Is culinary school right for you? Pros and Cons of Being a Chef
Looking to break into the food industry and wondering if culinary school is the ticket in? It all depends on the individual, say the chefs we spoke to.
Culinary school can be a great way for some to launch a career in the food industry, but there are far too many factors making it difficult to know for sure if culinary school is a right fit for you.
Students with no professional experience might find it necessary to achieve basic skills before starting their journey into a fast-paced kitchen environment.
For others, suffering through what can be a brutal, trial-by-fire restaurant atmosphere with no previous culinary training is still the right — and cheaper — way to go.
Either way, the decision to attend culinary school should be a personal choice that benefits you, and not be based on impressing a hiring manager or chef.
“They need that knowledge. It is so important. But being involved in an actual kitchen and working with a chef is a must. They’re both important,” says Steve Tsirtsis, owner/chef at Citrus City Grille in Orange.
He says a degree or certificate is not a determining factor for new hires, but it can help get you in the door.
Whether you have a degree or not, however, expect to start at the bottom, he said.
Chef Ross Pangilinan of Terrace by Mix Mix in Costa Mesa says school is fine for teaching the basics, but nothing beats on-the-job training.
“It’s rare to find someone coming out of culinary school who knows how to do everything, and do all of it at the same time,” he says. “Culinary school sets a good foundation, but learning to cook takes time.”
When hiring cooks, chefs say experience, attitude and work ethic are just as important as a degree from culinary school.
Here are some of the pros and cons of culinary arts:
The PROS of a Culinary Arts Education
- Networking: Culinary students often have the availability to network with local chefs, instructors and other students to position themselves for a job in the right kitchen for them.
Setting a career path: Cooking school introduces and trains students on a wide range of career paths within the food industry. A student can figure out if he or she is better suited for a career as a line cook, a pastry chef, caterer, or even a restaurant manager.
- Easier transition: Learning the basics prepares a culinary student for real life in a kitchen. A student who walks in the door with good knife skills, cooking techniques and a knowledge of kitchen equipment and kitchen lingo will have a quicker transition.
- Discipline: Some kitchens are run with military-like precision. Knowing the hierarchy of the kitchen staff, and knowing what is expected of you as a professional is an important lesson — one that is better learned during a less hectic classroom environment.
The CONS of a Culinary Arts Education
- School costs: Culinary school is expensive — up to $110,000 for a bachelor’s degree or $15,000 to $54,000 for a certificate or a two-year associate’s degree. Not unlike other college educations, culinary school could leave you in debt. A graduate with a 20-year, $25,000 student loan debt can expect to pay $150 a month, according to U.S. News and World Report.
- Low pay: Whether you have a degree or not, most cooks start out earning near minimum wage. A rookie prep cook making $12 and hour full-time earns less than $2,000 a month gross pay. The average cost of rent in Orange County is $2,027 a month, according to RENTCafe. Culinary school does not guarantee a high-paying job.
- Restaurant experience: Nothing beats real kitchen experience, according to our chefs. If you have some kitchen experience, and you have a good work ethic, are passionate about cooking, work well with others and are willing to learn, that is as — if not more — valuable as culinary school is to hiring managers.
So when deciding whether cooking school is the right course on the road to a career in culinary, the choice really depends on the individual.
If you learn quickly and can’t afford to spend years paying for culinary school, then you might be better off getting a foot in the door and moving up the hard way. Many famous chefs started out this way.
But if you want to learn the basics, gain focus, and enter the field better prepared, and you have the time and the drive, then culinary school may be right for you.