Chefs Are Masochists, Culinary School Is a Scam

Dear Helena,
My brother recently told the family he wants to go to culinary school. He is 42, and seems to think that it's somehow going to lead to a high-paid job at a fancy restaurant. How can I tell him, tactfully, that he's making a really bad decision, is too old, and probably will never have success doing this?
—Don't Quit Your Day Job

Dear Don't Quit Your Day Job,
People flock to culinary school with dreams of having their own Michelin-starred restaurant or Food Network show. But those jobs are few and far between. Most people who work in restaurant kitchens make a pretty measly living. Chris Kronner, formerly the chef at Serpentine and Bar Tartine in San Francisco, attended California Culinary Academy, and thinks it was a waste of time. Out of his class of around 60 students, he's one of only two making a decent wage from cooking, he says. Some of his classmates are struggling to pay back the $60,000 to $70,000 cost of the 18-month program by washing dishes and working prep stations for as little as $10 to $12 an hour. The rest have given up the struggle and aren't working in the industry at all.

Even if your brother has money to burn, culinary school is poor training for restaurant work, says Kronner. "They don't teach you how to cook under stress, how to manage how you do prep, how to be responsible for multiple dishes that are cooked to order. They didn't teach a simple thing like how to sharpen a knife on a stone." Kronner has seen culinary-school graduates who didn't know how to do something as basic as salting a dish. So a culinary-school degree is not going to improve your brother's résumé. Shuna Fish Lydon, a pastry chef at Peels in New York, says that when she's hiring, "all that matters is the trail" (the process of working a test shift). In other words, it doesn't matter if you graduated with top honors from Le Cordon Bleu Paris. If your knife skills suck, you won't get hired.

If your brother is lucky enough to get a job, he may not be prepared for the brutal grind of restaurant work. He'll be on his feet 12 hours a day, possibly with zero bathroom breaks. Lydon remarks: "I go to the bathroom once a day, twice a day if I'm lucky. This is the industry of urinary tract infections." And kitchens can be dangerous places, she warns, not least because of the other people working there. "The kitchen has every kind of -ism that American society has: racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia." People are "harsh, militaristic, and abusive." Early in Lydon's career, her boss attempted to teach her the lesson that a line cook should never grab a pan without a protective towel. Her boss did this by stowing a white-hot cast iron plancha (griddle) in the same compartment as the cold ones. Lydon received "a really horrible burn."

Fortysomethings who are not used to that lifestyle simply can't hack it. Lydon says, "I had a woman come into my kitchen the other day who was between 35 and 45, and she said, 'I'm a regular person, and I need to sit down once in a while.'" Needless to say, the woman wasn't hired.

So how do you set your brother straight? The most diplomatic and effective approach is to let him find out on his own. Suggest that he try restaurant work before he ponies up any culinary-school tuition fees. It may help if you point out that most of his idols probably got their start that way. Your brother can volunteer to work for free at a restaurant he likes. (Kronner says he often accepts such unpaid interns.) Rest assured, after a few nights of your brother getting yelled at because he can't brunoise those carrots fast enough, his "boring" day job is going to look a lot more attractive.

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