Formal Training?



The CIA, the now nation wide Cordon Bleu, the Art Institute, the French Culinary Academy and others have taken over what was once the state function of trade training. Charging anywhere from $50,000 to over six figures for a trade job, they provide some candidates with a clear path to positions rivaling longer and pricier education at law schools.  


You want to be a chef. Do you need them?




Well, it depends.


Chefs and employers are divided on the issue. Some of the best chefs I know have not  had formal training and are adamantly opposed to it. Some who have had it are equally set against culinary schools, but:


In twenty years I have found that chefs with formal training on the whole do better than those who worked their way up from the trenches. Given twenty resumes, ten with training and ten without, over half of those with a solid foundation in theory and practice have achieved success and are in a position to pick and choose jobs. Perhaps a third of  hose without do.


You can be successful without formal training. The likelihood is greater with it. Whether this is due to the school, however, is unclear. For one thing the training process is open to people predisposed to succeed, as they are investing time and money in the process. The trenches, on the other hand, collect among the righteous a handful of people who just fell into the field and go job to job. In theory, furthermore, a candidate with professional training is going to have more motivation to stay at a job when things get tough - something someone with no investment may not feel.


There are a few possible reasons that a good culinary program ought to provide a better foundation than on the street training:



Those people who do best with schools are those who enter with the correct attitude. Not those who see themselves as Gordon Ramsey’s next star child or those who already know that their cuisine is going to rock the planet as soon as they graduate, but those who realize that they have years of hard work and little authority between graduation and the success which they at some point will attain. 


This does not mean, however, that you have to go to a school. But you have to make your work place your education.


Even with formal education you can expect to spend seven years in the trenches before having chef responsibility. That is the minimum. The most successful graduates spend more. Trenches trump training. (European chefs begin to train at about sixteen and don’t get their first chef job until well into their late twenties or early thirties.)


It is harder to get from dishwasher to recognized professional executive without schools, but it is not impossible. Some of the top chefs in the country did not. Some behaviors raise your odds:


If you do decide to go to a culinary school, there are many. Culinary Schools Dot Com gives a fairly complete list. There are more.


The school does not need, however to be “A League”. As a matter of fact, A league schools are often less successful than the local community college. Most employers are seeking attitude, focus and solid basic skills rather than glamour or a complete understanding of fusion or the hot cuisine of the day – which is often what the colleges promise. Real apprenticeships are rare, but especially for  hotel jobs they provide excellent training.  


The possible advantage of a public school – I have a few secrets up my sleeve I only share with really good friends – is that the level of application from the student is often  greater. The disadvantage is often that the age is higher as well, as more mature people are harder to boss around, and being bossed around is one of the surest ways to solid skills. Whether you go to public or private school, your first jobs are what are going to guide your career. Some chefs prefer cooks from non private institutions.


There are a few middle solutions: Public community colleges which charge for the extra cost of culinary training – at last report about $12,000 for a full course. If you can find one, you will  have the best of both worlds.


If you or your child interested in entering the field is in school, a trade program, if you are lucky enough to have one near, is an excellent beginning. It lays a foundation to make the advanced academy or college or apprenticeship program more meaningful. You need to be sure the child understands that he is entering a trade, not the wild world of the food channel. If there is doubt, let him go to a regular local college or city college for a general degree -  better yet, busines, as it will come in useful) and work in a restaurant to help raise money for tuition.


One thing that will make formal training more effective (and prevent you from wasting money) is working before entering. The first job may be cleaning fish, washing dishes, working in the salad station. It need not be in a fine dining restaurant, but it should not be fast food.


One caution:  Be aware of the difference between an apprentice and a mentor: An apprentice is someone who works for a state or organization (ACF) sanctioned program with a set curriculum, a final qualifying test and certification. Working for a European chef in his two man kitchen for minimum wage is not an apprenticeship.