Part 2: Culinary School-To Go or Not To Go
Chef: A Kitchen Safari
I’ll never forget it, I was jobless and in search of my next cooking gig. I had an interview with a local hotel that was looking for experienced line cooks. I showed up to the interview with a portfolio filled with images of dishes I had either created or cooked at previous restaurants, a letter of recommendation, and my diploma from majoring in Culinary Arts at Johnson and Wales University. The Sous Chef came to greet me in the Human Resources office. He was short in stature and spoke with a lisp. He shook my hand and took me back to the Executive Chefs office to talk to me about the type of employees they were looking for. I smiled and opened up my portfolio so that we could get to know each other better, and a perplexed look came over his face. The perplexed look turned into a smirk as he said,“whats that?” I replied “O this is my diploma from college as well as my diploma from a culinary vocational program”. His smirk turned into a laugh. He said “well I never went to culinary school and I’ve been cooking all over the country”.
For the first time he made me second guess should I have even went to college to begin with. I was no stranger to kitchen egos and drama. That form of psyche is pervasive in the kitchen. You either get used to it or pick another profession.
I ignored his lack of professionalism and quickly responded by saying “it was a choice, not by force. It’s good to have options in life”.
I want to talk to those of you that are curious about whether to go into a culinary program or just head straight for the Line or dishpit.
First, let me tell you a few Pros and Cons about a scholastic culinary education.
- Most collegiate culinary programs are 2 or 4 years. You learn a lot in a short period of time.
- The camaraderie is great, being around like minded people catapults the learning experience.
- In certain professional realms you must have some form of degree, especially if you plan on being some form of Director at say a Marriot or going into a corporate form of culinary arts.
- You have instructors who have worked in the industry for years and actually enjoy imparting secrets to their students
- The educational experience is well rounded- You learn everything from cuisines of different world regions, baking and pastry, accounting, mixology, dining room, etc
- Its expensive, period. I was fortunate to have a few scholarships and I still spent a decade paying the college loans back.
- You will run into a few Chefs in your career who will straight up hate you for going to college. I’ve encountered this on a few occasions, they scoff at it. They believe the only way to true culinary greatness is to start washing dishes at 16 and work your way up, station by station.
- Though you learn a lot, its never enough to really embody any cuisine. Spending a month learning about French or Italian cuisine is a joke.
- Its strict, maybe even too strict. In my program, missing two days of any class meant you had to take it over, which also meant you had to pay for the entire class over again.
- It doesn’t teach speed. I remember one of my Chef instructors telling us to go work the graveyard shift at an IHOP to improve our speed and stamina in the kitchen. I took him up on that. Spent 3 months there and I believe it really helped me.
Concerning the story above, I got the job. The Executive Chef had actually graduated from CIA (Culinary Institute of America). He believe in both approaches to a persons culinary learning experience and so do I. I warred with the Sous Chef. He was a very competitive person (funny stories about him and I will be in Part 4: Kitchen Tales and Fails/Don’t Sleep with the Waitstaff). You will encounter those types, I prefer those types. They make us better, we make each other better.
In my personal experience, I can tell you that after I finished the vocational school and college, I didn’t embody some form of epicurian enlightenment. Neither will you. If you think you do, then I promise you, you will be humbled rather quickly. I graduated with individuals who believed that their education entitled them to some form of respect. It doesn’t, or at least not in the kitchen. I knew people who refused to wash dishes, work garde manger (cold station), or take an hourly wage. To say they didn’t last long would be an understatement. Another problem one may encounter after graduating from a culinary program is that the past graduating classes may have sucked and it can hurt your job prospects. I’ve been in cities close to a college that has a culinary program, and all of the high end restaurants complained about the students. Their speed, accuracy, ability to work under pressure, etc, were very suspect. Those particular skills are fundamental to being a legitimate force in the kitchen. No one has all day for you to shuck oysters.
I’ll close with this. While in college I worked part time at local restaurants and hotels. I’d say you need to do both, preferably at the same time. Push yourself.
You will get out of it what you put into it.
If there is one giant pearl I can say about majoring in Culinary Arts is that I understand the science of cooking and I understood it at a young age. Sous Vide and pickling aren’t new to me. I don’t just know how to create an emulsion, I understand how it comes together. I could problem solve a recipe and obtain “food cost” before I could drink alcohol. It put me ahead of the game in those areas. Creativity came later, I had to be around Chefs who were artists as well as mathematicians and scientists. I had to learn from the gritty chefs who knew intimate kitchen tricks you cant learn in a classroom. So culinary school, to go or not to go…Go, if you can, if you can’t, that’s fine as well. The key to being a great chef is gaining experience, having an open and creative mind, and working well with all types of people. Embody that and you will go far. Let your cooking speak for you…