Before I committed to attending culinary school, I scoured the internet for advice, tips, recommendations and flat-out help. I was typing phrases like, is culinary school worth it? into Google and finding no useful information.
Let’s face it: culinary school is a huge commitment. It’s a financial mountain to climb (it is insanely pricy) and you find out very quickly if this is the industry for you or not. If not, it can feel like waste of time, effort and money. Besides, I found myself wondering if I couldn’t just learn all that technique stuff from Food Network and my collection of food magazines.
Because I guarantee there are other people out there asking the same questions, I’m going to compile a list of things I didn’t know I would face in culinary school. Hopefully this is useful for those who are frantically typing into Google, culinary school advice and CIA vs Johnson and Wales.
I’ve been there. I feel you.
1. This is not home cooking.
I’ll tell you right now: culinary school is not for people who ‘just want to learn how to cook.’ There are optional classes open the public for that, classes that are funny and charming and teach useful advice and tricks for home kitchens. Culinary school, however, is trained to educate future chefs. The students are being launched into the industry with all the information needed to kickstart a culinary career. If you just kinda want to learn how to cook to impress the neighbors at your next dinner party, don’t invest all that time and money into culinary school. Trust me.
2. Classes are 90% cleaning, 10% cooking.
This is not a bad thing! You learn how to cook, sure, but once the demos and the practical kitchen days are over, you have to clean top to bottom. And by “clean” I am referring to using bowl-you-over asphyxiating oven cleaner, potent degreaser and plenty of sudsy water. Every dish you dirty has to be scrubbed. Every surface you use has to shine. And every move you make has to be efficient–don’t waste time cleaning. Just get it done.
You’ll get to know how to clean and store industrial equipment, how to scrub the tiniest nooks and crannies and the proper way to clean your pots and pans.
(This becomes useful in home life, as you will find yourself doing dishes with gusto and knocking out equipment with ease.)
3. Say goodbye to your forearms.
And your fingers, while you’re at it. Cooks start to develop superhuman hands after a while simply from being around all that hot, sharp equipment. You will burn your forearms countless times, and they’ll scar. You’ll also be proud of those scars because they show you beat that screaming hot oven or pan. You will compare them to others and talk about your battle scars like they’re medals.
(You will not share stories of stupid things you did to get burned, like grabbing a hot pan with a wet towel–heat travels faster through a wet towel, turning to steam and burning the shenangians out of your hands–or learning how to use a knife without looking at your cutting board. That’s common sense. Keep your dumb mistake stories to yourself.)
4. You’ll develop a Kitchen Voice.
A kitchen voice is loud, concise, urgent and practical. Even if you’re small and quiet, you will learn quickly to fight for your voice.
Terminology will start to come easily to you, phrases like, “Hot behind!” “Sharp!” “Behind you!” will merge into your everyday life. “Heard!” will become a popular response, even outside the kitchen.
It becomes apparently very quickly that if you don’t tell someone–loudly– that you’re coming behind with something hot, sharp or potentially easy to drop, someone could get hurt or yelled at, and you don’t want it to be you.
5. The classmates are weirdos.
The best possible weirdos, of course. (And maybe some of the worst, you can never really tell.) Culinary is an art, and like all arts, the people can be a tad bit off-kilter. There are the young and ambitious fresh-out-of-high school students ready to take the culinary world by a storm, the vocational-school types who never really aced (or passed) high school but can work with their hands, and there are the career changers who want a fresh career and are willing to work hard at their second chance.
They might be strange. They might be all ages and come from all backgrounds, but everyone has the same thing in common: food. You can learn a lot about people by their styles of cooking, and that variety will help your own cooking grow. They’re some of the best people you will ever meet.
6. The Freshman Fifteen is more like the Freshman… Thirty.
When you make food the focus of your life and education, it starts to show. At my school, it hits everyone right around Baking and Pastry class. French cuisine is nearly all butter and wine, and as you can imagine, it takes a toll. I’m warning you now: you can’t go to culinary school and not gain weight. It just doesn’t work like that.
7. Dining out will never be the same.
Restaurants become places of interest. The staff suddenly becomes interesting, swinging kitchen doors start to catch your eye. And, probably most significantly, you can look at a menu and think, I’m paying HOW MUCH for THAT? You start thinking in terms of food cost and value for what you’re ordering. It can’t be helped. And you’ll be terribly conscious of safety and sanitation after learning exactly how terribly the results of poor sanitation can be.
On the flip side, you start to appreciate food so much it changes the whole dining experience. You can appreciate a fresh loaf of bread when it hits the table. You can beam with glee over a perfectly-cooked steak. You can eye a meal and think, “I can make that, easy,” or “Wow, what genius came up with that?”
8. You become a darn good cook.
A mostly-empty refrigerator becomes a Chopped challenge. Once the basic techniques are engrained in your subconscious and muscle memory, you can master pretty much anything in your kitchen.
People will also want you to cook for them.
They will be embarrassed to cook for you, thinking you’ll judge their food. (In reality, you’ll just think it’s nice someone cooked for you for a change.)
Torwards the end of school you’ll be able to look back and think, I remember when I was learning how to make a brown roux. How quaint to think I didn’t know how.
9. The school you choose depends on your preferences.
The Culinary Institute of America is the top culinary school in the US, and it has so many celebrity chefs in the industry it is unreal. They teach everything you need to know and it looks fantastic to have graduated from the CIA. But it is insanely, tremendously pricy. Essentially, you’re paying for the name. Cooking is cooking across the board, the same techniques apply no matter where you are. The CIA just looks bright and shiny and has lots of impressive grads.
Johnson and Wales (affectionately referred to as J-Wu) is along the same lines. It looks nice to have graduated from their university, but you’re learning the same information you can get anywhere else. They offer other programs as well, so they’re not strictly culinary. There are quite a few scholarships available for them, but the price tag is still high.
Le Cordon Bleu, unlike J-Wu, is strictly culinary and pastry, also offering hospitality programs. I myself am a Le Cordon Bleu student, and I absolutely adore the school. Their Career Services department alone is phenomenal–they place students in jobs even after graduation. The door is always open. And again, it’s the same information that is available at the CIA or J-Wu, but the price tag is significantly lower.
(Although they do tend to market to the extreme–lots of phone calls, lots of flyers. It was a turn-off for me at first, but it worked out in the end! They have wonderful enrollment advisors.)
I hemmed and hawed and wracked my brain for the answer on where I should attend school. Since attending Le Cordon Bleu, there is no doubt in my mind I made the right choice. It may not be the right fit for you– I’m not trying to push LCB on anyone. But I have never had an issue with them, and I have gotten a great education. I love my chefs to death.
Side note: a lot of this depends on your goals. My goal was to work at Disney World in a culinary position, so I chose the Le Cordon Bleu Orlando campus. I was hired a month after starting school with Disney, who recruits directly out of the school. I’ve been at Disney over a year, and I met a lot of students that were working on Externship from other schools that were in the same position that I was–a position that was my springboard, rather than my final destination.
Instead of reaching Disney on externship as my final goal, it was my first culinary job right off the bat. Attending LCB Orlando was, for me, the right thing to do.
10. This might not be the industry for you.
The culinary underworld is full of artists, but it’s also full of knives and fire. It requires the ability to lift heavy things, have great endurance and not mind endless hours on your feet. Working on weekends and holidays is part of the job. There’s not a lot of sunlight or free time in the kitchen, it’s a hot den full of shouting people. Chefs are not always friendly people, and this is a territorial and cutthroat industry where you have to earn your way to the next stop. Don’t expect to slack off and get anywhere. It requires plain, old-fashioned work. It’s not easy. But many thrive off of the tension and insanity of working the line, and it’s an adrenaline rush like no other.
You will learn very quickly if this is the industry for you. It’s smart to do your research before committing to culinary school and make sure you’re headed the right direction.
11. You’ll develop an unhealthy obsession with knives.
Bragging about your new eight-inch santoku knife is a way of life. A new knife inspires the kind of joy reserved for marriage proposals and climbing Mount Everest.
Additionally, you will begin to smell like food all the time. (I didn’t really want a subhead for this one, but it’s true.)
Ultimately, culinary school is one of the best decisions you could ever make.
The sense of pride that comes from being a part of a kitchen staff is unparalleled. Chefs and cooks are tough. And they are highly skilled. (Knives? Heck yeah.) This is a wonderful decision to make, and since I’ve attended culinary school I have never once doubted I made the right decision.
If you’re ready to dive into a fastpaced and insanely wonderful industry, this is the way to do it. I hope I’ve answered at least a few questions for anonymous researches out there like I was.