Is Culinary School Worth It? / by Anthony Michael Contrino

Photo by Andrea Patton Photography 

Photo by Andrea Patton Photography 

I’m never surprised when people tell me they love to cook and sometimes think of quitting their high paying (boring) corporate job and finding a new home in the kitchen.  Culinary schools are loaded with “older” folk who have committed to changing careers - especially those that offer certificates.  Certificates or Grande Diplomas are the way to go if you already have a college degree as these programs focus on the hands-on component.  

Life in the kitchen is rewarding, but it comes at a cost - lower wages, long hours and physical exhaustion.  While I am not trying to scare you, I’m just being realistic.  

I wrote the bulk of this a while ago, however, it is still relevant.  So, is culinary school worth it?  It’s not a straightforward answer, and what’s right for one person may not be for another.  If you know someone struggling over whether or not culinary school makes sense, feel free to share this information.  

CONS:

1.  It's EXPENSIVE!  #thisaintcheap is an understatement.  You're going to pay upwards of $25,000 then graduate to try to find a job that pays $10/hour (If you're lucky!) Oh, and good luck with benefits.

2.  Time Consuming.  Many people I attended school with worked a full-time job before heading to class.  It's exhausting and eats a good portion of your free time.  There's studying and projects to do.  Plus, if you really want to succeed, you'll be making puff pastry dough at home, too.

3.  Gets you set in your ways.  I often come across people who say things like, "Well this is how they taught me in culinary school!"  There are many ways to do one task.  The best part about working with different people is learning from them.  I learn something new every day.

4.  It's competitive.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing as it can really help motivate you, but don't let that be your focus.  Do the best you can do.

5.  It may not meet your expectations.  You are not in school for 8 years.  You cannot spend two weeks blowing sugar.  Typically, a technique is demoed, you have an opportunity to try it out and then you move on.  If you really want to learn about a specific ingredient or technique in depth, you may have to do it on your own. 

PROS:

1. You're not alone.  Think about how scary it can be starting a new job - you don't know anyone, you're low man on the totem pole and you're expected to jump in and know what you're doing.  Well, everyone is on the same boat, so it's not as intimidating.

2.  Friendships.  You are trapped in a room with people who want to do what you do and who love cooking/baking/food.  You already have tons in common!  I am still friends with many of my classmates and we support each other constantly.

3. Builds a good foundation.  At any good institution, you will learn all the basics, and although you may not spend tons of time practicing a particular technique, you will have the knowledge you need to succeed in the real world. 

4. Resources.  Schools have a tremendous amount of resources - libraries, clubs, workshops and culinary demonstrations - which are usually lead by instructors who you haven't been assigned to your class, or even guest chefs / celebrity chefs.  

5.  Alumni Services.  Job portals, advisors, etc.  This is priceless.  I still talk regularly with my advisor and she is always willing to help me make smart decisions. She has even helped me land some pretty amazing jobs.

So, as you can see, the ball is in your court.  YOU have to decide if it is a smart career choice. You can definitely skip culinary school and build a name for yourself in this industry, but you will have to hustle and build your own support system and create your own connections.

Below are some books that I thoroughly enjoyed.  They offer insight into “the daily grind” of the culinary world.  I hope they inspire you as much as they’ve inspired me.

Under the Table: Saucy Tales from Culinary School  //  Katherine Darling

My Life From Scratch: A Sweet Journey of Starting Over, One Cake at a Time  //  Gesine Bullock-Prado

Spiced: A Pastry Chef’s True Stories of Trails by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen  //  Dalia Jurgensen

My Life in France  //  Julia Child

Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death and Redefining the Way We Eat  //  Grant Achatz

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen  //  Jacques Pepin