I would suspect that many aspiring culinary students envision culinary school as one long “cooking class.” You go to a kitchen and a grumpy chef shows you how to make something, you repeat the process while he shakes his head and grunts. You make mistakes and learn from your mistakes, etc. There’s pressure, but it’s a fun kind of pressure.
Well, this is not the experience of most former culinary students. Culinary school, for the most part, is school. Even if it is a vocational rather than a liberal program, you will have homework. You may even have a great deal of homework. You will also have pop quizzes and final exams. Undoubtedly, you will have projects. You may even have to write papers!
You will be expect to learn a great deal of information. A lot of it will be math related. There is lots of math in the professional kitchen. You will need to be familiar with different units of measure and unit conversions. You’ll have to deal with weights versus volume, and even converting between the two. Some other math related problems:
- recipe scaling
- yield percent
- purchasing and cost control
- costing recipes
And, that’s just the math. You may know how to cook the perfect “x” but can you list the exact steps? This may be expected of you. The purpose of culinary school is not to prepare you to work in a restaurant kitchen as if you are a veteran. It is to cram a great deal of basic information into your head in short period of time. You will not make one hundred hollandaise sauces until you can do it in your sleep. There is just no time. You will know theoretically how to make it perfect, along with many other techniques.
This is not to say that you cannot get a huge amount of hands-on experience in culinary school, it simply depends on the curriculum. There may be over a thousands hours hands-own learning, or they may just be several hundred. And, there is a reason for the homework and everything else you do. A proper culinary education in a good culinary school will give you a distinct advantage over those who learn on the job. You will get a much more broad experience! Some of those who opted not to go to cooking school tend to think that this allowed them to be “more creative” in their approach to cooking. However, it is the familiarity with a broad range of techniques and flavors that provide the spark to kindle even more creativity in your career to come.
You should have realistic expectations going into culinary school and realistic expectations coming out. A good expectation is that your classes, both “lecture hall” and kitchen classrooms will be rigorous and demanding. You will be challenged. But it is a basic and theoretical education, not the equivalent of working in a restaurant. Internships and apprenticeships better prepare you for this. Some schools will even offer opportunities to study abroad. Much of what you learn will not serve you at all once you enter the work-force. In this way, culinary school is no different than any other post-secondary education.
Some schools, such as the Culinary Schools at the Art Institutes, may have student-run restaurants. A famous example is the Caterina de’ Medici restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park. Many programs will have internships built in, depending on the particular track you enter into. This additional experience could be invaluable, but consider the cost, as well, because regardless of the experience you gain in school, you will still be starting at the bottom once you graduate.
You may also want to consider working in a restaurant before going to culinary school, to help you figure out what you want to do and better prepare yourself for what lies ahead.
If you are planning to go to culinary school, remember that you will be going to school, not a fancy version of home-economics. Culinary school is a foundation that will help prepare you for your career, but just like any other education, it does not make your career for you. Consider, as well, whether you want a more liberal or vocation education.
What’s the difference? A vocational style of culinary school focuses only on what you need for your culinary career. There are not as many electives (although there may be some). A liberal education is a “liberal arts” type of education that will round out your learning with other courses, such as perhaps business classes or English composition.