Cooking School 101

There has always been some tension between culinary grads and those who have learned solely from chefs in the field.  I have worked side by side with cooks and chefs from both sides and I do believe there are benefits to some good professional instruction.  I also believe professional instruction is not necessary in order to thrive in the Food and Beverage industry.  I may be evidence of that, and would not trade my BA for a culinary degree, though I wouldn’t mind having both.  I think the type of apprenticeships that I enjoyed with mentoring chefs is getting more difficult for “kids” these days.  Most of the restaurants in our Portland, Maine market have a plethora of culinary school grads to choose from, many with both a degree and some experience.  As an employer, I look at a degree in Culinary Sciences or Restaurant and Hotel Management more as an indicator of the applicant’s discipline and commitment than I do an indication of a skill set.  I’ve hired former students and graduates and even done internships with students from several of the major northeast cooking schools as well as local colleges that offer culinary programs.  I’ve seen some trends in the workforce, as well as in the independent restaurants that hire cooks.  I can’t put the issue of ‘worth’ of a culinary degree to bed in my own mind because they can be worthless or priceless.

Let’s talk about worthless first, more like a rip-off, which is worthless minus the tens of thousands of dollars you spent.  This applies to any arts or science degree one considers “vocational” with the intent that the degree itself will translate to money.   In the majority of cases people who do not peruse their degree for academic reasons turn out to be the worst in their field.  Think of how we say something is “academic” in the sense that we know it is somehow superficial to the conversation at hand.  Likewise, the student and graduate that views their instruction as secondary yet complimentary to their true interests has an open mind to how much there always is to learn.  Metaphorically speaking, the seed may be interest and desire; the soil would be the natural talent, ability, and ethic; and education would be the fertilizer.  The seed in good soil will grow well on its own, but with fertilizer it may do better and will grow faster.  However, when the seed is not in good soil the fertilizer is wasted.

The best cooking schools seek students with rich soil by insisting that degree candidates have or get experience in the field and that they understand it takes more than a degree to excel.  There are other schools that have become clearing-houses for culinary degrees.  They are less interested in students and more interested in enrollment.  Worse, there are  some who have used their good names to open satellite campuses in “fun” places and convince people who would probably not dare step one foot in a commercial kitchen that, with a culinary degree, they can instantly become a professional cook, baker, or even a chef.  People who go to these schools for these reasons get ripped off.  It is a little like the homeowners who were allowed by bankers to over-mortgage their homes during the real estate bubble.  The students are in part to blame, but I can’t give college recruiters or bankers a pass.  They are the professionals and ordinary people tend to believe that professionals know what they are talking about.

Adults should know better but some fall in love with their own ideas and end up wasting time and money, but it is saddest for kids who are naive and eager to believe that culinary school, and not a passion for cooking, is the path to their future.  I had a really good kid who worked for me and got enrolled into a Johnson and Wales satellite in Miami.  They totally filled this kid full of crap and got him to sign for all kinds of loans, but he couldn’t even afford to buy books when he arrived.  He thought he was promised work and assistance that he didn’t get.  He was told to go find a part time job. He came back to me 10 weeks later with $24,000 in debt. Poor kid. I wonder what part of the 24K that recruiter got?  I doubt enough to sell his or her soul.  I’ve seen and heard this happen often with this particular school; it is a shame because back in the day a degree from J&W meant something.

In The San Francisco Chronicle For-profit colleges face lawsuits, U.S. scrutiny  Stacy Finz writes about a similar situation regarding San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy, which touts the good name Cordon Bleu.  It appears that rather than let a judge decide if they are lying or just making fuzzy math of their placement statistics, they are willing to settle the suit alleging that they scammed people into expensive degrees.  They do so to keep to their “mission” (of ripping off students I suppose) and not get bogged down in a lawsuit.  In the end they are making their degrees less valuable than a good community college.  In TIME’s blog  Top Chef Dreams: Are Cooking Schools a Rip-Off? Kayla Webley also addresses the subject of rip-offs on a larger scale.  I’d recommend both of these articles to anyone considering cooking school.  From my vantage point, it is sad when good names become brands in this sense.  Yet it is quite possibly evil when people use someone’s dreams for profit and leave the dreamer chained in debt.

When the soil is rich, any good professional training is worthwhile, but there is a dollar-in/value- out formula that most folks should evaluate.  I have no doubt that schools like the Culinary Institute of America and New England Culinary Institute here in the East are worthwhile for anyone in the Food and Beverage business who has the time and money.  Or for that matter, if you have the time and money and just love food, it is probably worthwhile.  I’m not equally sure it is necessary to drop that kind of money for a good education unless you have the motivation and will to push yourself to the level of professional accomplishment where you can use it.  Without a doubt schools like the two mentioned above will open doors.  They will also give a broad-based understanding of up-to-date methodology and comprehension that would take years to develop in the field.  Beyond that, they build discipline and develop the confidence, and sometimes the arrogance, which is often necessary to propel oneself to the top in the culinary profession.   However, it is rare that cooks, bakers, and chefs make more than 50k in today’s market, and that is at the top of their career.  It is common for cooks, bakers, and chefs to make much less than that.  So if I recommend these high end cooking schools, I do it for those who are both truly motivated and clearly talented, and I make sure they don’t think that the degree alone will pay for itself.  Usually, I think that for most people with average motivation and humble goals, a community college or university is a better choice than CIA, NECI, or any of the better schools.  Because of what Johnson & Wales and Cordon Bleu have done to destroy their good names, I really think a degree from them is somewhat worthless, yet a good student will glean value from any learning environment.

I do love working with and hiring culinary science grads.  They don’t need to have concepts like sanitation beaten into their heads.  They understand how to think about food.  They have points of reference which are strong foundations for learning in the field, like knowing about acids and bases, understanding how salt equalizes in marinades, how sugars react under heat, the difference between an emulsion and a suspension.  Sometimes they even know to stretch out before service and understand the value of a good anti-fatigue mat.  Of course, none of that means diddly to me if they can’t stand for five hours on a 110 degree line while they bust their butts putting out plate after perfect plate, then clean it all up after, all the while keeping good humor and having fun.   When I can find cooks who have both solid professional culinary schooling and the abilities I just mentioned, I will hire them at the top of my range and strive to keep them.  But they are never around that long because that combination of will, ability, education and experience makes them the most valuable people in the business.

One comment

  1. Cheers, I just stopped by to visit your blog and thought I’d say I had a great visit.

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