Should you go to culinary school or right to work? 

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Back in June, a friend texted me asking if most of the chefs that I knew had gone to cooking school. I posted the question to my Facebook and got a lot of great answers from various chefs around the city, who all said more or less the same thing. First, make sure you really want to be a chef before sinking your money into cooking school, and second, do not think you are a chef just because you have graduated from a culinary program.

Across a lot of fields, for-profit schools are eroding the integrity of the industries they are supposed to be supplying educated workers for. They are, but in the process of trying to get their students to buy their product instead of the other place, they have to make a lot of promises about what a culinary degree entitles them to.

"A lot of these kids come out of school and, well, they're fucking assholes," laughed Neal Brown Hospitality Group's (Pizzology and Libertine) Head of Operations and chef Erin Till. "They think they are chefs on their first day." That sense of entitlement translates to young chefs who don't want to put in the time (as in years) it takes to move up off of the line.

Seasoned chefs are protective of the title "Chef," as it is like having four stripes on a military uniform. The term reflects years of line experience and is not thrown around lightly in kitchens, a tradition that dates back to the military-style kitchen rankings in France. First, says Till, you have to be cognizant that culinary school makes you a cook, while time, study and sweat make you a chef.

click to enlarge Chef Erin Till
  • Chef Erin Till

Till calls herself a culinary school dropout, which is only really part of the story. She attended a Chicago school that, during her tenure there, changed from non-profit to for-profit. In that time, she said, the whole feel of the institution changed. After she was hired by the restaurant where she was interning on her second day, she decided to save her money and finish her education on the job. Even in an accelerated program with mostly adults coming into cooking as a second career, she was looking at two and a half years of schooling. They brought her in for an interrogation-like exit interview and treated her being hired by a restaurant — ostensibly their shared goal — as if it were a negative. But she had gotten all the basic skills that she needed to start working and, like any normal person, wanted to stop spending money and start making it.

"Working chefs don't have time to bring you up on your knife skills. You need to be able to hit the ground running," she says. For that, schooling is valuable. That seemed to be the consensus of the other chefs who chimed into the conversation, too.

"School gives you base knowledge, fundamentals and history. It makes you ready for an entry-level position," said Cerulean Executive Chef Alan Sternberg. He spent some time slinging Waldorf salads and burgers at Ruby Tuesday's long before he earned the title of Chef, all of which influenced his knowledge in the kitchen.

click to enlarge Chef Alan Sternberg
  • Chef Alan Sternberg

"Every chef has a different way of doing almost everything that is dictated by their experiences. That's why it's important to work for multiple chefs, so you have a well-rounded point of view and you can make decisions about what is important to you," he says. And he does mean everything, from knife preferences to ingredients.

Fun fact about Chef Sternberg: Even though he has the job so many other chefs want, he still stages (interns for free) at restaurants throughout the region, keeping his own exec status quiet while he works in other kitchens. He says it helps him keep his technique and ideas fresh, and anyone who has eaten at Cerulean during his tenure knows that it's working.

Having a culinary degree is also helpful when you're trying to get into hotels or move up in a corporately-owned restaurant, where there is often a lot more security with perks like health benefits and higher salaries. But Till says it's unlikely to make a difference to a privately-owned independent restaurant. Though that may be a less lucrative avenue, independent owners are more likely to care about what you're putting on the plate than what is hanging on your wall.

All the most successful chefs I know have one thing in common: they've worked in kitchens for a really, really long time. The ones who went to school often did so after working in kitchens in entry-level positions like prep cooks and dishwashers. They were intimately familiar with the mechanics of the food business, but they wanted a specific kind of knowledge. When it comes to something as precise as pastries, formal schooling can be incredibly valuable.

"For a baker, there is so much science involved. Everything happens for a reason," said Circle City Sweets owner and pastry chef Cindy Hawkins. "Unless you do a lot of reading and experimenting, it's hard to learn a lot of that on the job."

[Click here to read about Hawkins' trip to the World Food Championships this week in Florida]

Everyone came to the same conclusion to the question, "School or experience?" Their answer was "Both."

If you're considering a career in the restaurant business as a chef, first you should work in a restaurant for a while. If you have no cooking experience, go wash dishes or cut onion rings and listen and pay attention to what the chef and line cooks are doing. If it seems like an environment you can handle for 20 to 40 more years, look for non-profit culinary programs. They're less likely to over-promise a career to you, and plain and simple, you should not attend any program that promises you a head chef job straight out of school. And unless you have on-the-job experience, do not kid yourself about your value to your employer just because you know the difference between a mince and a dice. The consensus among chefs is that you are as good as you work to become, and there is always an opportunity to become a better chef both in and outside the kitchen.


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Sarah Murrell

Sarah Murrell

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Sarah Murrell covers all things food, beverages and sometimes gives decent sex and relationship advice. You can stream her consciousness on Twitter, if that's where life has brought you.

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