This might be one of the most honest posts I’ve ever written and also the most difficult. Many people ask me what culinary school was like and I always hesitate because I hate sounding negative. I don’t want to burst any bubbles. Food is IN right now and culinary school sounds mysterious and exciting. I’m living the dream, right? Before you envy me, I have some opinions about school that I think you should know. I’m going to tell it to you straight. If you currently work in the food industry, this post might be offensive and for that I’m sorry. Everyone has a perspective and this is mine.
I had great hesitations while writing this. What will my chefs think? Will I sound like I’m whining? All of my frustrations, resentments, and fears rose to the surface. But then again, so did my feelings of pride and accomplishment. Culinary school was the most brutal experience of my life but I gained so much. Not only did I learn to create beautiful food but I gained confidence. To gain that confidence I had to be ripped from my comfort zone and torn to shreds, only to be built up again. Not unlike boot camp.
A Typical Day
Here is a typical day at school: I’d arrive at 6:15am, get changed into my chef’s outfit, help the sous chef with mise en place and then be seated in class by 7am. For two hours we’d take notes as the chefs prepared 3 courses: an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. At the end of the lecture we’d gather around the front, sample the food and head into the kitchen. There were never enough tools to go around so the next 20 minutes would be a war zone; a battle for towels without holes and saute pans that weren’t warped. If we weren’t watching our stations closely, ingredients and equipment would magically vanish. There often weren’t enough burners and we had to watch carefully to make sure the heat wasn’t accidentally turned up or down (or the pan “accidentally” moved to a different burner in the back). For two and a half hours we would rush rush rush to prepare the food we had tasted while the chefs yelled at us to move faster. At 11:30am our station had to be spotless and the food had to be perfectly plated. After our food was approved we would spend the next few minutes eating our three course meal (unless we had to fix one of our dishes) but there was no time to savor anything because that kitchen had to be absolutely spotless by the time we returned for our afternoon lecture at 12:30. Burners soaked and scrubbed, floor swept and mopped, all dishes cleaned, ingredients put away. Our afternoon lecture finished at 2:30pm and that was it. But not really because evenings were spent reading textbooks, typing up recipes and practicing knife skills.
I’m not going to lie. It was completely exhausting and I was a wreck half of the time I was there; one giant bundle of caffeinated nerves. I’ve had anxiety issues though the years and this put my nerves to the test (shout out to my good friend Xanax). I cracked under the pressure on more than one occasion but usually kept it to myself. And then one day in the final weeks I had a complete meltdown. It was mortifying. There’s no crying in the kitchen? I wasn’t crying in the kitchen; I was sobbing in the kitchen. Did that make me weak? In the eyes of my classmates and chef instructors, yes. In my own eyes, no. It made me human.
Do you want to know what culinary school is like? Here we go. This is a list, because I’m into lists lately.
- Culinary school is not some mecca of foodies. It’s mainly full of students who are just out of high school or in their early 20s. They may or may not have a passion for food. The sole purpose of culinary school is to teach students how to work the line in a restaurant. There’s not at lot of in-depth discussion about ingredients or food history.
- Culinary schools are for-profit institutions and they want your money. When you meet the director of admissions, he or she will tell you that you’re a perfect fit for the school. What you need to know: You’ll be paying a large sum of money ($30,000-$100,000) and you’ll most likely have to take out a student loan. Keep in mind that health insurance is not included. When it comes time to pay back your loan you will be working for just above minimum wage in a field that offers little advancement. You will be paying off that loan for a very long time.
- 90% of what you learn to cook will be French cuisine. The French have excellent techniques but don’t expect a lot of variety in the classroom.
- You will be eating a three-course fine dining meal for lunch every single day. It sounds delicious, right? It is. All the butter and cream you could ever want in your life. Paula Deen has nothing on French chefs. But it gets rather… heavy after awhile. And so do you.
- You will not get to work with every ingredient. Students work in teams and not everyone gets to prepare every dish. I never touched lobster, I only filleted one salmon. No one prepared pork belly because it was never offered to us.
- You need to move fast all the time. Cooks who work the line are supposed to move with a sense of urgency. There’s no leaning on counters, chatting, or sitting. If you have nothing to do you’re supposed to be cleaning. There’s no rest at culinary school. It’s a completely different experience than cooking at home.
- Only smokers get to take breaks. I’m not exaggerating. I actually started smoking again at school because it was the only chance I had to relax in a very tense environment (don’t worry, I quit the second I left the building). The same is true at a restaurant. If you go outside for a cigarette, it’s fine. If you go outside for a fresh air break, you’re in trouble.
- There’s no time for injuries. If you cut or burn yourself, you keep going just as you would in a professional kitchen. In the first week of school I sustained a 2nd degree burn on my hand from hot stock. Within 20 minutes I was making pie dough with the other hand.
- Ladies, say goodbye to your femininity. The outfits are incredibly baggy and unflattering, your hair will be in a bun, your nails will be short and polish-free, and no makeup or jewelry is allowed (with the exception of a plain wedding band).
- Vegetarians are not tolerated. If you’re a vegetarian, don’t bother with culinary school. You’ll be laughed out the door. Many chefs are actually offended by vegetarians and vegans. Don’t expect a lot of sympathy if you have a food allergy, either. I intentionally did my externship at a vegetarian restaurant because I wanted to learn healthier techniques. Judging by the reaction I got you would have thought I’d told my classmates I was going to work with cannibals.
- “Health food” is a dirty word. We spent exactly one day dedicated to healthy food at school. Actually, it wasn’t even a day. It was an afternoon “Spa” challenge where we had to create a dish with calorie restrictions. You don’t go to culinary school to learn about healthy cuisine. There are, however, specialty schools such as The Natural Gourmet Institute. I know nothing about these schools but maybe they’re more open minded? I hope so.
- Culinary school is often a competition between classmates. There is very little camaraderie. Students typically work in groups and if one person goes down, the whole ship can go down. Everyone makes mistakes while training and resentment builds quickly.
- Chef’s way is the only way. Do you like grilled asparagus? If Chef does not like grilled asparagus, it’s bad. End of story. Do you have a particular way you like to cook hard boiled eggs? It doesn’t matter if it works, it’s wrong. That’s how a home cook prepares eggs.
- You never talk back. If you have a question when something doesn’t make sense or say anything other than “YES CHEF!” expect to be yelled at and/or ridiculed. I witnessed countless contradictions between lectures and never received clarity. Why is something done a particular way? Because that’s how it’s done.
- Work will become your social life. Almost all culinary schools require a restaurant externship regardless of whether you plan to work in the field after graduation. Mine was 6 months and I worked the line for over a year in total. Make no mistake, you’re training to work in a field that mostly consists of evening, weekend and holiday shifts.
On The Plus Side…
Ok. That was a whole lot of negativity, so I’m going to counter with some positives:
- You will learn how to make incredible food. You’ll be preparing breath-taking dishes you once thought were entirely too complicated. That is a wonderful adrenaline rush.
- You’ll have unexpected experiences. I got to visit The White House and listen to Michelle Obama speak. I got to meet numerous celebrities in the food world including Marcus Samuelsson, Tom Colicchio, Shirley O’Corriher, Jose Andres, Cat Cora, Carla Hall and many others. I spent an entire day assisting Graham Elliott and Elizabeth Faulkner at a charity event.
- Not all chefs are crazy. For every Gordon Ramsey there is a Jacques Pepin. Our time at school was divided into Phase I and II. Phase I consisted of three passionate, wonderful chefs who wanted us to succeed and were willing to be mentors. They laughed with us while pushing us to work harder and be the best we could be. Phase II was full of anger, shouting, and little to no mentoring. What were they so angry about? Was it because they were treated poorly and turnabout is fair play? I’ll never know. I wish I could have ended the experience with Phase I. Maybe the positive memories would seem like more than a faded dream.
Would I do it all again?
That’s a really tough question. Reading through my list you’d think the obvious answer would be no. However, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today had I not gone back to school. At the end of the day, I learned a tremendous amount of technique. My L’Academie degree has given me a certain amount of street credibility that has definitely provided job opportunities. But I’ve also been incredibly lucky and it might not have turned out so well. There were many nights when I feared my only options would be working the line or returning to a dreaded desk job. Was it worth a year of misery to be as happy as I am now? Yes. Were there other ways I could have achieved the same goals? Probably. Can I honestly recommend culinary school to you? No. Does that mean you shouldn’t go? Of course not. Only you know whether it’s the right decision for you.
If you’re thinking about attending culinary school, go work for free (“stage”) at a restaurant on evenings and weekends. Many places will gladly take you on. You might be chopping 50 pounds of onions or unloading giant bags of flour. You might be peeling shrimp for 5 hours. But you’ll get a feel for the restaurant environment and you’ll be better informed about what you’re getting into. If you cringed when I mentioned evenings and weekends, you need to seriously reconsider your desire to go to school.
My final thoughts.
I realize this is all a bit harsh and I won’t be surprised if some commenters chime in with better experiences or even accuse me of having an attitude problem. All I can say is that this was my experience at one school. I can’t speak for your school. And truthfully, I do have a bit of an attitude. My passion is for food and not for the industry. Some people have a passion for working the line; they love the chaos, the heat, and the hours. And that’s awesome. I want to relax in the front of the restaurant while they cook me fabulous meals. I’m not wrong and neither are they. We just have different perspectives. I wasn’t built for the line. So what? I love taking my time in the kitchen and never want to rush the experience ever again. I want to savor these skills I’ve learned and thank my lucky stars because school is a thing of the past and life is wonderful.
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