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The case for, and against, culinary school


Ever consider going to culinary school?

It's worth considering, especially in these lean times, whether it's worth spending tens of thousands of dollars on culinary school. Unlike lawyers or doctors, chefs require no accreditation. And while an ace law, business, or medical school grad can quickly earn six-figure salaries, a culinary school graduate is lucky to make 15 bucks an hour working the line.

"Every time I write that $400 check to pay back my loans, I kick myself," says Marco Saurez, executive chef at Bon Savor in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. As a teenager he worked at a deli, and later at a catering company. One day, his boss took him for a visit to the CIA's idyllic campus in Hyde Park, which overlooks the Hudson River. "I fell in love," Suarez says. He enrolled in the 38-month Bachelor of Professional Studies Program, which includes long externships in outside restaurants. "It was really at the externships that I learned the most, and now I wonder why I didn't just take a $25,000 loan and use that to survive while working my way up in a kitchen." Today, tuition, room, and board for the full bachelor's program cost more than $100,000.

In November, Ben Miller looked into the data on culinary school and came away fairly impressed: Culinary students pay back their loans at unusually high rates, which suggests that they're getting decent jobs and finding themselves able to make ends meet. Whether the culinary degree is necessary, however, is harder to say. Maybe aspiring chefs could do just as well begging their way into the kitchen and racking up two years of workplace training. Any readers have experience with this?

Photo credit: By Mark Gail/The Washington Post

By Ezra Klein  |  January 14, 2010; 8:33 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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""Maybe aspiring chefs could do just as well begging their way into the kitchen and racking up two years of workplace training.""

Everyone I know who started a successful restaurant started out doing the low-level work in someone else's restaurant, saving his money, and then going into business for himself (or with a partner). It was never the "sexy" restaurant business (mostly family dining, pizza, etc.), but none of them failed, and none of them depended on raising money from venture capitalists. No one I knew did it by going to culinary school.

It's not that surprising: restaurants are heavily capital intensive, and becoming successful depends more on having money that can be turned into tangible assets and a good location rather than possessing formally trained culinary expertise.

Another thing is that unlike school loans, the money you borrow to start a restaurant is dischargeable into bankruptcy.

Posted by: tyromania | January 14, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I can't speak to the culinary industry, but in the software development industry the idea of going to college to learn to develop software is coming up more and more. As example check out this blog post on software craftsmanship. It ignited a firestorm of additional blog postings within the software development community. The author is a well writer, speaker and software developer.

If you search for articles on education on the Association of Computing Machinary Website ( you'll find that there's been more soul searching about what to teach and how to teach it.

To help illustrate the point, take a look at any of your electronic devices. They all have problems, like viruses for windows, not doing the right and being to complex. A specific example the digital TV. It's running software. Is your TV running reliably? Many people are having problems.

The majority of software developers go to college. Considering how badly software works, what are they learning? It's not about how to build software. It's the basics of Computer Science. Learning to write software takes time and experience. Most people could get that from working with good professionals that already have that experience without the expense of paying for school.

From what's been described, culinary school is about getting into a program that can place students with professionals to work with and train. Some students probably can't find them on their own, so going to school may help them. If you can find those people yourself, it's probably not worth it.

A bachelor's degree doesn't guarantee a good paying job or even a job at all. It's time to re-asses how we educate people in this country.

Posted by: just_watching | January 14, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

I assume, without knowing, that working food service is a lot like any profession, and credentials matter the higher up the prestige chain you go. For example, you can be a lawyer by graduating from the law school that's is dead last on the US News survey. But you're not going to clerk on the Supreme Court; you've got to go to Harvard, Yale, etc. if you want to do that.

Same with food. You can work at a restaurant world simply by working your way up in the kitchen of your local family-owned restaurant. But you're probably never going be Thomas Keller's sous chef. That's when you need culinary school credentials.

But, as I said, this is just my assumption, and I could be wrong.

Posted by: JEinATL | January 14, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Don't quit your day job Ezra ;)

Posted by: rosshunter | January 14, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I'm guessing that JEinATL is correct that, the higher you go, the more credentialing matters.

But it is my understanding that your local community college is likely to have just as good of a culinary program as the much more expensive place down the way. I'd like to know if my understanding is incorrect.

Posted by: Klug | January 14, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

My brother started in the dish pit of a local restaurant back when he was still a street rat. He moved to prep cook and eventually worked his way up to writing dinner menus and running the line. He leveraged that experience to a low-level job at one of the region's most reputable restaurants, and has been working his way up ever since. He's got great experience, a great resume, and a great culinary future.

That said, he just enrolled in culinary school and starts this summer. Sure, you can learn the skills without a degree, but if you're serious about cooking as a career then a degree can take you further than old-fashioned know-how.

Posted by: joshuadbishop | January 14, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

In addition to teaching a lot of formal stuff about cooking, culinary schools often also teach you how to run a restaurant. Obviously you can learn that by apprenticeship too, but so very many restaurants and other small businesses fail on the management side rather than the product/service. In addition, as with journalism schools, law schools and lots of other specialty graduate programs, the big thing you get is not so much the credentials as the contacts. Whatever upper-scale restaurant/publication/firm you want to work at, you'll probably know someone who knows someone who works there.

Posted by: paul314 | January 15, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

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