Should I Go To Culinary School?

Photo of culinary students

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.

 

The List

 

Do you want to know what culinary school is like? Here we go. This is a list, because I’m into lists lately.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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).
  10. 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.
  11. “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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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  • Love reading this, Jen. Very honest and true to what I’ve heard. My husband almost went to culinary school, but, to make a long story short, he was offered a job as a kitchen manager and did that instead. He just recently stopped working in the kitchen after seven years. He loved it, but he told me he was getting too “old.” He is in his mid-thirties, but the work is so physically intense that it was wearing him down. It’s a tough gig. He did take several cooking classes at the local community college and loved them. The instructors were great and he learned a lot so that might be something for people to consider if they don’t want the big loans. I know there are disadvantages, but it’s another option. Great post!

  • Great post. I’ve been in the restaurant biz (manager, though of course I had to be able to cook everything everything on the menu, wait tables, wash dishes – in case someone was sick) and it’s incredibly hard work. Cooking on the line is actually a lot of fun, but it’s not particularly good pay for most people (if you rise to the top it is; most people don’t get there). I’ve known people who’ve been to culinary school, and they all say about the same stuff that you do – great eye opener.

  • This was a great post, necessary and honest, by the sounds of the many comments I also read. Watching Top Chef has shown me that the “chef” world is rough stuff. Smoking, cursing, tatoos, and a hard edge. Not for me. My life is about home cooking, savoring, enjoying, and I never want that to change. I love food blogging, documenting the joys of the kitchen, of food, of discovery. I think culinary school would disappoint me, and I would never fit in, as I hate all the harshness, the tatoos, smoking, cursing, and hatred. It’s like working at a car factory (rough stuff there). No thank you. Also, with the internet, tv shows, videos, I can learn to cook at home with no humiliation. My dream is to teach people (real people) to cook and for them to have a wonderful experience and bring that back to their family. I’m so glad you took the time to write this post. I’m glad you finished and learned; I”m sorry for your experiences. Maybe you stopped someone from doing something that would not be a good fit for them.

  • How often we get to hear honest opinion about culinary school! I never actually “wanted” to go to a culinary school but always wondered how it’s like to be cooking “in school”. Now food gets a lot of attention, I’m sure a lot of people wish to go to a culinary school. This must be a great reality check and you’ve done a wonderful job writing (and I can imagine it wasn’t easy to do). Thanks for sharing your honest opinion and experience with us readers!

  • Thank you for your honest post! I toyed with the idea of going to culinary school when I was in between jobs but decided against it because of the cost mostly but also because I didn’t really want to work in a restaurant, just wanted to increase my skills and knowledge and I thought I could do that with some fun cooking classes in my community that weren’t so strict. I appreciate your honest assessment and can say based on your experience that I don’t think it would be for me. Congratulations on making it through such a tough experience!

  • I enjoyed reading your post. You are spot on about all of the things you mention, especially about culinary schools just “wanting your money”. It seems like these institutions will let just about anybody in as long as they agree to sign a contract promising to pay the overpriced tuition fees. At the culinary school I attended, there is an aptitude test that all students must take. I have heard of students failing the test, then being allowed to retake it multiple times until they finally pass. This shows that anybody with a pulse can get “accepted”.
    If the school’s main office consists of a couple dozen sales reps sitting in cubicles (appearing like a telemarketing center), on their headphones and you hear them reading off the same script while soliciting poor saps who have probably contacted the school once (they never delete your info after ten years) to find out general information such as tuition fees or admission requirements, run the other way. That is exactly how Le Cordon Bleu (of Pasadena, Calif.) is. And I heard this is the case for many of the Le Cordon Bleu schools in the United States.
    Keep in mind that many of the greatest chefs did not attend culinary school. Some of the most talented, high-end chefs I have worked with do not have culinary degrees. Starting as dishwashers and working their way up seems to be the common path that most of the Executive Chefs I know have taken. And some even told me that they would never hire anybody from a culinary school, especially a recent know-it-all graduate who has never worked the line in his/her life.
    I can’t tell you how many of my peers cannot find that “guaranteed” employment after graduating. And even when they do find work, they are lucky if they are getting paid $10/hr, doing the same job and working with people who are not drowning in thousands of debt.

  • I think its great that you shared this for people considering culinary school. As a graduate of a local culinary school myself I think you it should also be put out there that you can find different schools that operate in different manners than the one you attended. Although I agree that you learn alot of french cuisine, french style and french flavors, my school broke things up into categories like meats and poultry, fish and shellfish, soups and sauces, and even international cuisine. We learned a broad spectrum of flavor profiles but the school made sure we didn’t have to fight over towels, pans, or burners, finer equipment, sure we had to share. We each learned to break down fish, although we may not have been exposed to everything I’m merely pointing out, that your program seems rather harsh compared to a few programs I have looked at. I feel that people should definitely take a look at whatever school they are considering and pick the current students brains about how they like it. In my city alone there are about 3 different kinds of culinary programs all operating in different manners. I graduated with some people that I knew would never make it in the field, however, if you are smart, and you make your network, and you put yourself out there. You can do whatever you like, and culinary school, or should I say, the right culinary school, will give you the base knowledge and tools to help you build a strong food knowledge and will expose you to a way of looking at kitchens that you never would have before.

  • Wow what a great and honest article. It reminds me, once again, that grass is always greener from the other side. I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you! Cheers – Ice

  • This article has really got me thinking. For a while now I’ve wanted to start a small-ish town café but have no experience whatsoever except what my mother taught me. I’m fairly certain that I want to go to my local community college for hospitality management and take some culinary/baking classes as well. Does anyone have thoughts? Would it be wise? Or should I just work my way up?

  • This is great Jennifer! While my experiences aren’t exactly the same – going to a different school and being in pastry – there are so SO many things I can relate to. At the time I didn’t realize how narrow of an education I was getting. When I got out, all I knew how to make were French desserts. In a country of blending cultures and trends rarely ever focusing on French cuisine I felt immediately behind the times. That being said, my training has still come in handy but I just wish it were more diverse. I would’ve even stayed an extra year if that was a possibility.

    I wonder if I should write a similar post! And then we can compare notes on our schools and our focuses. I think a lot of people need to see that culinary school isn’t fun and games. A lot of the students in my class came to school with very little knowledge (I admit, me included) and most had only baked from box mixes (fortunately, I wasn’t in this crowd). Many of my chefs often said under their breaths (not naming names!) that most students were looking for MRS. degrees as opposed to entering the actual industry and I think that embittered some of the chefs.

    Excellent, excellent post Jennifer!

  • This was a fantastic post, and I don’t think anyone would have the right to judge you for your opinion! I applaud you putting this out there. While I’ve never really toyed with the idea of culinary school, I HAVE been “jealous” of those food bloggers who have actually gone to culinary school. Mainly because I assumed it was no different than how I cook in my kitchen – music, fun, experimentation, and making memories (with my family instead of classmates). It’s eye-opening to see it’s not like that at all (at least in certain schools)! I have no doubt you built a very thick skin and became a better person because of it, though.

  • Hi,
    I’m 14 and really passionate about food. I had made up my mind to go into this line a year back. Like you, I am passionate about food and not the industry. The only food industry I’ve seen is on TV. Just wanted to say thanks for this post. Now I have a rough idea of what I’m going into and the stuff I’m going to have to get used to.

    • Hi Dhani! I’m glad the post was helpful to you. I think school is glamorized on TV and I think it’s better for people to have an understanding of what they might be in for. I’ve heard many people say they had a very different experience, though, so when the time comes it may be worth exploring other schools. If you find one that looks interesting ask around, look for online reviews.

  • I love lists, too. But that’s neither here nor there. This was a great post and very interesting to me, Jen. I, too, once upon a time toyed with the idea of attending culinary school. Then I shifted gears and thought about going to DJ school (for radio) – food and music have always been my passions. In the end, I just ended up interning at several radio stations and then actually got a job working for Polygram Records out of college. (Also, not as glamorous as people would think – A LOT of late nights at clubs getting beer spilled on you, and catering to diva artists who you want to slap, etc. I do have stories!) BUT I digress.

    Anyway, I always thought it was interesting that all these years later in my 40’s that I came back to food, obviously my true passion. But I am so glad I didn’t attend culinary school for the reasons you stated above. Just like most professions, the behind the scenes is grueling and not sexy at all.

  • So interesting, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing it.

    I have kind of the opposite experience, in that I didn’t go to culinary school, but worked restaurants in various capacities for years, as well as spending a year in journalism school. I began as a dishwasher in high school, at a local fine dining restaurant [the first female they had ever hired actually – it was a long time ago], ending up on both sides of the house, in numerous capacities, from server to prep cook to line cook and everything in between at about 10 different restaurants all together.

    I never really considered culinary school because it was beyond our means financially, and by my mid twenties i was married with 2 daughters, so I usually only worked part time, and restaurant work was perfect because it was evenings and weekend, and we didn’t need to pay a sitter because my husband was home then.

    I eventually moved over to the horticulture industry for quite awhile, and now I combine the two disciplines in my life and on my blog – a natural progression when you look at my life long experience, but not something I would have ever seen coming.

    Now, I view working in a restaurant with a sort of horror, because I know it is not usually a creativity nurturing atmosphere – but I am grateful for the experiences and all that I learned from the chefs and cooks I worked with. I’m probably missing some foundation that school would have given me, but I try to fill that in on an ongoing basis, by constantly studying techniques and ideas. It is a satisfying life.

  • First of all YAY for sharing from your heart. What I heard is you learned are the skills you needed to discover what you liked about cooking. Having worked at a culinary school from the trenches up to administration I witnessed many perspectives of people’s attiudes. Students, Instructors, Staff, and the customers. Currently I am working the line as a barista. The main thing about going to culinary school is to acknowledge that it is not for the weak in spirit. Clearly you have a great love and spirit for the culinary world. Thanks for sharing it!

  • great article. as someone who went to culinary school (pastry side) i can say it made me never want to work in the commercial world of food. i learned a lot, through sweat, some tears, a lot of anxiety and depressing, never feeling i was good enough. but i know so much now that i am done. but i wouldn’t go back. ever. if i never have to see 12 cakes lined up to be tasted and then only have the class cleaning up, it would be too soon.

  • I have been considering writing a post like this for a really long time. I totally agree with the “vegetarians are not tolerated” and this really sucked when it came to eating 3 course meals for lunch every day because I basically had to load up on bread and dessert (and on occasion some bland vegetables). I would not say that the culinary school I went to was overly strenuous or exhausting (I found it to be kind of slack really) but there are so many points that I can connect with. I got so sick of all of the stupid competition and the whole fact that it was basically a big boys club. I’m no expert but if you want to become a cook/chef. just work in the industry. I am not sure school is worth your time, unless you have zero knowledge/experience going into it.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience! I can imagine how difficult it was to attend school as a vegetarian (and oh how I wish my school had been slack). I do think I learned a lot of solid technique but I wish there had been a program for those who wanted to work in the industry but NOT in a restaurant. I felt like too much energy was devoted to making sure I was moving as quickly as possible and being subservient to the chef, which served absolutely no use to me.

  • This is so, so well written, and it states exactly what my hesitations are about culinary school — it teaches you how to work the line, and how to prepare food quickly, efficiently, and “correctly”… but it doesn’t delve into details of food, culinary science, how or why things are done a certain way, and it doesn’t foster a love for food so much as it provides the building blocks for a career in the industry. I am passionate about food, and have considered going to school multiple times, but every time I look at the classes and programs that are available, I realize that it would be absolute misery for me. As much as I would like learning those techniques and skills, I don’t feel like culinary school is the only option — especially in this day and age, where there is so much information readily available online and otherwise. You’ve just helped convince me that school, while perfect for many people, is not the path for me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

  • You are a STRONG woman! Does NOT sound like a fun experience from what I’ve heard from so many people. So sad that the cost of culinary school is so ridiculously high and then people come out making nothing.

  • This is why I adore you, your honesty and your willingness to help others. I do envy some if your experiences especially the techniques you have mastered. I’m always in two minds if I should attend culinary school or not. Your experiences that you shared really gives me a lot to think about. Thanks for writing this post! XOXO

  • Thank you for sharing your experience! It definitely is different than people envision. For 2 months when I was 21, I worked as a baker’s assistant at a nearby bakery with no formal training. It helped that my aunt was the baker and I helped her, but it was also an eye-opener. The bread bakers? Those guys were there at 2 or 3 in the morning starting the daily bread. The bags of flour? They’re freaking heavy, especially carrying down stairs. And washing dishes sucks. I’m glad I did it, but it also taught me that a commercial kitchen is not where I want to be. Sometimes you just have to learn by experience.

    You are phenomenal with food. I’m glad you’re sharing it with us the way you do–because if you were working the line, we wouldn’t get to experience the wonderful things that come from your kitchen!

  • Absolutely fascinating, Jen. I’ve only really recently begun to think of food and food-related endeavors as more than just one of my interests — way after I thought I knew what I wanted to do with my life! So it’s strange to sit here and contemplate what it might have been like to go down a different path. I appreciate your honest account of what you went through, because it’s easy from the outside to glamorize certain careers, especially the ones you didn’t explore, and especially ones like the culinary arts, that get a certain gloss in the media and pop culture. I had a few classmates in law school who did culinary school before turning to law — and one of them said she came to law school because culinary school was too hard! Like you said, yours is only one opinion and one experience, but it was so interesting and thought-provoking to read, so thank you for sharing!

  • I love your honesty, I’m feeling it right now. I’m 5 weeks away from finishing semester 1 in culinary school. I’ve already seen much of what you’ve said. You hit the nail on the head, well done.

  • If cooking is your passion do it. If it is not don’t bother we don’t need half baked people in the kitchen pondering on if they want to continue doing this job we need 100% dedication. What the author in the article is entailing is just half of the issues you face in the kitchen. Sometimes work can be slow sometimes it can be fast which is the reason for working fast paced in Culinary school it’s to prepare you for those weekends and holidays for when business is booming.

  • I know that it is hard work. My son took the courses and excelled while working at night. He had a passion that he would not let anyone shoot down his confidence. I encouraged him to do what he loves and now is a Chef for the 7th best restaurant in the world and I am so proud of him. I am not saying that this doesn’t take a toll on you. He works very hard 7 days a week and 16 hours a day and tells he some day he will want a real life. Culinary is hard work. Thank you for telling us your story. I know I could never do it.

  • Thanks for the insight and honesty. I would never attend a culinary school, mostly for the reasons stated in your “LIST”… Working in an atmosphere such as you describe would not be fun… and to think these students pay 30 to 100 thousand dollars for the privilege of being brow beaten, criticized, and ostracized.
    I am proudly, a “home cook”, and quite accomplished. I have inherited (from my ancestors) the ability to appreciate and prepare the tastes of old Europe as well as modern North America. It is not important to be expert in only one style. I believe versatility improves this ability, and that is where home cooks shine. So with the help of my many cook books, and inherited recipes it is easy to prepare meals worthy of lip smacking meals.