Call it chef appeal.
The profile of cooking careers has risen in recent years, thanks to the popularity of television shows such as Bravo's Top Chef and the Food Network's Iron Chef. Celebrity chefs are the new rock stars, with personalities like Guy Fieri and Anthony Bourdain becoming household names.
Any one of the dozens of cooking shows currently on TV have certainly encouraged cooking novices to try their hand at that souffle or exotic ingredient. Still others may be inspired to follow in their footsteps and pursue a career in the food industry themselves.
"The media does a great job of romanticizing the life and career of today's chefs, and many students bite on the idea," says Jamie Rotter, instructor of culinary arts at Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, N.Y.
Whether they're high school students considering alternatives to the typical bachelor's experience or professionals looking to make a career change, there's no lack of culinary schools to provide the training. According to the Careers through Culinary Arts Program, more than 700 schools in the United States offer culinary courses. Programs can range from six-month certificates that train students for prep cook and line cook positions to master's degree programs for those interesting in teaching. In general, a culinary education will teach students foundations in techniques, ingredients, and cooking theories and prepare students for a variety of positions within the industry.
While there are plenty of options when it comes to culinary school, there are also plenty of debates. Like other creative professions, where you can learn the tools of the trade on the job, the value of a degree in culinary arts is perpetually questioned. Add to that the reality of rising tuition costs, low salary potential, and what some students see as falling standards at culinary schools, and culinary arts education has never been in more flux.
The Culinary Degree Debate
Last month, about 90 students walked out of classes at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y. They cited falling educational standards that make the institution more a "chef factory" than a prestigious culinary school among their grievances.
This isn't the first time students at the institution walked out, either. In 2008, they protested what they saw as slipping academic requirements, as well as shoddy equipment. Other culinary schools across the country have also been the target of complaints — even lawsuits — from students who felt misled about the value of their culinary degree and their job prospects after graduating. Multiple culinary schools run by the for-profit Career Education have been hit with lawsuits involving hundreds of students in recent years, including one settled in 2010 in which Career Education agreed to pay $40 million to students who charged that its California Culinary Academy misled them with its claim that nearly 100% of graduates got jobs in the field. While the school may vary, each suit features a similar story: a hopeful student plunking down $30,000 a year for tuition, only to find entry-level work at $8 an hour upon graduation.
Cases of actual fraud are rare, but it is easy to see why students may feel frustrated by their culinary career prospects. Tuition at a private culinary school can run upwards of $30,000 a year — a bachelor's degree amounting to more than $100,000 — while the average restaurant cook can expect to make $23,300 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
"I think that the incident at the CIA may be isolated, but the sentiment that caused it is not," says Rotter. "Students have a great fear that they will not be able to pay their bills when they leave college for the work force."
The straw that usually breaks the camel's back, says Rotter, is the fact that many of the skills students learn in school while paying tens of thousands of dollars can also be learned on the job while getting paid. Few chefs interviewed in an informal survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times recommended culinary school, and none of them said it was necessary.
At the same time, changes are under way in today's culinary schools that may make the degree worth your while. While culinary education used to be taught in a more vocational style, providing you with enough of a basic skill set to get a job, programs are changing to better prepare students to tackle issues like sustainability and sourcing. They're also equipping students for jobs that didn't exist two decades ago with titles like food scientist, sports nutritionist, and research and development chef.
These changes can be found at Johnson & Wales University, which has campuses in Providence, North Miami, Denver, and Charlotte. In 2014, the school is poised to introduce a new culinary curriculum that it says will bring the "practical, scientific, and creative aspects of the kitchen into balance."
The school has enlisted Modernist Cuisine co-author Chris Young to help develop this new curriculum, which emphasizes science as much as culinary craft. For example, students may learn how much water is in a vegetable, which can help them determine how to cook and use it. By focusing on the what as well as the how, the plan is to help students better understand how science applies to food — in turn making them better chefs and paving the way for alterative career paths in areas like food manufacturing, culinary nutrition, and research and development.
"We are always developing and reexamining the way our education is delivered," says Jorge de la Torre, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University's Denver Campus. "This is happening because we understand different learning methods. … We listen to industry to see what they are looking for in a graduate. It is ever-evolving."
Students are also turning to highly specialized culinary schools such as the Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts, a professional culinary academy based in Austin, Texas, that's devoted to training cooks in a health-supportive, plant-based diet. Since relocating to a new space in 2011, the academy has been expanding, adding a second kitchen that more than doubles its size and increasing its faculty, staff, and student services to accommodate growing demand for its professional culinary program.
"It's a niche market that's going to explode in the next couple of years," says chef instructor Inge Bothma, who trained within the standard culinary education system and now teaches from a more holistic and sustainable perspective, including topics in vegetarianism, veganism, and raw foods. "People are realizing there's something to this plant-based life."
The more forward-thinking culinary programs are also providing students looking to pursue a more typical job as a chef with an opportunity to develop both their cooking and business skills to better prepare them for the realities of the restaurant business.
"The chefs of yesteryear were skilled craftsmen rather than managers," says Rotter. "Today's chef must be able to manage as well as cook."
At the same time, because today's culinary programs follow less of an apprenticeship model, where students work in real-life settings to perfect their craft and then take some classes on the side to supplement what they learned on the job, students may need to create additional opportunities for themselves outside of a weekly lab to develop their skills.
"It is now a game of exposure, and students have to find their own path in getting sufficient repetitions to become proficient in techniques," says Rotter.
The biggest change to education in general has been the proliferation of online courses. According to a recent survey of online learning by the Sloan Consortium, more students than ever (32%) now take at least one course online. And thanks to resources like live web-based lectures, live webcam instruction, and blog tutorials, some culinary programs are even heading in that direction, too. The New England Culinary Institute (NECI), a 30-plus-year-old culinary school in Montpelier, Vt., recently added a fully online Bachelor of Arts in culinary arts that covers advanced culinary techniques, nutrition, and practices in perseveration and sustainability, as well as entrepreneurship and management.
Given the hands-on nature of a culinary degree, the likely students for these types of programs are those who are already working in the food service industry. Indeed, the NECI program is geared towards students who have previous college education and some level of industry experience, with the ideal candidate able to apply the skills taught in the classroom to a live food service environment.
Is Culinary School Right for You?
If you've found yourself swayed by the allure of a life spent in the kitchen, you may be torn between getting your training through a culinary school or on the job. There are pros and cons to both. A culinary degree may leave you in debt and delay your career by a few years, but you'll be able to make valuable connections and gain a broader perspective of the industry. By learning on the job, you won't accrue any debt and can start your career right away, but you'll be competing for jobs with people who have more experience and training thanks to their culinary degree.
Before committing to a culinary program, de la Torre recommends getting your feet wet by working in a restaurant, hotel, or bakery, even just for one night a week.
"Is it what you thought it was going to be? Does the Food Channel make it more glamorous than it is? Do you like the hours?" says de la Torre. "This is your responsibility before you and your family make sacrifices, financial decisions, and move mountains to get you to school."
Before committing, Rotter always suggests that students first determine if their interest in culinary arts is love or infatuation. If it's a genuine interest, and the student has a firm understanding of the industry and the culinary program, he recommends going to school.
"Without a degree, they have no options, no fall back, no way of even getting an interview for that job, regardless of their skills," says Rotter.
It's important to remember that a degree isn't a fast track to the top. With or without a degree, breaking into the culinary industry can take time, and cooks can spend several years working at the bottom before they make it to where they want to be. If you go the culinary school route, you'll also have to make the most of the degree yourself, getting whatever you can out of classes, lectures, labs, and cooking opportunities to prepare you for life after graduation. The more you know about your options and interests, the better you can tailor your skill set and break into a competitive, yet rewarding, industry.