Becoming a chef definitely has its perks! The work is fast-paced and it’s not sedentary, so you won’t suffer the devastating health effects of planting yourself in front of a computer all day. It’s prestige work that people admire and respect as they enjoy the fruits of your artisanal labor.
However, getting to that point is hard work. In fact, less than half the people who enter culinary schools actually graduate (although CIA, Culinary Institute of America, a premium non-profit institution, claims a 78% graduation rate). Another eye-opening stat – some estimate that at least 50% of culinary school graduates who go to work in restaurants are no longer cooking after five years. So is it worth it to go to culinary school or are you just as likely to succeed if you opt out?
First thing’s first
Before considering culinary school, you’ll probably need to think long and hard about whether becoming a restaurant chef is right for you. Most people who dream of becoming a chef or owning a restaurant or other eatery don’t realize the demanding physical labor involved. Forget about the gym — hefting around those soup pots filled with gallons of soup or hauling 100 lb. bags of beans not only builds muscles but can damage a few. If you’re a girl…you’re not exempt. You’re on your feet all the time, and that’s no improvement over sitting all the time.
A culinary arts degree will barely boost your salary over what you’d make by just working your way up through the ranks.
Hope that your kitchen is air-conditioned, because the health department doesn’t want any unscreened windows or doors open, and kitchens get pretty hot with the ovens going on a sweltering summer day. Expect cuts and burns. Forget about a social life with the long hours, including the typical 12-hour shift. And time and a half? Not necessarily.
Reasons against culinary school
Still want in? Great, then you should know that any kitchen classy enough for you to learn from a true mentor will probably also relegate you to lower level positions, such as working on the line, for at least some time whether or not you go to culinary school. And a culinary arts degree will barely boost your salary over what you’d make by just working your way up through the ranks from dishwasher or apprenticing yourself as they do in Europe.
These are just some of the reasons many decide against culinary school. You don’t need it to become a chef. It’s expensive: “The average tuition cost at 10 of the country’s popular culinary arts programs is three times the amount of tuition at standard four-year public universities.” Consider how long it will take you to pay back $50,000 or more for a two-year program if you’re just making $10/hour and need a little money left over to live on.
Good teachers are good teachers…and it’s nice to learn from them in a less stressful environment than a commercial kitchen.
Reasons for culinary school
So with the seemingly few perks and the steep bill, why would you opt for that training? Executive chefs responsible for hiring as well as other seasoned food workers point out these reasons to consider a culinary degree program:
- Good teachers are good teachers…and it’s nice to learn from them in a less stressful environment than a commercial kitchen.
- School is a good transition to a commercial kitchen, often a brutal environment.
- As with top flight schools in any walk of life, it’s a good place to make connections.
- There are more uses for a degree in culinary arts than working as a chef in a commercial kitchen.
- Some executive chefs look first, although not exclusively, at culinary arts school graduates.
- With a basic vocabulary and foundational skills, you may get off to a quicker start in the restaurant business than if you try to enter without that.
Many graduates of culinary arts schools value their education for a variety of reasons (see the comments) and make sufficient money to pay off their school debt. Virtually everyone in the business, students and professionals, recommends working in a commercial kitchen for a period of time, for little or even no pay, even doing dishes, before deciding if a passion for cooking merits the substantial investment in culinary school. Many recommend on-the-job training as an alternative to school, moving up from dishwashing to higher level tasks, learning skills as you go from willing mentors along the way, books, videos and lots and lots of practice.
You’ll need that passion and positive attitude to carry you through the tough times.
Finally, it comes down to passion, attitude and willingness to work hard. Very hard. You’ll need that passion and positive attitude to carry you through the tough times when the work seems overwhelming or when the rewards seem not sufficient to balance it. But if it’s what you really want, and you persevere, maximizing your learning and skill-building opportunities in any way you can think to do it, including culinary school, you just might become that chef who loves what s/he does and thrives on it.
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