Pros & Cons & Thoughts: Is Going to Culinary School Worth It?
Scenes from graduation from Institute of Culinary Education in 2012. I went to culinary school - but should you?
I'm often asked by aspiring career-changers, food entrepreneurs, and young foodies if going to culinary school is "worth it". This is an interesting question, so I've spent some time writing a (long) overview of my thoughts on the matter. There's been more and more literature on this topic as the world of food become more and more "cool" and celebrity chefs take over mass media - all the while the average cook works 14 days and gets paid $10/hour. Before I get into the thick of it, here's a quick synopsis on what some the major media outlets have already said:
Eater: Not really. It's awesome if someone else pays or you're a trust fund baby, but you'll have a hard time making the money back in restaurant kitchens and you can learn the skills simply working if you have the right mental attitude.
Eater Round 2: No. Top-tier culinary schools are expensive (on par with 4 year private colleges) and salary increases with career progression in restaurants is pathetically flat.
Eater Round 3: There are pros and cons. It's a good way to transition into the food world and form your foundations of knowledge in a structured, non-stressful environment but the debt is crushing - perhaps you should consider some alternatives?
Lucky Peach: It depends, but generally speaking chefs do not care or hire based on culinary school, nor do they associate graduating from one to be correlated with better work ethic or ability.
The Atlantic: Nah. Though European culinary schools seem to have their system figured out a lot better than us.
That is some grade A depressing material if you're thinking about culinary school. I personally think the scope of interviewees and research on the subject is shockingly narrow, given just how many articles and publications have been circling around it. I don't disagree with the major findings (schools are too expensive, salaries are too low, you could just work your way up) but I also don't agree they are each reasons not to go to school. I like to think I have a unique perspective on the matter, having attended a public 4 year university ($32K tuition), culinary school ($30K tuition), and an Ivy League MBA ($140K tuition if I had stayed). The thing about dollar signs is that they only make sense in context and I don't think many of these pieces have painted an accurate picture about the entire range of culinary graduates. So without further ado, my list of pros & cons with some further thoughts.
1) Your job is to learn. School will teach you theory that a job cannot.
You are paying money to the school to learn, which is far different from being paid at a restaurant to finish the X task they've given you. This is a structured environment where you'll have time to work through materials at a much more leisurely pace than when you're hustling to finish prep for your station 2 hours before service. You'll also have down time to study theory vs. only learning execution. Both are important, but I believe theory needs to come first as a "building block". If you don't understand why eggs are added to baked goods or how hydrocolloids need to be hydrated and dispersed, it becomes very difficult for you to address potential snafus down the line or iterate on new ideas. It also hinders your creative process is a big way, limiting your culinary extent to recreating things that already exist.
It's not surprising to me when I see top chefs saying they don't care if their new cooks have gone to school or not: you can get far along your career by simply following orders and doing so quickly and those chefs aren't looking for someone to replace themselves. They want robots. The same goes for most industries - investment bankers, account executives, consultants, lawyers, even doctors - but I posit that it's much harder for those who haven't spent time in theory and thought leadership to make it to "the top". Why? Because once you've gotten to a point in your career where you no longer have the luxury of being told what to do, what are you going to do? Being a cook and being a chef really are two different things, much like how being a salesperson vs. a sales manager or an analyst vs. a partner. The former of these three are trained skills you must learn quickly on the job, but the latter is something you learn in fuzzy, 'liberal arts' scenarios such as in school. You need both.
2) You don't have any company affiliations, and therefore you have the flexibility to choose.
You're still a student, so you are indebted to no one. You can go to various restaurants and culinary companies to try it out (trail and/or intern), see what you think, observe the company culture objectively, and make a decision. The theme I hear from too many chefs these days is "suck it up and deal with it". That is a load of BS. Those chefs don't deserve your talent. Unfortunately, it's much easier to get stuck in this mentality if you've already been hired somewhere and this is management's "imperative" given to you. I fervently believe you should choose the best place that will respect you, help you build the skills you want, and propel your career forward. To this day I've never been yelled at in a kitchen, and I've worked in Michelin-starred places in both NYC and SF. I've been able to learn under thoughtful leaders, a good chunk of them female, as that's something I prioritized. I've been able to do a variety of functions in a professional kitchen (garde manger, prep, pastry, expedite, etc.) because the chefs I found were invested in my continued education and were open to my questions / desire to try new things. Use school as a time to think through what you want and give yourself the flexibility to choose a worthwhile place for your sweat and tears - because you're going to grind it out and life will be hard, so do it somewhere you want to be.
3) A formal degree or diploma will bridge the knowledge gap for outsiders and establish authority.
This is a big one I see most food outlets gloss over. A good chunk of culinary school graduates do not go into the restaurant industry, in which a formal degree or diploma is then important to establish yourself as someone who has a solid foundation in the culinary industry. Especially if you don't see yourself as pursuing any restaurant work that will have consistent recognition (i.e. stage at Per Se or EMP), having a diploma or degree at least gives you a leg of knowledge to stand on. When I was first hired to do culinary R&D for Le Pain Quotidien across 3 countries, the only restaurant I had worked in was Market Table. It's a wonderful upscale restaurant in West Village, but it doesn't have the same recognition as Atera (where I later worked). I can't say for sure, but I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have gotten the job without the bolster of a formal education in Culinary Arts in addition to my short work experience in food. Now that I run my own culinary consulting business, clients do care that I have a Diploma, because it signals to them I learned about the food business through a (mostly) objective lens at school instead of only through on-the-ground operations at a few restaurants. Especially for those who are not in the food industry themselves, a degree or diploma is a proxy for assessing your culinary abilities - the same way we see Ivy League schools as a proxy for intellectual ability. You can argue these proxies may be baseless, or more correlated with privilege and money and so forth, but the fact remains this is how we instinctively evaluate each other when not given extended periods of time to "get to know" one another in a professional setting.
4) You'll have access to a diverse alumni network.
Similar to #3, because your peers at school may have gone off to do other things besides work in restaurants, you'll have a more varied potential set of opportunities down the line. One of my culinary school friends started a successful food product company and through his network, referred me to a video gig. Another one of my culinary school colleagues is a prominent NYC mixologist and has been invaluable in helping Matt (my husband and Co-Founder of Wednesdays) with drinks while keeping me in-the-know about the cocktail world. While you'll also have a great network just working at restaurants and/or a food company, I generally find these circles tend to be smaller because people stay on the same "track". Many of the former colleagues at Le Pain Quotidien are now at other chains such as Pret A Manger, Au Bon Pain, or Hale and Hearty. The same goes for my Accenture colleagues - most of them are now at Accenture, Slalom, Deloitte, or BCG. I think that more than any workplace, school is an equalizer and a mixer for a variety of different people, which is very important if you're someone who wants to explore different facts of the food industry.
1) School does little to prepare you to "go to work", nor does it teach you work ethic.
I have to agree with many of the chefs interviewed that culinary graduates are underprepared - but I think that's a bigger problem with the system, not the students themselves. Culinary schools have high operating costs yet offer a vocational education, so to make finances work they use volume - in the form of high admittance rates. This, of course, impacts the consistency and quality of the "average" student. Once admitted, schools don't want low graduation or job placement rates, so it's in the school's best interest to structure the curriculum in a way that will be accessible to the average student - which we've already established is pretty low. This curriculum is very, very unlikely to be anywhere near the pace of a real restaurant, much less a starred institution. The school wants to prevent students from failing or dropping out, so it will give students many, many chances whereas a restaurant is trying to weed out those who cannot keep up before investing time and money into training you thoroughly.
This opposing set of interests between school vs. workplace is not dissimilar from the situation facing any low or mid-tier 4 year institution, but I argue the contrast in the culinary world is significantly sharper. No amount of gentle coaxing and warning from your well-minded instructors or those office "career advisors" will truly prepare you for the intensity of a kitchen, even a respectful one. I remember being at SPQR in San Francisco and feeling like I was the dumbest, slowest cook that's ever existed (and this is after I finished my externship!). The truth is, nothing will prepare you to work in a restaurant other than...working in a restaurant. So if you're hoping culinary school will flatten that steep learning curve - think again. If you think the "hard work" of culinary school will be the maximum work ethic you need to prescribe to in the industry, you should choose another field of study altogether. If you work at any worthwhile restaurant, the bar of ability from your colleagues will be at least 5x what you experience in school and honestly, that's too much for some people.
2) No matter your education, you will still have to prove yourself.
As every publication I listed above already established, the restaurant industry does not give two shits about your degree. Even if you graduated top of your class with 10 scholarships, that merely confirms you've been exposed to a breadth of theory and technique - nothing more. You still need to show that you can learn quickly, work well under pressure, get along with your colleagues on a hot line, be responsible for big ticket items, and have the right attitude. There is nothing more poisonous to a kitchen than that one hire who thinks he/she is better than everyone else and doesn't listen. It's easy to succumb to poor behavior or a nasty attitude when your ego - so fresh and delicate from graduating culinary school - is bruised. Resist the urge. That being said, don't be so di