15 August 2011

My View of the Culinary School Debate

The public conversation about the merits of culinary schools seems to be getting bigger and more lopsided as – because? – enrollment increases. Or maybe I'm simply more aware of it because, as of this posting, I am in my first week of culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles. To sum up the positions of this conversation:

Those against culinary school say it’s not required. Even more damning, some chefs don’t even like the product that culinary schools spew forth into the hospitality world. The grads are entitled Top Chef wannabes who think their degree comes with a Michelin star, a merch deal, and an invitation to kick back with Bourdain and talk shit about Guy Fieri.

The other side of the conversation is… well, unless you're the admissions rep at the ACME College of Culinary Arts & Anvil Making, there isn’t really another side.

I first started seriously considering culinary school several years ago. Suffice to say, I did a lot of thinking before I pulled the trigger on enrolling. Here are the issues that weighed on me, and how I personally addressed them.

1. You Can Work Your Way Up

This is probably the biggest and most salient argument against going to school. Advancement in professional kitchens is based on ability and working knowledge. Technique training at a school is just that: technique. Even culinary school grads have to start at or near the bottom.

A recent LA Times article highlighted the experiences of several chefs who worked their way up the ladder. Among them is Cole Dickinson, who started bussing tables at 17, received hands-on training from Charlie Palmer, then travelled the world and worked his way up the line. Ten years later, he’s Michael Voltaggio’s chef de cuisine at Ink.

I didn’t go this route because I’m switching careers. I’m not 17 anymore. I am, shall we say, older than that. It doesn’t seem prudent for me to start as a dishwasher and hope the Charlie Palmers of the world will take me under their wing. Plus, while travel is always exciting, I don’t want to drag my wife and dog around the world to chase line cook positions in acclaimed eateries. (Does this lower my career ceiling somewhat? Maybe.)

The LA Times article also highlighted other chefs who, at various ages, started in prep without any experience and worked their butts off. My counter to this is to ask: what’s the relative success rate for people who walk into professional kitchens sight unseen, volunteer for a couple months to prove their merit, then stick with it? How many of these sage master chefs are, you know, good teachers? Are these odds better than culinary school?

I might be willing to find out if I were still 17 or 20 or even… well, you see what I'm getting at. At this point, I’ll take my technique training from the accredited institution.

2. Culinary School Grads Can’t Cook

The folks at Eater often ask chefs about culinary schools and finding good cooks. A few of them touch on the fact that culinary grads don't have good work ethics, or are career climbers more interested in resume-building than in learning a craft, or are simply entitled wannabe chefs who want their restaurant now, damnit.

The inaugural issue of David Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine (which, by the way, is awesome) features a transcription of a conversation between Chang, Anthony Bourdain, and Wylie Dufrense that touches on, among other topics, culinary school grads. Miraculously, Bourdain is the one who comes out looking like an optimist.

“What’s the ratio of kids going to culinary school now who are actually going to contribute to a real kitchen? Like a two-Michelin-star, one-Michelin-star, whatever, a real fucking kitchen. Zero,” Chang says.

“I think, unfortunately, there is more of a mediocratizing of the average culinary-school graduate now than there was way back when,” Dufresne says.

David Chang went to culinary school.

Wylie Dufresne went to culinary school.

Bourdain? Yes, sir, he did, too.

Now, naming successful people who went to culinary school is no better an argument than naming successful people who didn’t. And a fair number of chefs do say that, all things being equal, culinary school is as good an option as any other for learning the basics and getting in the door.

What these chefs are really reacting to is the trendiness of food and starry-eyed foodies deluded by the romance and glamor of kitchens. If that’s you, maybe you should listen to these guys and turn around. At one point I thought it was me and I did turn around. But the desire to learn this craft lingered and grew. My personal motivations are deeper than “this looks cool.” I’m looking to work. Or maybe I’m deluding myself.

3. You’re Too Old

Bourdain devotes an entire chapter of Medium Raw toward answering the culinary school question, in an insightful and even-handed way. He gives a terrific lay of the land about likely post-graduate options, the hierarchy of professional kitchens (basically: gourmet > hotel > Appleby’s > private chef) and also says:

“If you’re thirty-two years old and considering a career in professional kitchens? If you’re wondering if, perhaps, you are too old? Let me answer that question for you: Yes. You are too old. If you’re planning on spending big bucks to go to culinary school at your age, you’d better be doing it for love -- a love, by the way, that will be, almost without a doubt, unreciprocated.”

This particular passage struck me right through the heart; as noted above, I am not 17 years-old. And then I took his advice and volunteered in a kitchen. I noticed that I was not, in fact, surrounded by zombie babies out for my blood. Some were younger than me. Many were, near as I could tell, roughly the same age. The prep guy I shadowed for a day was at least ten years my elder. Obviously, I've been in one kitchen and Bourdain's been it too many to count. But is he saying a Logan’s Run-style doom of the thirty-somethings will befall all cooks? No, he's just saying be prepared to take shit.


(By the way, if you think the Logan's Run reference dates me, it was made before I was born. I like movies, okay?)

4. It’s a Scam

Recently, a class-action lawsuit was filed against San Francisco's California Culinary Academy (which shares a parent company with Le Cordon Bleu) by graduates who claim they were sold the dream of chefdom while their debts accrued and the truth about culinary career paths was neatly tucked aside. Now, I’ve gone through college before and later functioned as a working adult, so I know this: the only thing any college can guarantee is a piece of paper that says you've completed your studies.

Or, to put it another way: If every business school grad who ever held a shitty entry-level job serving coffee, making photocopies, or answering phones turned around and sued their respective institutions of higher learning, we wouldn’t have institutions of higher learning or corporations. Newsflash for those of you in class action lawsuits like this: the hot coffee at McDonald’s is hot.

5. It's Too Expensive

The thing about tuition: there's more than one school. In fact, there are tons of them, big and small. And the tuition varies. So, get your Google on and find one that works.

Some schools are, indeed, not cheap. I was once considering Le Cordon Bleu's associate's degree program, which rang up just shy of $50,000. And then they lowered their prices and I'm in a year-long diploma program that features a $17,500 sticker price. Best deal since the Slap Chop! Holla back, Vince Offer!

One Last Thing

Before my brief volunteer stint in a restaurant, I spoke with the chef de cuisine, who is a Le Cordon Bleu graduate. He stressed that kitchen careers are a lot of low pay and long hours, especially in the beginning. He admitted that most of the people in his class secured prep cook gigs, quickly got disillusioned, then ran back crying to their other careers.

He also said that he knew nothing about cooking before he went to school and eventually landed a gig at Joachim Splichal’s Patina, where he got the chance to work all the kitchen stations. In the end, he said he thought his culinary school time was worth it, and also credited his Patina experience for giving him all the tools he needed to go from cook to chef. It's worth noting that opinion within this particular kitchen was also split. The clincher for me: the guy in charge went to culinary school.

In everything I've read and everyone I've spoken to, the one key to success in the restaurant world seems to be hard work. Which, frankly, isn't really unique to professional kitchens.

Ultimately, I think that's the best way to answer the question of going to culinary, or any, school. You're going to learn some basics. And then you have to go to work. From where I'm standing, that seems like a fair deal.

1 comment:

  1. I just stumbled across your blog and it's very entertaining! It seems very different in the States. I live in Australia and the formula for becoming a chef is very straightforward - Do an apprenticeship for four years, and go to TAFE (which is the national school for blue collar jobs). That is the way to earn the title 'chef' in Australia. The cost is a few hundred a semester (three hundred/six months) and the course lasts for two years. If you can't afford the fee normally there are government help schemes where you don't have to pay it. It's interesting to hear about how it works in other worlds though.