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Now reading Should You Go to Culinary School?

Should You Go to Culinary School?

The pros and cons, from chefs around the world—plus the data from each of the sides.

This story comes from Lucky Peach #3: The Cooks and Chefs Issue. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

Thomas Keller is not happy with me. And it’s not fun when Thomas Keller isn’t happy.

“I don’t know if any other magazines are calling up Harvard Medical School and asking if you can just work for a doctor, learn everything you need to know, and become a doctor on your own,” he says to me.

A few days earlier, I’d called Tim Ryan, the president of the CIA—the Culinary Institute of America, not the CIA that taps phones and kills people. I’d asked him to weigh in on the old argument: Does culinary school help someone become a chef?

I’d been calling a lot of people to answer that question, including quite a few chefs at every type and caliber of restaurant. Yet no one but Keller and Ryan seemed the least bit perturbed by the inquiry.

On the contrary, most professionals were eager to vent their feelings on the shortcomings of culinary schools, the uncreative and lazy cooks schools sometimes produced, and the general indifference toward culinary degrees felt by even the most prestigious restaurants. Moreover, many chefs felt guilty watching their friends and colleagues struggle to pay student loans while working low-hourly-wage positions on the line.

Yet Keller raises good and perplexing questions: How can you question the merits of education? Why would anyone lobby for a less-educated workforce? Just how qualified a person do you want cooking your food?

The authority in his voice scrambles my higher cognitive skills. He’s never quite mean, and he always sidesteps rudeness, but the onslaught is ruthless all the same. After a bit of my own emasculated mumbling, I realize what it might be like to be a young commis at the French Laundry.

Keller makes sense on the macro level—academic studies push professions and societies forward. But the question still remains worth asking on the micro level: What value, exactly, does culinary school have for a single prospective student? And is that value worth the cost?

Because, truth be told—and even Chef Keller agrees with this—to enter the world of fine dining, you don’t need to go to culinary school.

Just as the old story goes, you really can get a job washing dishes, work your way into prep, develop the basic skills to end up on the line, master each station, and even become a head chef—all without ever stepping into a formal classroom. Every kitchen is looking for free labor, so with the right attitude you can knock on the back door of a restaurant and start staging that very same day.

Tuition at most cooking schools, on the other hand, can be between $20,000 and $30,000 per year, more expensive than at many state-run universities where room and board is included. Two of the most popular culinary schools in the United States—Le Cordon Bleu and the Art Institutes—are for-profit institutions owned by Fortune-1000 companies. Le Cordon Bleu Paris is a famed cooking school in its own right; the U.S. franchise is licensed by Career Education Corporation, which accounts for 22 percent of all U.S. culinary school enrollment. The Art Institutes are owned by Education Management Corporation, and 41 percent of that is owned by Goldman Sachs.

For these corporations, culinary schools are a gateway to federal-aid dollars. Yet despite federal regulation, the schools hold all the pricing power, thanks to a somewhat young, lax law known as the 90/10 rule. That rule states that so long as a mere one out of every ten students can afford a school out-of-pocket, the school remains eligible for federal financial aid.

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Low graduation rates among students at for-profit culinary schools, however, are beginning to receive a great deal of scrutiny from the Department of Education. In November 2011, Career Education admitted to advertising inflated job-placement rates. Out of forty-nine of its schools that were subjected to an internal audit, only thirteen had actually achieved their advertised numbers. (Career Education’s stock price dropped by almost 50 percent on the day it announced this news.)

Le Cordon Bleu is tightening enrollment standards to improve graduation and job-placement metrics. On paper, that tightening—coupled with a lousy economy—means Career Education’s enrollment across its schools was down 22 percent last year.

The CIA vs. the World

Despite being neither the biggest nor the oldest school around, the word CIA was on the tip of every professional’s tongue during our discussions. The CIA is the Nike of culinary schools; another institution, Johnson & Wales, is probably the Adidas.

Both schools, following the conventional college model, are nonprofits. Your typical private university is a nonprofit, as are those pricey Ivy League schools. Vocational and trade schools (offering auto-repair certification, or an associate’s degree in nursing) are typically for-profit. The difference, loosely, is that a nonprofit reinvests any financial surplus back into the organization (and hopefully, the student experience), while a for-profit pays it out to its investors.

Graduation rates tend to be higher at nonprofit colleges. The CIA’s overall graduation rate is an astonishing 85 percent, exceeding the national average for all nonprofit four-year colleges (64.5 percent), and dwarfing Johnson & Wales’s 56 percent. In comparison—if you’re willing to trust their self-reported numbers—the for-profit franchise Le Cordon Bleu maintains a respectable average graduation rate of 72 percent, while the Art Institutes’ culinary-arts program has the lowest average graduation rate I came across: 21 percent. As a baseline, the national average for for-profit, two-year colleges is 61.2 percent.

No doubt, the CIA’s success is a byproduct of more stringent admissions requirements: the CIA is the only school I found that requires six months of previous restaurant experience from incoming students. In other words, everyone who attends the CIA has been around food for a purpose other than eating it, and this policy undoubtedly trims away less passionate students (and saves them a few semesters of tuition).

But the biggest difficulty in understanding the value of culinary school is the gap between job-placement rates and what most chefs say they care about.  While job-placement rates are reported to be quite high from nearly all culinary schools (though there is no standard for job-placement reporting), working chefs simply don’t seem to care about academic training. Not a single chef I interviewed said that culinary school made any difference in their either hiring decisions, or in an individual employee’s success.

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The anecdotes from professionals, especially, conflict with the CIA’s claims that its education will accelerate someone’s career. If CIA graduates routinely kicked butt in kitchens around the world, wouldn’t the chefs who are hiring these graduates take notice? (The CIA would not disclose graduate salary data, nor would it disclose how many graduates remain in the industry after five years. These are both basic, understandable metrics that could be used to evaluate program efficacy. In their place, we’ll have to resort to anecdotal evidence.)

Still, I do find myself agreeing with Chef Keller and Tim Ryan, the CIA’s president, in principle. It does seem, as Tim Ryan told me, “foolhardy” to argue against education, or to argue against a structure of education that, as flawed as it may be for the restaurant industry of today, has proven vital to the advancement of medicine, mathematics, engineering, and every liberal art under the sun.

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Keller, for one, is clearly not willing to give up on the role of higher education in the kitchen just yet. Yet although he didn’t say it, I can’t help but suspect it’s because he would rather see chefdom as a white-collar profession than one known for its machismo. 

That said, today’s culinary students still learn how to clean a fish like a auto-repair learns to fix a carburetor. The best academic institutions don’t just teach known ideas: they create wholly new ones.

Without divulging any details on the matter, Ryan assured me that the CIA “will be doing a lot more to foster creativity” in the future, and mentioned that he had recently visited MIT to better understand their approach. “It’s essential,” he promised. And he’s right.

When culinary professors and students begin pushing the boundaries of their trade, approaching their craft with Nobel Prize-level fervor—when schools like the CIA become safe houses for experimentation and radical ideas—the best culinary colleges will truly transcend trade schools. And that’s when you’ll have to go to school to really be a chef.


THE BOSS

Michael Thiemann
Occupation: Executive Chef, Wayfare Tavern and Hawk’s Tavern, San Francisco, CA
Years in Industry: 18
Went to School: No

I’m in the middle of opening up a restaurant right now, so I’m going through tons of applications. Culinary schools are the last place I look, actually. They honestly qualify you to be one step above a dishwasher.

I’ve seen good culinary students do really well. I’ve also seen some sold a bag of tricks, thinking they’re going to move up really fast. School is only a year and a half. Even though they learn to make mother sauces and what have you, none of it matters. Because when they graduate they’re going to have to sit on a station, like a salad station or a sauté station, for a year.

Theimann

It’s a long process. You have to go through every station and master it. That takes a lot of repetition and years of work. So you’re really better off working your way up. You’ll end up doing it anyway. Start off scrubbing pots and pans. It sounds old school, but that’s where it begins.

I’ll tell you this: Every one of my line cooks who went to culinary school is living in poverty right now, paying off that $60,000 debt. I’m watching them struggle working two jobs as line cooks, just getting beat up because they’re screwed. Their debt is so huge.

In San Francisco, I run two restaurants, and I swear to you, I barely look at schools on a resumé. I hire the person based on the person. I don’t think you can teach work ethic. [He puts down the phone and shouts across the alley to a coworker] Hey! Hey, you go to culinary school? Where? [Inaudible response.] Huh, Okay.

That guy went to culinary school. He’s fairly good and well rounded, but I had no idea.


THE GRADUATE

Tracey Torres
Occupation: Chef de Partie, Café Boulud, New York, NY
Years in Industry: 2
Went to School: Yes

I was at the University of Iowa, having a good time there and doing fine. Then I started skipping school, this one class in particular, to go to the farmers’ market. Eventually, I would go to the library and fake study, just looking at cookbooks.

I visited a culinary school on my winter break and just made a decision: I’m going.

I never worked in a restaurant except when I worked at a hospital cafeteria, which was the worst job ever, but it was food so I liked it.

Torres

School pretty much sold me, because it’s so intriguing. Just getting your uniform is exciting—it’s that sort of thing.

At first, I didn’t feel like I was learning. It was a whole day of making salad dressing. Or a whole day of dicing—which, in retrospect, was actually kind of great.

In cooking, you have to show your passion by working hard, staying late, and being super involved. But in school—you know how kids are in school, not giving a shit and not staying late.

I didn’t start realizing that until my internship. When I came back to school, I was like business—trying to kill it, trying to be the best person.

Schools definitely gave me background in cuisines, but restaurants taught me how to cook. If you worked in a French restaurant your entire life, you won’t know anything about Asian food.

Right now it’s hard to think it was a good experience because student loans are so crazy. It’s absurd. I have student loans left for, yeah, I’ll probably be paying them for a while.

I probably could have left school and taken a hotel sous-chef job and been okay. It’s one of those artist kind of things. I feel like I’d be cheating if I just went to a hotel and made money.


THE APPRENTICE

Chris Grare
Occupation: Chef de Partie, Café Boulud, New York, NY
Years in Industry: 4
Went to School: No

I went to college to become a teacher. When I graduated, I had a hard time finding a teaching job, and food was more my passion.

All through college I was a late-night, two to three a.m. cook, when we got back from the bar. But other than that, I didn’t know a lot about cooking. I was lucky enough to land a job with a really good chef who took me under his wing and taught me a lot, at a private country club in New Jersey.

There were the littlest things, from learning how to make a tomato consommé to confiting anything. I had to go to the sous chef and say, “Hey, how do I do this?” Things that most people, right out of culinary school, probably know how to do.

At first it was a little embarrassing. There were so many instances where I’d do something, take a lot of time to try to do it, and Chef would say, “What the hell is this? Throw it out, start over again.” It was hard.

Without training at the country club, I would have been on the absolute lowest entry level at Café Boulud—if they even let me through the door. Instead, I started at soup, which is near entry level. Now I’ve worked every station here, and I’m the a.m. saucier and meat cook two years later, which is one of the lead cook positions.

I would never tell someone not to go to culinary school. But I see some of the young students who come out of culinary school, say for an internship, and they pretty much know as much as I knew not going to school at all.

But whether it be traditional four-year college or a two-year culinary degree, just growing up is a necessity. Go somewhere, just to get that college experience. Then knock on the back door of a restaurant when you have a bit of time. No one is going to tell you that you can’t work for free for a day.


THE PIRATE

Jared Wentworth
Occupation: Chef/Partner, Longman & Eagle, Chicago, IL
Years in Industry: 20
Went to School: Yes

When hiring, I think it’s been more than ten years since I’ve even looked at where someone went to culinary school. It’s where you’ve worked, who you’ve worked for, and how long you’ve worked there.

When I started cooking, I was sixteen years old on Cape Cod, doing it as a summer job. It was a straight blue-collar work ethic. Now you have kids coming from white-collar, very affluent homes, saying, “I’m going to go to culinary school, and I’m going to be a chef when I graduate!”

Wentworth

I see this attitude all the time, and we just chew these people up. The job is not glamorous. It’s long hours. It’s hot. People scream at you. Schools don’t teach a work ethic.

Plus, you’re on student loans for life. And it’s one of those things, you paid X amount of dollars to make less money. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me when you could have traveled around the world, maybe annoyed some Michelin-star chef by saying, “Can I please wash some dishes today?”

Eventually they might let you open some oysters and cut some parsley. It’s still getting your foot in the door, and you didn’t have to pay for it, and you get this incredible world-travel experience. And chefs like me think, “That’s cool.”

I’ll take someone in a second who has life experience, travels, and sees things, as opposed to some suburban white kid who comes in telling me how to do my job, which fucking cracks me up.

My favorite question is, “Do you think [we should be doing things this way], Chef?” Yeah, I do. That’s why I have a fucking Michelin star, you jackass.


THE RESTAURATEUR

Paul Kahan
Occupation: Executive Chef, Blackbird, Avec, Publican, Big Star; Chicago, IL
Years in Industry: 27
Went to School: No

Honestly, bottom line, I don’t really care if a kid went to culinary school.

And if you make a chart—like a graph of culinary-school externs we have, how many are successful and how many fail—it makes absolutely no difference whether they go to the CIA or Kendall [College] or New England Culinary Institute or community college.

Kahan

A lot of kids go there, to CIA, who really aren’t passionate about food. They’re going there because they think it’s something they might want to do. Those kids end up with an education that’s of no value to them, they’re forced to go into the job market, and they’re a pain in the ass. That’s not the person I want.

We give cooks the ability to contribute creatively, and it’s so interesting. When I manned the kitchen at Blackbird day in and day out, everyone was working on a dish, interjecting, involved with the process. Now these kids who come out of culinary school, I don’t know if it’s based on TV culture, but they think they’ll be superstars after graduating yet they come in to the line and they’re like robots. That’s what they do. They do their job. They go home. They don’t say, “I got home, I was looking at cookbooks, and I got some ideas on how to make that dish better.”

Whether they come out of culinary school—most of them do—they just sort of lack that drive and intuition of what you need to get far and be successful in this business. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

I would say, if you have that passion, if you’re hungry and you want to learn, you can find your way into a good kitchen and accomplish the same thing in a shorter time for a lot less money.


THE ÜBER MICHELIN

Thomas Keller
Occupation: Chef/Owner, The French Laundry, Bouchon, Per Se, Ad Hoc
Years in Industry: 35
Went to School: No

I think culinary school is really important. I say that not just because I’m on the CIA board of trustees or because I have an honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales. I truly believe in our culinary programs. I believe in their evolution, that they’ll continue to train the students more effectively and efficiently, and that we’ll get better and better students as time goes on. Is education important? is the question.

Keller

I don’t have the number, but it’s fair to say 75 to 80 percent of the individuals who work for us today are coming to us out of culinary school, whether it’s a vocational school like the French Culinary Institute or an actual accredited school like Johnson & Wales or the CIA. But someone who is really determined to do a really good job every day is the person who’s going to get the job.

If you’re making $10 an hour five to ten years after you graduate from culinary school, then you’re not very good. Let’s face it. I have kids who come here, twenty-two years old out of school, yes, they’re making a base salary of probably $36,000 a year. If they’re good, they’re in that position to learn the basic skills and the philosophy of our restaurant, for probably twelve months. If they’re ambitious, aggressive, and focused on what they do, within five years they can become a sous chef. At Bouchon, that could be even shorter. It could be three years.

Each generation of youngsters wants to be more than they can achieve before their time. I wanted to be a chef before I learned to cook. We all want to be that. The intelligent ones realize it doesn’t really work that way. We’d better get to work.

I think eventually you’ll see another program at the schools that’s very progressive, and hopefully some of the best chefs from around the country and around the world will be part of that program, defining that curriculum.


THE SCHOOL

Tim Ryan
Occupation: President, CIA, Hyde Park, NY
Years in Industry: 35
Went to School: Yes

“Do I need to go to culinary school to be a chef?” is built upon a faulty assumption. The faulty assumption—that is fundamental and massively faulty—is that all culinary schools are the same. The second faulty assumption is that all chefs are the same.

The honest answer to most questions about anything is: it depends.

But you can’t ignore the fact that there’s a big difference between culinary schools. They’re not all the same. A huge difference comes out of the fact that a majority of the culinary schools out there are for-profits, and controlled by two huge, publicly traded corporations.

Ryan

What are the alternatives that are being proposed? Just work on the job? Sure, people have done that. We can expand the discussion to, does anyone have to go to college? The answer to that is: it depends. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both college dropouts.

If you take a step back and look at the broad perspective, the safest route is to go to college, and statistics back that up. I would apply that to culinary school, though I cannot defend the for-profit colleges, and I won’t.

We never tell our students they’ll be chefs when they graduate, or that they’ll be sous chefs next year, but CIA training does allow them to move forward, there’s no question about that—and to do so, we believe, more quickly than someone working in a single restaurant, on average.

We want them to be good line cooks upon graduation. Then they’re going to have to gain that mastery through repetitions. But we’re a college; we’re not just interested in the short-term needs of the industry. There’s a big difference between training and education.

I think it’s foolhardy for our profession or our industry to argue against education. We should actually be arguing for a more educated workforce, because that will continue to elevate the standards of the culinary industry.