Do You Need a Pricey Culinary Degree to Be a Top Chef?

Paul Canales (above, right) was a career changer. A serious home cook, he’d spent a decade working in marketing and sales for Pacific Bell before he decided to step behind the stoves to make a living. In 1995, he left California for a couple of years to earn an associate degree from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Price tag back then, he says, was around $24K for two years of tuition. “I was almost 33 at the time; I felt like I didn’t have 10 years to bounce around learning, as I might at 18 or even 22,” says Canales. “I wanted to get up to speed quickly, gain basic cooking skills and entrée into a good place. I was very naive.”

Already a graduate of Stanford University’s Sloan Business Program, Canales got some real-world experience in a café in Fresno before his cooking course. At CIA, he was very fortunate and very motivated, he says, unlike some of his fellow students. He learned to butcher, braise, and poach from a bunch of what he calls "old-school French guys," distinguished chefs who demanded a lot of the students. Also worth the price of admission: ex–Chez Panisse chef Eve Felder, then an associate dean at CIA, who recommended that he seek an internship back home in the Golden State at Oakland's Oliveto.

“When you leave a culinary program you are minimally competent,” Canales says. “Then you have to do internships, find mentors, and be willing to let people teach you all the things you don’t know.” That part went pretty well for Canales. In the course of a 15-year tenure at Oliveto, he went from intern all the way up to head chef, a position he held for five years until he went out on his own. Just over a year ago he opened the Spanish-influenced Duende, already considered one of the top restaurants in a town with a growing reputation as an eating destination.

His wife, Mary Canales (shown above), came to cooking the Chez Panisse way. She has no formal culinary training; instead she worked her way up through the ranks in high-end kitchens, including nine years as pastry chef at Alice Waters’ pedigreed Berkeley restaurant. The two would-be chefs met at Oliveto when Paul was an intern and Mary was a server. Mary, who had always baked, decided to give the back of the house a whirl, forging a path in pastry. In 2006 she opened her own ice cream shop, Ici, in Berkeley. Quality ingredients and her talent for creating intriguing flavor pairings have ensured perennial lines.

One culinary couple, both successful with critics and customers alike, two approaches to crafting a career in food.

Culinary enrollments up, fees too
Thanks in part to the rise of the celebrity chef and a mainstream culture with a serious obsession with food, enrollments at culinary academies are booming. With dreams of fame, fortune, and a Food Network contract, students are increasingly signing up at cooking schools. The number of culinary graduates grew by 25 percent from 2006 to 2010, according to Education News’ Career Index. But for every graduate who goes on to an executive chef position, the reality of the restaurant industry means many more are grinding it out as line cooks in institutional food service or at country clubs, earning minimum wage or a little more while carrying a bucket-load of school debt.

Most culinary programs ain’t cheap. A June 2014 list of America’s top culinary schools includes a slew of pricey programs, including the nonprofit CIA (Paul Canales’s alma mater, shown above) and Johnson & Wales University, as well as private institutions such as Le Cordon Bleu. The cost of that two-year degree Canales earned has more than doubled—it’s almost $53,000 now. A bachelor’s degree at CIA sets a student back $105,840. For graduates faced with crippling debt, even the dream of opening a modest little bistro somewhere is gone, baby, gone.

An executive chef in a restaurant, a typical goal for many culinary students, earned an average of $84,154 in 2012, according to a survey by StarChefs. It can take five years or longer to reach that level, if at all. Cooking school grads typically start as line cooks at $10 to $15 an hour, usually with no benefits. In the same survey, a line cook made $28,367 a year on average. Do the math and it suggests that graduates can’t expect to be in the black any time soon after their education.

The case for on-the-job training
Meanwhile, many chefs who make a go of it without a formal culinary education come up through the trenches, learning the hardscrabble way. There’s no shortage of so-called self-taught chefs who stand out—Californians Daniel Patterson and Thomas Keller, and New Yorker Tom Colicchio, are among the most famous American chefs without culinary degrees. Internationally, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, and José Andrés (a naturalized U.S. citizen) all skipped culinary school in favor of on-the-job training.

If those chefs managed to find success, is it necessary for anyone to fork out $60,000 or more to get a culinary credential? That thorny question has long been debated within and outside the industry. Most agree that culinary students come out as newly trained cooks—becoming a seasoned chef is something else entirely. Learning to cook well is a lengthy process that calls for hard work, long hours, and dedication. “No one learns what they need in culinary school in terms of developing their own creative aesthetic,” says Paul Canales. “Nor is anyone really self-taught. Learning to cook well takes mentors and tons of practice."

Certainly formal training has never been important to Alice Waters. She favors an experiential approach to culinary education that happens, in part, far from the kitchen, from collecting eggs or feeding pigs on a farm to exploring the writing of legends like M.F.K. Fisher, and from eating in Italy and France to studying art. Waters also subscribes to the philosophy that the best cooking begins with stellar ingredients and that culinary excellence, whether baking bread, roasting chicken, or making pasta, comes from repeated attempts to reach perfection.

Waters says her restaurant’s coveted unpaid internship spots, in which aspiring chefs wash lettuce, shell favas, and perform other labor-intensive tasks, is an opportunity to learn in a collaborative environment. “Immersion is really the way someone learns to be a good cook,” Waters says. “Along with lots of repetition and mentors.” (She cites Diana Kennedy, Richard Olney, Elizabeth David, and Madhur Jaffrey as her own early guides.)

A strong work ethic, a hunger to learn, and a passion for the source-centric food at the heart of the Chez Panisse philosophy—these are the things Waters looks for in potential chefs. As for knife skills, kitchen etiquette, and cooking techniques, Waters thinks anyone can learn those on the job.

The case for a culinary credential
Not surprisingly, folks who head up culinary education programs, even those who skipped school themselves, see their value. Take Bill Corbett (left), a dean at the San Francisco Cooking School, a small, private institution that opened at the beginning of 2013. Students pay $26,725 to attend the six-month, full-time program. Corbett, executive pastry chef for Absinthe restaurant, maintains that SFCS students not only learn the vocabulary and culture of a kitchen and how to navigate a work space, they’re also being schooled by some of the best culinary professionals in the Bay Area (Daniel Patterson is a fellow dean) and exposed to the region’s vast and diverse food culture.

“We’re teaching students foundational skills, like how to work clean and how to scale something up,” Corbett says. “Every chef that takes on a graduate is going to mold you differently, but this way you’re equipped to enter a professional kitchen where the stakes are high and the pace is fast. We’re trying to create the next generation of chefs. That’s our responsibility.”

School founder Jodi Liano, a long-time culinary educator, felt that existing culinary programs were dated. She thinks they didn’t turn out graduates who knew how to season food, operate outside of a recipe, or fix mistakes—what she calls the essential “culinary intuition” for any chef.

Nobody is denying that a core set of skills—such as how to use a knife—is important for a wannabe chef. But building culinary literacy, including sound work habits, efficiency, and knowing when to ask questions and when to just put your head down and grind it out, is crucial to doing well in a professional kitchen, says Liano. “When you start out, you’re not creating your own dishes, you’re executing someone else’s,” she adds. “So you better know how to taste and season.”

Liano, who personally interviews each applicant, says she’s honest about the realities of the business, from the brutal hours to the low starting salaries. She also tells students that there are work opportunities in the culinary field beyond the kitchen. And unlike law or medicine, there’s no single degree, or even one way, to get your foot in the door. Representatives of the Culinary Institute of America—the large, old-school institution to SFCS’s small, progressive upstart—point to their impressive alumni as the best evidence of their program’s value. Twenty-five CIA graduates earned James Beard Award nominations this year, Communications Manager Jeff Levine says. Grant Achatz, John Besh, Anthony Bourdain, Roy Choi, Cat Cora, Charlie Palmer—all were CIA students. Thomas Keller is a big booster, provost (and CIA graduate) Mark Erickson notes. In 2013 Keller and some of his staff spent an entire day at the school with students. Its career fairs, held three times a year, sell out, with representatives from some 120 companies and businesses trolling for new talent.

Testimonials from recent graduates dot its website. A statement from Joseph “JJ” Johnson, chef de cuisine at The Cecil in Harlem, is typical: “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the CIA.” Culinary couple Carolina Gomez and Jason Story met at CIA and went on to open their Three Little Pigs Charcuterie & Salumi shop in Washington DC. “You don’t have to go to the CIA to be a cook,” Gomez is quoted as saying. “But if you want to be a chef, if you want to be a really respected food-service professional, you go to the CIA.”

The culinary classroom vs. a real-life kitchen
With lawsuits against some private colleges about placement opportunities and earning potential after culinary school, perhaps it’s no surprise that there’s an emphasis these days on gaining real-world kitchen experience. The SFCS requires its graduating students to complete 240 hours of an unpaid externship in a restaurant kitchen; its restaurant partners include high-profile ones like State Bird Provisions, Perbacco, and Nopa. CIA requires that incoming students have six months of experience in either the front or back of the house before they even come to class.

Still, when Paul Canales is scouting for the kitchen, he doesn’t pay much attention to whether or not a prospective cook has a culinary credential. Experience, recommendations, and what he observes when someone works beside him is worth far more than a degree.

“I want to see can they stand all day, do they like physical work, can they get pushed on timing, can they get their mind around how to process in a kitchen,” he says. “You can’t muddle and consider, you have to think and act.” Above all he’s looking for a demonstration of passion. “If they’ve got the fire, then I can take the rest,” Canales says. “I can’t teach fire.”

Canales had many unpaid interns while at Oliveto and says that some of the best came out of one of the most affordable culinary schools in the Bay Area. He’s talking about City College of San Francisco’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Program, whose high-profile graduates include culinary entrepreneurs such as Sam Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Market, and Jeff Hanak, owner of Nopa and Nopalito, all in San Francisco. Two years at City College sets students back just $2,200, making it perhaps one of the best bargains in culinary school education in the country.

CIA graduate Tim Costner might agree. “Despite what the common perception may be, graduating from a culinary school will not transform anyone into a chef. Far from it, actually. In the best scenario, a culinary degree might open some extra doors,” Costner wrote on his blog, The Accidental Wino. He says he sent résumés to about 70 restaurants after graduating a decade ago. He got just two calls back (lucky for him, one of them was from Napa's Auberge du Soleil).

Auberge offered Costner $11 an hour to start, and he jumped. Before culinary school, he was making $10 an hour as a short-order cook in Los Angeles. At Auberge, Costner found himself working alongside other novice cooks who attended a community college cooking program for a fraction of the cost of his credential. “The CIA had taught me just enough not to embarrass myself in a Michelin-star kitchen,” he wrote. “As it turns out, my real culinary education began on the job at Auberge du Soleil, and quite honestly, $11 per hour was about all that I was worth back then.” Costner realized that it didn’t really matter, that $40,000 he dropped at CIA—except that he was heavily in debt.

Still, how many of us would argue against education for education’s sake? If someone has the resources to make two years at CIA or Johnson & Wales a reality, few would take issue with that. Dominica Rice-Cisneros, chef and owner of Cosecha in Oakland, is a Chez Panisse alum who attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco (now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts). “It gave me a great chance to step back from the work to study wine, taste theory, and food history,” she says. “It’s important to sit down and have those discussions and not have to worry about getting through the work.”

CIA provost Mark Erickson maintains that cooking school can accelerate a budding cook’s journey, helping them figure out a direction and where to look for the right job. “There’s a lot more to being a chef than just learning how to cook,” Erickson says, citing the business acumen and leadership skills students pick up. “And our programs introduce students to job opportunities they might not have known existed.”

CIA is currently analyzing data about where alumni wind up, how much money they make after school, and how satisfied they are with their career choices. Early indications, says Erickson, reflect favorably on the institution in all those measures.

It’s just that an expensive school isn’t the only place to learn about gastronomy or the rigors of working kitchens. And times have changed. Cosecha’s Dominica Rice-Cisneros thinks the culinary education she had is way too expensive these days. “I don’t think an aspiring chef should pay more than $35,000 for culinary school. Your money is better spent traveling and cooking in the great kitchens and cities of Europe.”

Starting at the bottom
Having a culinary credential may give a job candidate a leg up in food service or at hotels and resorts, where employers expect new hires to understand the fundamentals of kitchen work. But almost all inexperienced cooks, including ones straight out of culinary school, start in entry-level jobs at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy. Historically in France and Italy, apprenticing at a nominal wage was how a cook got started in the business. Such gigs are harder to come by now. They still happen in Europe, including in the kitchens of celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver. In the U.S., David Chang is an advocate for the apprenticeship system, though it would likely serve just a small fraction of aspiring cooks.

Other chefs are seeking to foster culinary development by offering financial aid to historically disadvantaged minorities. In New Orleans, John Besh’s Chefs Move! foundation offers these prospective chefs, who are woefully underrepresented in top slots in the fine-dining world, full paid scholarships to the International Culinary Center in New York (formerly the French Culinary Institute), followed by a two-month internship at a Besh restaurant (the YouTube clip above shows the first Chefs Move! recipient). Ultimately, whether or not a culinary credential is worth the paper it’s printed on depends on the would-be chef’s goals, economic resources, and personal temperament.

Chef Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy in New York feels that the Natural Gourmet Institute’s Chef's Training Program was the right move for her. She thinks it would have been a challenge to learn in the high-pressure environment of a professional kitchen, which isn’t a particularly teaching-friendly scenario (watch Gordon Ramsay in action on TV, and you get a pretty good idea that screaming is involved). And the mostly vegetarian NGI dovetailed with Cohen’s own interest in plant-based cooking.

She tells prospective cooking school candidates to ask themselves two questions: Can I afford it? And: What do I need to learn and how do I need to learn it? “Spend some time looking in the mirror and figuring out who you are behind the BS you tell other people,” she wrote on her blog. “If you’re going to take on $34,000 in debt, the one thing you can’t afford is to lie to yourself.”

Paul Canales, too, is a fan of self-reflection. “My advice is go to college: learn how to read, write, think critically, whatever you study,” he says. “And get a job cooking, cook in the summers, find chef mentors who are willing to teach you something—not all of them are and you have to find the good ones and convince them you’re worth teaching.” And cooking school? “Don’t waste your money,” he says. “You’re not really going to learn how to cook.”

Photo credits: Top photo-collage of Mary and Paul Canales by Chris Rochelle; CIA photo by Flickr member Bill Stanley under Creative Commons; Bill Corbett photo from the San Francisco Cooking School

Sarah Henry is a freelance writer and a contributing editor at Edible East Bay. The voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale, she tweets under that moniker too.