Why Go to Culinary School?

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.


14 responses to “Why Go to Culinary School?

  1. Is there a pay difference for chef with degrees and those without? The only things I know about culinary school come from Ruhlman’s book, but I suspect your points about the business side and connections are largely correct. My impression is that there is a lot to running a profitable kitchen that you might not learn otherwise.

    I would also think that having a degree from a well regarded culinary school would help you get into high end kitchens faster… presumably it’s pretty hard to make the jump from Red Lobster directly to The French Laundry, no matter how talented you are… where an equally talented culinary school grad would seem to have an edge. Do we have any idea what percentage of the chefs at highly rated restaurants are formally trained?

  2. I worked for a day as a food runner at a new fairly nice restaurant ($15-28 Entrees) and the Head Chef threw me in the Pantry Chef position based on comments I made and help I gave while in the kitchen running food. I was up front that the only experience I had was cooking for myself growing up (I was 20 yrs. old at the time), he said he didn’t care and he would teach me what I needed to know.

    It was a summer job, but I learned a lot, and I have no doubt if that’s what I had wanted to do, I could have learned enough about food pricing/managing/etc. on the job as well. I definitely could have used a knife skills class, but other than that I kept up with those who had culinary training (half did and half didn’t). I think if you have the right Chef training you, and willing to mentor you a bit, culinary school is completely unnecessary.

    Who knows, my experience might have been a fluke, but if I knew someone thinking about attending culinary school, my advice would be try and get a job in a kitchen first for a year – see if its really necessary for you.

  3. Actually Mike I. went to the New York Resturant School.

  4. If that’s the case, then the bio on the site is lying: http://www.bravotv.com/top-chef/bio/michael-isabella

  5. 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.

    But you can learn all of these things at many 2yr juco culinary programs across the county for 10% (or less) the cost of culinary school. Connections to major restaurants are of course another matter, but there is an economical alternative to culinary school besides being self taught.

    And typically a juco program in a major city has plenty of local restaurant connections for the talented students to begin a career.

  6. As a cook who didn’t go to culinary school, here’s my two cents:
    You can’t teach talent: there is a fair amount of innate talent (both natural, and developed through the experience of eating well as a child) involved in being at the top of your game. If you are passionate about food, and have the drive to educate yourself, and you’ve eaten well throughout your life, you can probably bypass culinary school. If you didn’t have those skills and opportunities, but have an inkling you might want to be a chef, culinary school can teach you some of the foundations of technique which a chef may not have the time to do in his kitchen. That said, there are two things two remember: I think you should still go work in a kitchen (even to wash dishes) before culinary school, and you really shouldn’t fork out the money for anything that isn’t the CIA or NECI. Instead, go to a juco. You’ll get equivalent ‘networking’ opportunities at those places (i.e. none). Besides, if you can’t cut it on the line, networking won’t get you anywhere.

    However, I’ve met many self-styled home ‘chefs’ who thought they could hack it on the line without training. Most people who think they are great home cooks, in my experience, usually aren’t. What it really boils down to, when it comes to getting a job on the line, is your ability to season food. Do you know how to use salt? Or do you underseason everything? That’s the difference between a home cook and a job on the line. And culinary school most likely can’t teach you that.

    Finally, since you’re talking about Top Chef. Do you remember the first two contestants eliminated last season? Both recent culinary school grads, and both horrendous cooks. You can’t teach talent.

  7. millerben watch the video I linked in my original post. Mike introduces himself as a graduate of the New York Resturant School. BTW, the bios on Bravos website are usually incorrect in some fashion.

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  9. I’m a little old school and out of the biz, but none – zero, nada, zilch – of the best, most creative, most successful chefs I know or know of came out of culinary school. Somewhat the same for the best line cooks I worked with or who worked for me; it’s been awhile but when I used to see that an applicant was a graduate, based on bad experiences with arrogant, incompetent hacks red flags always went up. Again, this was close to ten years ago, so things may have changed, but graduates were so notorious for their unfounded sense of entitlement that it was a running joke for those of us raised in the trenches. (In case you’re wondering, in the nineties I worked in and ran a number of the best kitchens in Austin, TX .)

    Maybe school is now a ticket to a good job; I can’t comment on that. But based on my experience, I’d say that if you’re talking about being a creative, top shelf chef and not a glorified line cook, or institutional chef, then a few things are required (all previously mentioned above). One, you must have grown up around well and skillfully made, delicious food. (Either that or be some kind of a savant, in which case you don’t need school.) Two, start at the bottom, washing dishes, and work your way through every station, learning and taste-taste-tasting as you go. Three, and most importantly, work for successful chefs with well developed palates. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not willing or able to go through some form of apprenticeship, you might become a good cook but you’ll never be a true chef, in the fullest sense of the word.

  10. I graduated from French Culinary Institute in ’99, and have been working in the biz for the better part of 15 years.

    What never ceases to amaze me are people who fail to understand just how physically demanding and stressful kitchen work really is. Long hours, hot tempers, never-ending demands, and guaranteed varicose veins for the ladies.

    While only kitchen work can prepare you for that, through exposure, I really feel like you need culinary school to pursue this as a career. It’s a hoop to jump through to be sure, like so many of my friends required to have a Master’s they don’t use. Being a student got my foot in the door at a place where I might have otherwise been ignored.

    I worked in kitchens for several years before going to school though, and that experience is the absolute most important part of pursuing a kitchen career, to state the obvious. And lest anyone think too idealistically about kitchen work, I’ll tell you that I found the stress and difficult conditions of a pre-culinary school tourist dive to be identical to a name restaurant in Midtown, maybe more so since expectations are higher and margins of error and tolerance for mistakes are so much lower.

    When I hear office workers complaining about having to work on a Saturday, I get jealous.

  11. “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.”

    I disagree. Plenty of decent restaurant would be willing to take on inexperienced cooks, if they are willing to work for free. A year’s work under a good chef at a cost of $0 to the cook and the chef is much more useful than spending $10-30k to go to culinary school. The chefs that teach at culinary schools are not regarded as anything special.

    Plus, a young cook could spend his/her savings eating at the world’s best restaurants, developing a sophisticated palate, and determining what good food actually tastes like. Furthermore they could buy the best cookbooks and teach themselves.

    Plus, after developing adequate cookings skills via working for free, eating the best food, and reading the most important books, the cook can then spend the money her or she has saved by not going to culinary school in order to travel in Europe and Japan, working for free in the best restaurants.

    What looks better on a CV? A year for free at a decent restaurant, a few years at a pretty good one, a year working in Michelin starred restaurants? Or Johnson and Wales followed by several years in hotels/country clubs, where the cook must work in order to make a salary to pay off their school loans.

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  13. I went to The New York Restaurant School in 1982. It was a great program at the time. I had been cooking since I was a teen and wanted to have some sort of schooling on my resume. I didn’t have time to go CIA, so the NYRS fit the bill. It was a quick 6 month program, but I learned so much. And there were some great chefs teaching at the time, Nick Malgieri being one of them.
    I met alot of people & gained many contacts from school. Great experience.

  14. It is a nice post as it contains useful information about culinary schools, courses, career scopes and activities and training schedule of culinary schools. This post is very helpful for those students who are seeking for options to make their career in culinary industry and also able to clear doubts by going through the information of this post.

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