Should you go to Culinary School?
When starting out in the culinary profession, most people begin their learning by themselves at home, but where do you go from there? After All, there’s only so much you can learn on the internet and from books without experiencing the material in a professional manner. You get left with the question of whether you go to culinary school or just try and get a job in a professional kitchen and learn from there, working your way up. The way you decide to go from here plays a large part in determining where you will end up as a professional later in your career. As such, it is important to look at the pros and cons of each path so you can make the right decision for yourself.
By far, the largest benefit to going to a culinary school is the predefined learning structure. Professional chefs have created a curriculum and have worked at perfecting it over time so that they can teach in an efficient and well thought out manner, leading to more successful students who can learn much more in much less time than they could on their own or in the workplace. That being said, the schools are in it to make money. The faster they can get rid of you, the faster they can get someone else in who’s willing to pay many thousand dollars. It isn’t a bad idea sometimes to take it slowly and focus on perfecting the basics, but, in culinary school, there isn’t always time for that. The professional atmosphere slightly justifies the exorbitant cost, but it’s also valuable to you as a student. Getting used to the uniforms, punishments for being late and long, exhausting schooldays prepares you for the lifestyle of working in a professional kitchen. Another benefit to going to culinary school is the teachers. You'll find that they are very passionate about food and cooking, and while often very sarcastic about teaching, they do enjoy it and they love to pass on the knowledge and the passion. You will develop great respect for the teachers. The students can be almost as valuable to you as the teachers. Just talking amongst yourselves, you'll find that your classmates come from all walks of life with varying levels of professional experience. Some will have already worked in professional kitchens, others will never have. Another will have worked in a fish shop for two years and be able to teach the teacher a few things about fish. In the end, it’s worth getting to know as many of the other students as possible. After you’re done culinary school, they can prove to be valuable in your professional network. They may be someone you open a restaurant with, or just someone to call in when you need a hand. Stay in touch. It’s worth it. While there are all these benefits to going to culinary school, there are certainly some major benefits to just jumping into the workplace too.
Jumping right into the workplace, without school can be a very daunting if not impossible task. In many of the places the budding culinary professional wants to work, you’d require a culinary school degree just to become a commis; where your days would be spent preparing vegetables and running around for your chef. With this in mind, try approaching a smaller operation. Sometimes the eagerness and willingness to learn and do as you’re told is just enough to get you in the door, doing some small tasks. The best option, should you decide to go this route would be to sign up with the government as an apprentice. Depending on the depth of your governments apprenticeship program, they can help you get basic schooling (1-3 months), a placement and they provide guidelines for your learning. To some people, this may seem more valuable in the end because with the apprenticeship or workplace route, you get the ever so valuable workplace experience which , in the end, is a true measure of what you know. There are always things that come up - problems, conflicts - that no amount of schooling can prepare you for. You just have to have them come up and learn from them. Learning from actual chefs in an actual restaurant is a huge bonus to going this route. Just watching the chef work will teach you many things - efficiency of movement, commanding the kitchen, precision of plating and cooking. The list goes on and on and while this material can be covered in a classroom, it’s something you have to truly see and experience for yourself to completely learn and understand it. That being said, there are plenty of chefs out there who aren’t good or who cheat and do things that you don't really want to pick up and use yourself. In culinary school, they focus on technique and basic abilities, but may gloss over very important things such as menu costing, leadership in the kitchen and storing food properly. In the workplace all of this isn't just covered, it’s a necessity. With the experience, you build the teamwork and communication skills necessary to success in a restaurant, but in culinary school, you don't often get the chance to develop this. With the hands on experience, you develop the practical skills that will carry you through your career.
In conclusion, There are many pros and cons to going each route and in the end, the decision is an individual one, if you're a classic academic, the classroom may be better suited for you. If you learn better by working hands on the the workplace may be better for you. Personally, I found that what I did has worked out very well for me. I started in the workplace, and learned a lot of the basics of the profession, but decided that having the formal instruction would be beneficial to me, so I went to culinary school. The first few months and certain aspects throughout the course were made much easier, because I had already learned a lot of the basics on my own and in the workplace. While I was going to culinary school, I continued working as I had been. It was an exhausting experience, but I was able to implement the teachings of the day right away. I could test what I learned and cement it in my mind, not just write it down and forget it like many of my classmates. This specific path - workplace and then school while continuing to work - worked out very well for me, and I'd personally recommend it. This also happens to be what’s recommended in the book "Becoming a Chef" by Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg. I recommended this book in my last article too, but if you have any desire to work in the culinary industry, I'd highly recommend reading this book.
Thank you for reading my article. More on my personal story next time.
Until then, go learn something new.