the knowledge of how to turn otherwise garbage ingredients into a delicious, magical rainbow. Most of all, you’ll be doing something that actually gets your blood pumping every night you go to work.  And lastly, that feeling of walking off your line and strolling over with your restaurant comrades to the after-hours’ watering hole, knowing you just went beast-mode on that service; nobody you encounter that night (or likely ever again) knows fuck-all about what that means — because that’s an important thing to embrace as well.

If this sounds like your cup of tea… well, you’re certifiably insane and should be monitored by national authorities. It also means, you’re one of us.  I suggest you grab an apron, tidy up your station, and get ready to crush the next service.  If you don’t think it’s the right way for you to continue, go apply to the best damn culinary school you can find.

If neither of those options appeal to you, do something else for a living.  You’ll probably still be a really good home cook, and that’s still awesome because for a lot of professional cooks, they’d switch places with you if they could in a heartbeat.

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