By Ben Miller
Mike I. and Robin may not have gotten along on Top Chef, but they did have one thing in common–they were the only two remaining contestants to not have formal culinary training (At least according to the faulty Bravo bios. In the comments, someone posted a video where Mike says he attended the New York Restaurant School, now known as the Art Institute of New York City, which no longer appears to offer culinary degrees). With Mike’s dismissal last week, that makes Fast-talking Robin may be the only universally disliked contestant among the remaining chefs, but that’s not the only attribute that sets her apart from her competitors—she’s the only one still standing who does not have a formal culinary education.
Last year, I wrote a post discussing the merits of culinary school based upon information about student loan repayment from the U.S. Department of Education and in the context of the training of contestants on Top Chef (a really robust data set, I know).
Well, it just so happened that last season’s winner, Hosea, was the first Top Chef champion to not have formal culinary training. And he was one of only two contestants that season to fall into that category.
This year’s squad had a higher representation from the self-taught group with five four chefs that lacked formal training: Robin, Mike I., Jesse, Jennifer Z. (the one who got knocked out first), and Ash. Michael Voltaggio, meanwhile, did his training as part of an apprenticeship program, though he does not have a degree in the field.
Debating the merits of culinary school for success on Top Chef is a fun exercise, but it is a far more relevant question for the tens of thousands of students that attend one of these schools in the hopes of furthering career goals. Given the high price tags of these institutions, especially relative to the expected starting salaries for chefs and cooks, determining the importance of this type of education is important for ensuring that students aren’t taking on unnecessary debt.
Though the data options are fairly limited, analysis I did over at my work blog, the Quick and the Ed, suggests that people taking on student loan debt at culinary schools actually defaulted on their loans at a lower rate than other institutions within their sector. (In other words, a culinary institute that is a for-profit, two-year institution has a lower default rate than the aggregate default rate of all students at for-profit, two-year colleges.) But borrowers at culinary schools do default at a rate not that far from the national average: eight of the 15 culinary schools or systems with data available had default rates close to or above the national average.
Of course these results need to be highly qualified. There are many institutions that have some culinary school students, such as Johnson and Wales University, that cannot be included because they offer several other educational options whose students cannot be separated out. Second, it’s highly likely that the student populations between a culinary school and other institutions are not equivalent–I would guess that most people are not making decisions between culinary and nursing school or social work. Without being able to control for demographic characteristics it’s impossible to be sure that attending a culinary school actually provides better repayment outcomes than institutions in the same sector.
It’s also worth noting that repaying your loan and succeeding in the industry are not necessarily the same thing. And that ultimately is the deeper question about the merits of culinary school–is culinary school a requirement for success in the field?
Here’s my own personal theory, but feel free to share yours in the comments:
The only way to really get good at cooking and being a chef is to do it.* Honing knife skills, plating, flavor profiles, everything of that sort does not happen overnight. Finding time to do this on your own is not easy, and getting a chance to do this in a restaurant without already knowing at least most of these things is probably impossible. In that respect, culinary school probably is an important part of becoming a chef for all but the most incredibly talented individuals. By providing a structured and dedicated amount of time to cook, culinary school thus ensures that people actually work on those skills and help them develop. In that respect it serves a valuable purpose for the time commitment involved, not just the content knowledge that may be picked up along the way.
There are two other ways that culinary school can be worthwhile. It can provide important information about business practices and how to handle the managerial side of a restaurant, something the New York Times wrote about last week. It also may allow for networking opportunities and connection building that would not occur otherwise. In that case, I’d more liken culinary school to business school.
That being said, there are no guarantees that culinary school will be worthwhile. Bad facilities, incorrect teaching, or a lack of individual dedication, are among the many factors that could end up making the education a disservice to people enrolled.
Culinary school is a significant investment of time, money, and resources. For some who choose to pursue it, the experience ends up being worthwhile, but others may feel differently. Why that is, though, still remains to be seen.
*Obviously some people are freakishly talented, but even in those cases you will often hear them talking about beginning to cook at the age of three or having spent lots of time in restaurants growing up.