Pros & Cons & Thoughts: Is Going to Culinary School Worth It?

February 2, 2017

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. 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.

 

PROS

 

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.

 

CONS

 

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 discouraged you don't go to school at all - just recognize that school isn't an express ticket to your destination but rather admission to the train platform.

 

3) You gain skills that will still expire without repeated practice. 

Culinary school is not some magic bullet that will make you excellent at cooking forever (some chefs will say it's debatable if it makes you even good at cooking). So if you think you're going to breeze out of school, eat Seamless everyday for 5 years, and still be able to trim, season, and cook a perfect rack of lamb I've got bad news for you. You will lose those skills - quicker than you think or want to think. All aspects of cooking - knife skills, meat cookery, plating, etc. - requires independent "100 hours" for mastery. Culinary school doesn't not exempt you - it simply provides an un-interrupted environment for you to start the process. 

 

You also don't become "extra" good at tasting food after graduating from school. Remember - it is always easier to critique than to build. Save your comments for that restaurant from last night and instead focus on honing your craft. 

 

4) You will have debt. Plan wisely.

This is self explanatory. While I have a lot of thoughts about why culinary schools should not cost nearly as much as they do, the reality is they will set you back $25K-$100K. Between my all my student loans for undergraduate, culinary school, and MBA my culinary school ones were by far the most expensive, so consider yourself warned. Cutting down your costs during school is not enough - after you graduate, your loans will kick in but you may still be in an unpaid externship for 3+ months. You'll need to seriously think about any long-term commitments, expenses and goals you have: moving to a nicer apartment, buying a car/house, applying for business loans...those will be impacted by the price of culinary school.

 

FURTHER THOUGHTS

 

I think the real issue behind culinary schools is the fact they've morphed into something beyond an affordable, vocational education. For a wide majority of the food industry, cooking is a technical job. It is a skilled job, yes, but it is solidly blue-collar work. That's not a bad thing in the least, nor do I think it would deter most of the workers looking to enter the food industry. However, what I see is culinary schools taking advantage of the popularity around food and elevating the cost of education to be on par with colleges / universities that funnel into a white-collar, professional setting - but still placing graduates into the same blue-collar workforce as before. The "promise" of a 4-year college or university is that it prepares you to enter the professional workforce, and its output to you (a degree) will be readily accepted by white-collar employers as a sign for your ability to do the job they give you, even if it's not exactly what you studied in school. But a culinary school education, even 4-year schools like CIA, cannot promise acceptance for jobs past technical cooking work (again, blue collar work that pays blue collar wages). Thus, shouldn't its cost should be on par with its offer?

 

What is even trickier is that consumers have begun to put pressure on restaurants (and other food businesses) to pay their workers more. Don't get me wrong - I think wages in the food industry are too low. An entry-level job in food, or any industry for that matter should pay a livable wage. But it is unreasonable to ask restaurants to pay their technical, blue-collar workers enough of a salary where he/she could reasonably pay off a student debt sizable to a professional, white-collar worker. Why? Because restaurants offer a commodity product: food. So unless all consumers flip their notion of food to a professional service and are willing to pay for it as such, restaurants are trapped in a space where their revenue (product "worth") is capped at a price point that can only afford blue-collar workers BUT their costs have now expanded to include a base of workers who have paid the price of a "white collar" education. Sure, the higher-end restaurants may command slightly higher prices as they are less of a commodity, but they also have a significantly higher cost base made up of a larger majority of cooks who paid a lot of money for culinary school.

 

Something has to give, and I think that needs to come in the form of culinary school reform. I'm not a policy expert but what I think are steps in the right direction are for culinary schools to:

 

1) Drop their tuition to be on par with other vocational schools and community colleges. I can't say I know how to do this smoothly, but some ideas I had were: cutting tangential programming, paring down equipment, speeding up coursework, pulling more in government funding. Would be open to learning more about what makes sense here from people more experienced in this arena.

 

2) Standardize Diploma/Degrees across all culinary schools so an education in Culinary Arts is comparable no matter the institution (i.e. CIA = ICE = ICC = Kingsborough CC) and easily substitutable so all students, no matter where, has access to culinary training in order to join the food workforce.

 

3) Work with the government to provide better access / more access to low-interest loans, scholarships, financial aid, loan forgiveness programs, extending loan repayment date options, etc. to students in anticipation of them going into blue-collar level work that pays blue-collar level wages.

 

BOTTOM LINE

 

The industry isn't going to change overnight, so I'll restate my opinions for culinary school in its current form:

 

if you're planning on going into and/or staying within the restaurant industry, culinary school really only makes sense if you are financially well-off already, desire a more structured learning environment, or are somehow able to escalate 3 levels of promotion and secure a large salary at a restaurant upon graduation. 

 

If you're planning to be in a food-related role that is more professional service-oriented, culinary school is more worthwhile for you. Especially if you'll be working with clients, they are more likely to care about a formal degree. However, there's also the option of going to a 4-year college and interning at high-caliber kitchens while you're in school so you have a more holistic education for this type of work.

 

Regardless of what path you take, remember you'll still have to prove yourself. Just like Ivy grads may get in the door a little more easily than their counterparts, they still have to show they deserve to stay - culinary graduates are no different. The food industry is not a walk in the park, but it is ultimately a fulfilling and wonderful place to have a career if you stay true to what your personal goals and work hard to achieve them.

 

 

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