Is Culinary School Worth It?

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Top o' the morning to you on this salty Tuesday. I have to go to the DMV. 'Nuff said.

I get this question a lot, so let's get right to it!

The short answer: it depends, mainly on you. And every chef will have their opinion.

But first, I want to get something out of the way:

Culinary school is not necessary for you to become a chef and/or have a career in the food industry.

I know tons of chefs that did not go to culinary school, but instead, learned on the job and/or moved up the ranks in a professional kitchen.

Work ethic, experience, humility, teachability, initiative, and thick skin are qualities you need to work in the food industry, and those are things nobody can teach you!

So is it worth it? Having gone to culinary school, here is the long answer:

1.) Do you have money?

If you are seriously considering culinary school be prepared for a monetary commitment first and foremost. Avoid anything looking like Le Cordon Bleu like the mothafucken plague (we all know how that turned out)! Investing in a culinary education with 4-year university tuition is a big mistake in my book (especially if you're already in student loan debt).

With the demise of big box, for-profit schools, there are new models thankfully coming in.

Programs at places like LA Trade Tech or Chef Apprentice School of the Arts are becoming more of the norm, where you can pay an affordable price yet still get a quality education at a pace and schedule that's probably more convenient for you.

But if you see other types of programs that are indeed worth the cost, then you do you, boo. Going into the Industry isn't glamorous (despite what the media shows), nor super high-paying unless you nab some great clients or a cool job like yacht cheffing right off the bat.

2.) Do you have time?

Depending on the program, time will also be a consideration. Will you be able to make the hours given other life commitments? Many schools actually do have flexible hours now that the late 20s-late 40s demographic is starting to attend culinary school, and usually, we have jobs, kids, and a life of debauchery to maintain. I'm so glad they understand that!

The alternative would be to stage (pronounced STAHJ, like the TAJ Mahal). If you have some previous knowledge or experience, you can ask a restaurant or company of your choice to intern. They get free labor and you learn something on the job, plus you get to state the stage on your resumé. They might even hire you after your stage, which is what happened with me at a Hollywood restaurant when I was starting out.

Analyze your finances and commitment level and see what will actually serve you. You can always try to rack up experience in a professional kitchen instead of going the school route, but that's completely dependent on your goals within the culinary field.

3.) What's your learning style?

If you're able to learn by working in a professional culinary setting (restaurant, catering company, etc) and move up the ranks, then that's a great education in and of itself. But, if you know you need something a bit more structured, there's also nothing wrong with taking a class or a full-time program.

I personally learn very well in a controlled environment where I am able to synthesize information in the classroom, then go home and practice/think about it more.

I'm also one of those people who needs someone on my ass with accountability and correction along the way. So, a formal structured environment works for the way I learn cuz I have a teacher constantly looking at my performance and progress. I need validation and tough love! *shrug*

I also love the social aspect of being in a classroom - meeting people, expanding my network, and making friends. I guess you could make the argument that this is doable at your current job or anywhere else, but what I love about networking with people in a class setting is that everyone is on the same wavelength: professional development, entrepreneurship, and overall goal-orientation. Even if people don't know exactly what they want to do, it helps to talk about possibilities with your own peers who are going through what you are. It's like being on LinkedIn but without the ghosting.

This is especially good if you plan on going into business for yourself and would need a close network of people you can call on for help, advice, or even a business partner proposition.

4.) What are your goals?

Nowadays, people can do something other than becoming a line cook. Though this is aimed at people who want to enter the food industry in the traditional sense, there are lots of different paths you can take.

We got writers and bloggers (hi!), food styling and photography, personal cheffing, starting your own catering business, consulting (also hi!), sales, and beverage.

Ask yourself what you want to do with a culinary diploma and if it's necessary for the line of work you want to get into. I personally found that despite being in the food industry since I was 16, a structured culinary education helped me take steps to fine tune what I wanted to do and gave me the knowledge and confidence to try out certain things.

Final thoughts

I did go to culinary school and it was a great experience. The program I went to was very personalized and attuned to my interests. I also met amazing people who are still my friends and helped me acquire long-term jobs. Do lots of research before you pick a program and audit a class if possible.

Ultimately, the decision will depend on you.

Even after you've acquired a certain skillset, you'll find that the points discussed above will be a recurring theme.

Money isn't going to be the main reason as to why you start within the field. Chefdom can become very lucrative, but you'll also have to put in that time. Long hours, late nights, early mornings or ALL THREE....back to back even! You'll also be learning tons on the job, which may throw you out of your comfort zone. You'll have to learn to be ok with criticism and people mocking you for your inevitable mistakes.

But one day, I hope you'll be running your own kitchen or business so you can make fun of your underlings (kidding) and give them the tough love and mentorship they need.


What do you think about culinary school? Leave a comment below!