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Should you attend culinary school?

Many of us dream of owning our own restaurant, writing for a big food magazine or becoming a sommelier. That’s where culinary school comes in: Is it worth the time and money? Will it be beneficial to your career choices? Here are the answers in this culinary school guide.

Woman in cooking school

As a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, the points made below reference mostly to that school. Like everything in life, each culinary school is different: different classes, experiences, professors and degrees. Do your research.

Why do you want to go to culinary school?

Whether you want to attend culinary school to become a celebrity chef, food writer, research and development chef, caterer, professor, sommelier, bread baker or pastry chef, culinary school might just be for you!

If your dream is anything remotely related to food, culinary school can help, but here’s the big exception. Culinary schools are expensive (although there are plenty of scholarships and grants available!), so if you’re looking to work the line and be a chef, try working under your favorite chefs in the industry to get a feel for it. Phillip Hall, formerly at Restaurant Daniel and a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, emphasizes that it all depends on what you want to do. “If you want to work in restaurants, it’s better to just work, unpaid if it gets you [in the door]. Chefs love training cooks [and you’ll be] saving the money you would spend on school. But if you just want to work in the industry [as anything other than a restaurant chef], school builds connections and opens doors for you.”

Choose wisely when looking for schools

All schools are different. Sure, they’ll all teach you how to cook, but the way they do it isn’t that similar. A few schools are heavily based on French techniques, and you’ll mostly just learn those. Others are broader and expand the classes to the Americas, Asia and other cuisines, as well as baking and pastry arts. Some great culinary schools include The Culinary Institute of America, The International Culinary Center and The Institute of Culinary Education.

It’s going to be hard work

Harder work than you’ll ever imagine: 14 hour days, endless nights studying for practicals and countless cups of coffee to get you through the day (and night). You might have to work for free (gasp!), but you’ll learn from the best if you commit to it. Once you graduate, your pay might just be the same as before you graduated. Cooks make from $7-$14 an hour, depending on the city you work in. Going into the corporate food industry, you’ll have higher pay, better hours and a health plan.

Going to culinary school does not make you a ‘chef’ but…

Oh, it doesn’t. Sure, your Mom will call you her favorite chef, but you’re not a chef until you’ve earned it. So, the lesson here? Don’t call yourself a chef unless you’ve earned it. It’s like calling yourself a doctor because you know the difference between aspirin and acetaminophen. But it does give you a level of credibility unlike any other. “I loved culinary school! I don’t think you need to go to culinary or pastry school in order to work in the food world, however I think it gives you a level of credibility that you can use to further your career. For example, I do professional recipe development for numerous brands, and they all appreciate that I’ve been to school, so that is probably one of my favorite things that has come from my culinary education,” says Gaby Dalkin, cookbook author, private chef and food blogger at What’s Gaby Cooking.

This is a personal subject and ultimately, you’ll choose what’s best for you. Other great articles on the subject are these by Jennifer of Savory Simple and by David on David Lebovitz.

More on culinary education

Culinary vacations: A treat for your taste buds
Pursuing a culinary career
Breakfasts and brunches from the Culinary Institute of America

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