To Cook or Not To Cook?

It’s a common question for people who love food—should I scrap my current career and go to culinary school? Before you plunk down money and buy a white coat, hear what the pros have to say.

We all know them—burnt out IT professionals, jaded ad execs, people who love food and think it would be great to make it their career. I love throwing dinner parties, they say. Wouldn’t it be fun to do that every night?

But restaurant work is different, and culinary school is not cheap. Two chefs who also blog—David Lebovitz and Shuna Lydon—have tried to give a serious and realistic answer for people tempted by culinary school and the lure of the restaurant business.

According to David:

If you’re thinking about becoming a professional cook, whether or not to go to shool may be the ultimate question for you to ponder. There are some very good culinary schools, but in general, I think it’s worth getting some experience either in a restaurant kitchen or bakery before you decide to invest a lot of money in education. Perhaps the work is far more challenging than expected or the pay is going to be far (very far) lower than what you’re making as, say, an anesthesiologist.

Shuna’s ideas on culinary school run in a similar vein:

I have lost count of the people who wish they’d listened to me when I attempted to talk them out of culinary school. It is not that I think all culinary education outside of the workplace is a waste of time. But I think one should know all their options before signing a check for upwards of $60,000 for two years of education…It used to be that culinary schools required their future students to have at least some experience in the field before even being able to apply. Now the only skill a future cook needs to possess is the ability to sign a check.

And the price of a private culinary school education is not cheap. David mentions a friend of his who worked in admissions at one such school and was trained in some interesting recruiting techniques. “She was told to ask if they had any family pictures in their wallet. And when they opened their wallet, check to see if there were credit cards, which they could mention later as a source for the down payment.”

An article earlier this year in the Albuquerque Tribune, titled “Celebrity Chefs Inspire Cravings for Culinary Jobs”, looked at the issue of all these culinary school grads, now in debt, and unable to make the wages they need to repay their schooling. “Cameron Cuisinier’s dreams of a catering career led him to culinary school. Now he’s unemployed and $43,000 in debt, and he’s not alone.” The high profile celebrity chefs on the Food Network shows may make it all look glamorous, but that’s a misleading picture for an industry that involves long, hard hours of decidedly unglamorous work and low pay.

“It looks really fun on TV,” said Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., one of the country’s premier training grounds for chefs. “You’ve got an audience adoring you. You say, ‘Bam!’ and throw some stuff on a plate and everyone goes nuts…That’s not what happens. The work is long and hard. There’s a lot of pressure.”

As Kate, at Accidental Hedonist, asks, “Do the students and graduates of these schools know what they are getting into?”