Do you ever dream of being a chef at a fancy restaurant? Do you see TV commercials about culinary schools that say they can train you to be that kind of chef? Do you put your dream and that commercial together and think maybe you should enroll in culinary school? Think again.
This Time magazine article Top Chef Dreams: Are Cooking Schools a Rip-Off?covers the topic of culinary schools pretty well. One of the culinary schools is being sued by 800 of their current and former students who claim they were falsely mislead about their employment prospects after graduation. Thats not a good sign. You can read the full TIME article for their whole story. But I'll share this one quote from Eric Greenspan a Food Network star and head chef and owner of the Foundry on Melrose, a high-end restaurant in Los Angeles saying: "These kids are paying law-school prices, and [culinary schools] are training them for minimum-wage jobs." ..."How do rock stars become famous? They work hard. They don't go to guitar schools," he says.
I would say that the culinary schools are NOT a rip off in general. I say that because from everything I see they do train you to be a chef. As long as the school is not misleading you about what they train you or your employment prospects then I wouldn't call it a rip off. You may consider it over priced or not worth the time and money. Thats not exactly equivalent to a 'rip off'. While culinary schools may not be a scam or rip off they don't seem worth the money and time.
You do not have to go to culinary school to be a great chef.
The list of Best chefs of 2011 from Food & Wine lists the education for each chef. Out of the 11 chefs listed 6 of them did go to culinary schools. However the other 5 did not go to culinary school. Two of those chefs Jason Franey and Kevin Willmann appeared to only have on the job training and no formal education is listed in their profiles. Three more chefs went to some form of college but not culinary schools. James Lewis got a business degree at U. Alabama. Carlo Mirarchi went to NYU and it doesn't say what he studied there. Finally Ricardo Zarate went to college in Peru for unknown studies. If 5 of the 11 best new chefs in the nation can get to where they are without going to culinary school then thats clear evidence that culinary school is not required to succeed as a chef.
The TIME article mentioned above also cited Eric Greenspan as giving the advice that : "He says students would be better off getting their foot in the door with a chef they admire and working very hard to climb their way to the top"
Culinary Arts schools can be pricey
The Culinary Institute of America; Hyde Park, NY. runs around $25,000 a year roughly. Le Cordon Bleu schools charge about $17,500 for a 9 month certificate or $37,000 for an Associates degree. Full time tuition at the French Culinary Institute is over $33,000.
Why I think it ain't worth it
Ok so clearly you can be a rising star chef without going to culinary school. Therefore culinary school is not necessary to succeed as a chef. But that doesn't mean culinary school won't help. What if the alternatives are spending 10 years plugging away as a line cook and gradually making your way up the ladder in the kitchen versus going to culinary school and jumping straight into a sous chef job? That could make it well worth the money to pay for culinary school. Basically I think that the reason culinary school isn't worth it is that if you're a good chef then this will be evident pretty quickly. You have to be a very good chef to have a chance at one of the high end jobs. There are only around 90,000 chefs or head cooks and their earnings are in the $30,000 to $50,000 for the vast majority of them. There are about 3 million cooks and food prep workers and their median earnings are around $24,000. Clearly the competition for the chef or head cook jobs is going to be keen. Even if you do get a head chef job only the top 10% of them make over $70,000. If you have the aptitude to rise to the rank of cook or head chef then you can probably do that with on the job experience. Spending $30,000 to $50,000 on culinary school may be a very poor investment for the vast majority of cooks who are unlikely to land a high paying chef job. If you have the talent to make it as a chef then you can get there without spending a lot of money on a culinary school. For the vast majority of people they will not rise higher than a $50,000 chef job and many are unlikely to even get to the level of chef or head cook. Therefore I'd say that culinary school is generally not worth it.
There are likely to be some exceptions where individuals used a culinary school as a fast track to a chef job, but its just as likely that those individuals could have rose up the ranks to chef nearly as fast if they'd simply skipped school and spent more time working in restaurants.
Well first of all you need some practical experience. Start cooking in your own home. This seems like an obvious thing, but I want to cover it so its not taken for granted. I'm sure you can learn many cooking skills on your own from books and online resources totally for free. Of course this may not be enough to get you into a job as a chef but you have to start somewhere and any work you do at home will help hone your skills.
On the job training seems to me like one of the best ways to learn to cook. Some of the best new chefs on the Food & Wine list seemed to start this way so it can get you into a high end chef job. Would you rather pay to go to school or get paid to work in a real kitchen?
Still it may be a good idea to perfect some of your skills with a formal education and a degree might help you get your foot in the door at a higher end restaurant. If you want formal education then check the local community colleges to see which ones may offer a culinary program. Not all community colleges will have culinary programs. The CC in our city doesn't have a full culinary school. However another CC in our state has a certificate program and an associates degree in culinary arts. Tuition at that school is just under $3,000 per year.
Finally I think that doing an Apprentiship via the American Culinary Federationmight be a good way to go. This would give you formal training, on the job experience plus a mentor.
Disclaimer : I know nothing first hand about being a chef and I have no personal experience with culinary schools.