If you watch competition food shows, or read food literature, or have been transfixed by a fantastic meal you have made, you may find yourself wondering if you too should become a Chef. Then as the temptation grows and you move into the planning phase you no doubt start looking at various options for culinary education since you figure that classroom education is the logical path forward.
It’s usually at that point that your dreams of culinary greatness come to a crashing halt once you look at the cost of such an endeavor. Culinary school can range anywhere from $20,000 at a local community college to $60,000 at the top tier programs. The big programs also have a curriculum that lasts for 2 years and resemble a regular college experience featuring on campus housing. Do you really want that as a career changer in your 30s or 40s? Or worse, if you’re young and you don’t have someone to back you financially, is it worth it at all knowing you’ll be working for minimum wage upon entry into the industry?
You’re not alone in wondering. In the online foodosphere you will no doubt come across countless articles addressing this question to the point that celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain and David Chang have, at times, found it necessary to opine on the topic. I’ll get to their comments in a bit.
If you are a wannabe career changer who sits at your desk dreaming of a different life moving about in a kitchen, basking in the sights and aromas of a busy service, and maybe even partaking in the after hours shenanigans of chefs and cooks then you have no doubt perused the course offerings of a local culinary program as well as those of the marquee institutions out there like the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales. The names of the courses alone make you salivate - bread baking, confections, French and Italian regional cooking, mother sauces. What’s not to like, right?
Don’t get me wrong, culinary school really is fantastic for what you learn, and upon matriculation you will be cooking all of your nonprofessional friends under the table. The question is simply one of value. Is it worth it?
The common response you’ll see from people in the industry, most notably chefs, is no, you shouldn’t do that. They have good reasons for saying that and I’ll give my perspective on those. I'll also share my own experience as a career changer, choosing the right program for me, and moving from school into the industry.
In his book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain spoke at length about the “well meaning career changers” that had cycled through his kitchens as externs down the years. In his chapter titled “So you wanna be a Chef”, he says “More often than not, one look at what they’d really be spending their first few months doing, one look at what their schedule would be, and they ran away in terror.
What Bourdain is saying is that 6 month culinary programs paint a rosy picture of industry life. That the real pressures of the kitchen - the hours, the backbreaking work, the schedule make new arrivals flee for the exits once they get a sense of what it’s really like. I can tell you from my own present day experience that he’s not wrong. I see young garde mangerians and prep cooks flame out all the time. The work is hard. If you are going to school to work in the industry, you have to know what you are getting into. Once you know what it is, it’s okay to look at yourself in the mirror and say “that won’t be me”. Remember, Bourdain himself went to culinary school
In a 2013 interview for Eater titled “The System is Broken, Chef David Chang talks with Amy McKeever about the attrition rates in the industry among culinary school grads. He points out that culinary schools like to advertise their prestige based on their placement rates. It’s a no brainer that you will land a job out of culinary school and those numbers are quite good. He responds:
“The statistic that should be asked is how many people when they get a two or four year degree — or even a six-month degree — are cooking five years after graduation? Don't promote the graduation rate or the placement rate. What's the placement rate five years after the fact? If you're going to commit that much money, say $20,000 to $250,000, what's the statistic for retention in the industry? If culinary schools won't release that information, it's because it's ridiculously low. And if it's ridiculously low then something needs to be fixed.”
He goes on to say that there’s a better way forward. Instead of emerging from school incredibly in debt, simply go work in a kitchen doing lower level work like dishwashing or prep cooking. Chang isn’t wrong in saying this. Restaurants are always in need of porters and prep cooks. Doing that work and getting paid for it will get you the knife skills you need to move up to the hot line to start doing more interesting work. You’ll also probably learn to speak Spanish, figure out how to move about in a kitchen, how to work, clean, and label things appropriately which is half the battle.
Further I would contend that if you want to run a restaurant someday, you need to know in-depth how the dishwashing organization functions and how to do the jobs of a butcher, how to make fresh pasta, fries, chips and how to break down whole cases of vegetables in a hurry. Some kids that come out of CIA and work immediately on sauté don’t know how to do those basic things and it is always to their detriment.
The most important thing that working in the industry before going to culinary school will get you is the chance to see what life will be like. You’ll be doing the unglamorous parts of being a cook. You will spend significant time deep cleaning, scrubbing, hauling trash, dropping waste oil from deep fryers, working with raw poultry, and eviscerating fish. It’s better to learn what the life is really like sooner rather than later and if you can do that and get paid for it. It is easily the best way to make you confident in your decision to attend or not to attend culinary school.
I too, dear reader, was a career changer. And I am, I suppose, one of the minority who is still working in a kitchen 7 years out from culinary school. I do not regret going to school at all. I didn’t go to a “top” program, but I believe I went to a very good one. I researched for a long time to find the right program for me that didn’t bury me in debt. What follows is the path I took which I hope you can learn from and adapt to your own unique set of circumstances.
I too read all of the chef memoirs and articles like this one before going to culinary school and didn’t let it deter me. I also went and trailed in kitchens just to try it out where chefs told me flat out “don’t do it” and I still went. I wasn’t 18 or 25 when I went. If I had been and had no way to pay for it out of pocket, I probably wouldn’t have gone for the reasons stated above. I was 34 when I donned my whites for the first time at culinary school and began my journey. Previously, I spent 15 years working as a software developer. I had a sensible desk job, a house payment, two car payments, and a wife and dog at home, neither of whom were working at the time. I had a little money saved, but it was clear that I was really going to have to rearrange my life to be able to make the change.
I sat at my desk job that I didn’t love for probably 4 years dreaming of making a change before I finally did so. I loved to cook and I still do. It’s often where my head is. I’m the guy at the party who ends up manning the grill making hamburgers and hotdogs for everyone rather than schmoozing. I’m an extreme introvert of the highest order but if you get me talking about cooking, I can talk your ear off. Food is what I love.
I decided that I was going to culinary school but spent significant time mulling the decision over before vocalizing it and putting a plan into action. In that time I did what I felt I could do to start preparing. I read. I read Kitchen Confidential. I read Bill Buford’s book, Heat. I read other chef memoirs which were all helpful - Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood Bones and Butter, Jacques Pepin’s The Apprentice, Daniel Boulud’s Letters to a Young Chef, and perhaps most Importantly Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef in which he chronicles his own journey through the culinary program at CIA. I read food science books like McGee’s On Food and Cooking and the CIA textbook The Professional Chef. Every chef should own those two.
All of those books got me really excited about becoming a cook. They also offered many cautionary tales and cases for not entering the industry. As stated above, they most commonly note low wage, long hours, working nights, working weekends, working holidays, and the hours you spend doing rudimentary prep work like deboning fish, breaking down raw chickens, turning whole boxes of artichokes, peeling mountains of asparagus, and all of this while a chef who is certainly not your friend holds a stopwatch making sure you are yielding the maximum amount of value for the time you are on the clock.
I was also researching culinary schools and knew I didn’t want to go to a two year program. If I were a teen and my parents were paying my way then certainly CIA or Johnson and Wales would have been at the top of my list as they are excellent schools. As a career changer, I wanted something cheaper and shorter. The school I kept coming back to was the Institute of Culinary Education or ICE in New York City. It was a 6 month program and they heavily advertised their career placement organization which would place you in one of the city’s top kitchens. The clincher for me was that they offered a night program. I could work a job, finish paying for my education, and fully change careers after graduation when and if I decided that doing actual kitchen work was right for me.
I decided to take the plunge. I sold my car, moved to New York City, combined that with $10k I had in savings and put the last $5,000 on a federal loan to pay for my $34,000 tuition. I paid the rest while going to school and entered the industry debt free after. I managed to skirt the debt question and could not see myself doing it any other way.
So was culinary school worth it? For me, the answer was a resounding yes. I enjoyed every moment of my culinary program from making stocks and sauces, to learning how to really work with a knife, learning about cooking methods, and journeying through the regional cuisines of France, Italy, India, and Southeast Asia.
I also saw classmates clearly making a mistake by being there. They didn’t show up prepared to class every day and sometimes didn’t show up at all. Many got stoned for class. Some even missed so many classes that they failed! They wouldn't do the reading and didn’t try to understand the techniques being taught behind the recipes. They were there to check a box on their way to what they figured were the bright lights of culinary stardom and are now saddled with student loan debt and are for the most part out of the industry.
My entry into the industry was as advertised. I came to understand, as anyone contemplating culinary school should, that the life of a cook is a hard one. It is, in the truest sense, blue collar work. To have your body and especially your feet and back ache more and more until its the end of your work week, which is probably a Tuesday, is a strange sensation. Having aunts and uncles pass away and you not be there is a difficult adjustment. Not being there on Mother’s Day, New Years, Valentines, and Christmas Eve is one of the hardest things you will face. And the typical work week in which you're not available to your partner in the evening particularly on Friday and Saturday night can feel like you’re traveling in an especially dark tunnel through life. If you have any notion that your life will be any different once you are in the industry, you need to get that out of your head before plopping down a down payment at a culinary school.
If you truly love cooking and can afford the financial hit then you won’t regret going to school. At every stop in my career from the end of my externship, to time off between jobs, to the period of unemployment during Covid, I have stopped to ask myself if it was worth it, and the answer has always been a resounding yes. What’s more is that I feel a deeper connection to all of those memoirs that I read. At some point along the journey, you feel that you are “in”. That you earned your bones and that you are forever connected to an ancient society of cooks. You’re part of the club. You also feel a deeper connection to your ancestors, a torch bearer of your own family’s food ways, dusting them off and passing them to future generations. It’s a special feeling and one that I don’t know how to top. If I personally had just gone to culinary school and never cooked again, I would have considered it worth it.
If you don’t have that kind of money, then by all means listen to those chefs. Ask around to see if you can come in and trail at a local restaurant. Observe a service. Maybe find a part time job doing prep on the weekends. If that feels good, get a job doing whatever they’ll pay you to do. Let them pay you to come to work, teach you to chop and learn to work in a kitchen. They really can teach you all of it and no, culinary school is not necessary. It’s just going to be a different path. You are going to learn how to make quarts of aïoli on the fly without breaking them but you’ll perhaps not understand the science behind it. And that’s okay! In the industry there exists thousands upon thousands of immigrants who learned this way, who perhaps cannot read, write, do math, or speak English and yet can work for chefs like Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller making the food that earns those guys Michelin Stars.
So should you go to culinary school? If you can afford it, and you think you will enjoy it, then yes, you should go. Upon matriculation you will be able to cook circles around anyone you know that doesn’t have professional training. The things you will learn just cannot be taught in cookbooks. And as a bonus, cookbooks themselves will become more enjoyable once you know the techniques and you read them more as lists of ingredients and garnishes rather than step by step instruction.
I got told by a lot of people in the industry to not go to culinary school and to not enter the industry at all. You probably will too. Those people aren’t wrong, but if you firmly believe in what you are doing and have a family that supports you, then by all means you should go for it. It is deeply rewarding to do work that you care about.