When a new culinary school springs up (and there are currently about 750 in the U.S. alone), hundreds of prospective students flock to the campus, hoping they will become the next celebrity chef. But are these aspiring chefs making a wise career move or would they be better off forgoing school and getting a kitchen job in a real-world restaurant? Unfortunately, the answer is not a simple one and depends on the chef's level of experience.
The Novice Chef
With the surging popularity of restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs, high school students are enrolling in culinary schools at record rates. In fact, 38 percent of San Francisco's California Cooking Academy (CCA) applicants in 2004 were recent high school graduates, up from 22 percent in 1997.
Most schools offer programs that range from a few weeks to several years and cover all aspects of the culinary arts: baking and pastry arts, hospitality and restaurant management, and wine studies. These schools also provide students with internships in culinary hot spots and the opportunity to operate all aspects of their on-campus restaurants. Needless to say, attending one of these cooking academies can be a valuable experience for a budding chef.
Students lacking either kitchen experience or culinary expertise will get the most out of classes from the second tier of cooking academies. Why the second tier? These often require little prior experience and cover all the fundamentals.
If and when students decide to attend one of these schools, they should steer clear of the common misconception that once you have a diploma, your restaurant career will take off. Therein lies the greatest disadvantage of any academy: unrealistic expectations.
Many novices don't stop to think about the commitment necessary to succeed in the food-service industry. Even with training, it takes decades for a chef to master his craft. Plus, students who only have school experience will have trouble understanding how strenuous the day-to-day operations of a restaurant can be. Many chefs work 17 to 18 hours per day, 6 to 7 days per week, and finish each night doing the dishes, according to John Foley, a restaurant expert in Northern California and AllBusiness.com's restaurant advisor.
A second big disadvantage is cost. The CCA, for example, charges about $45,000 for just 15 months of instruction, and that's just for an associate's degree. In fact, a prospective student at a first-tier academy can expect tuition prices to be similar to that of a top university.
In some cases, students may amass a mountain of debt from a school that does not have a good reputation. Many cooking schools are built to make money and operate like a business, says Dan Watts, a former purchasing agent with the CCA. Students, he says, should realize that quality often takes a backseat to quantity in such schools, degrading the cooking academy into merely a diploma factory. Moreover, with the arrival of more schools and higher enrollment across the country, the weight a cooking academy diploma once held has been somewhat devalued.
To learn of a school's reputation, students should ask restaurant professionals if they would hire a graduate from the school they are considering, trying to find a consensus. There's also plenty of useful information on the Internet.
The Experienced Chef
A prospective student with an abundance of cooking experience can benefit from a first-tier school, where they will be able to sharpen kitchen skills as well as learn the financial side of the restaurant business.
Experienced chefs are more likely to be accepted into a top school such as the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), which, in turn, may help them get a job at a top-tier restaurant. Part of the reason the CIA has maintained its reputation despite the proliferation of cooking academies is its nonprofit status. The school, with campuses in both New York and California, continuously reinvests its profits, building elite facilities and hiring only the best instructors. Also, the CIA and other comparable institutions offer their students the ability to pursue a bachelor's degree as well as an associate's degree.
With years of experience hiring and firing staff, John Foley swears by the graduates he's hired from the CIA. In 1991, Foley hired a Wisconsin dairy farmer turned CIA graduate to be his new chef. "He taught me so much about food, the procedures, the workings of a line, and how to serve 450 people on any given night," he says.
Foley, however, isn't nearly as confident in the CCA graduates he's dealt with. Ten years after that very successful hire, Foley interviewed a CCA graduate and asked, "Where did you learn to cook?" The interviewee answered, "I went to school at the CCA." Foley sighed and said, "Yes, but where did you learn to cook?" The difference in the quality of schools, according to Foley, is that the first-tier schools like the CIA give students incomparable instruction along with a realistic picture of the restaurant business.
While experienced chefs may already have excellent kitchen skills, they may not have the necessary business know-how. Schools such as the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College teach students how to start a small business. Classes focus on the financial side (accounting, marketing, purchasing) as well as management (human resources, supervision).
There are few downsides to attending a top-tier school, but the financial burden can be significant. In addition, there's always the trade-off of spending a year or so in school versus continuing to gain valuable experience in the real world. Poor instruction is also a risk, though the more elite schools are almost always staffed by experienced and capable instructors.
Attending a cooking academy can be a smart career move for both the experienced and the novice if the student is realistic about the hard work that follows graduation.
A student's dedication will make or break the journey; a cooking academy degree won't.