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Guide to Culinary Arts Programs & Career Cooking Schools

How to Choose a Career Cooking School
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How to Choose a Career Cooking School

As an aspiring chef, you can begin your culinary education a variety of ways. How do you choose from the more than 500 apprenticeships, vocational schools, and college and university programs the one that's best suited to your needs? First, consider the eight questions below. Then read our interview with Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, co-authors of Becoming a Chef, an essential resource for anyone considering a culinary career. Do you have what it takes to become a top chef? Compare yourself to nearly 400 of the top chefs in the world who responded to ShawGuides' Survey of Leading Chefs.

How long is the program?
Career programs range from a few weeks to three or four years. Curricula for programs of a year or less consist primarily of culinary courses that prepare you for an entry level position. Two- and four-year degree programs include general education courses and electives that provide a more well-rounded education. The 3-year apprenticeship program sponsored by the American Culinary Federation offers paid on-the-job training in a foodservice establishment as well as the opportunity to earn a college degree.

Is it affordable?
Tuition ranges from a few hundred dollars at community colleges to over $10,000 per program or year at trade schools that offer a specialized curriculum. If cost is an obstacle, inquire about scholarships or loans, which are offered by many schools and some culinary organizations.

What are the scheduling options?
If you’re unable to attend classes full-time, consider programs that permit you to enroll part-time or offer flexible schedules.

How qualified is the faculty?
Instructor credentials should include certification by the American Culinary Federation, college degree, and/or industry experience.

Is the school accredited?
A school in operation for five years or more should be accredited. Colleges are accredited by one of six regional associations, private and trade schools by three organizations. The American Culinary Federation accredits 90+ post-secondary institution programs in culinary arts and foodservice management. You can search for culinary schools on ShawGuides, additional LA cooking schools are also listed here.

Is real-world experience part of the program?
Some schools have student-staffed open-to-the-public foodservice facilities on-campus where students are required to work as part of the program. Others offer intern- or externships in an off-campus setting as a prerequisite to graduation.

What courses, textbooks, and course materials are provided?
Has the school’s curriculum adapted to today’s healthier lifestyles with emphasis on fresh ingredients, nutrition, and a variety of international cuisines. Do they offer specialized courses in the subjects that interest you?

What kind of job offers can you expect?
Will the school’s placement office be able to find you a position in the setting you desire? Obtain the names of graduates and contact them to determine whether the school met their expectations for training and placement.

Interview with Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page
co-authors of
Becoming a Chef
Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page travelled throughout the country to interview more than 60 leading chefs for their book, Becoming a Chef. Andrew has spent six years in the kitchens of top restaurants in New York City and Boston, including Arcadia, the East Coast Grill, and Biba, where he and Karen were married in 1990. He was one of 32 chefs selected to attend The School for American Chefs in 1992 to study with Madeleine Kamman, and is currently a sous chef at Rosemarie's restaurant in TriBeCa. Karen is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she was a Scripps-Howard Foundation Journalism Scholar, and the Harvard Business School, where she was a General Mills/AAUW Foundation Fellow. She has consulted with Fortune 500 food companies on management and marketing strategy, culinary trends, and new product development. Andrew and Karen are also co-authors of Culinary Artistry and Dining Out: Secrets from America's Leading Critics, Chefs, and Restaurateurs.

When did you first decide to become a chef and why?
Andrew: As Norman Van Aken of Norman's in Coral Gables, Florida, put it, "This is not a profession that you choose. It chooses you." It chose me about 10 years ago! I got my start in the kitchen of the East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Schlesinger. I started at the bottom -- slicing vegetables, and other simple prep work. By the time I left about two years later, I had experience making everything from soup to desserts!

What I love most about this profession is that it is so deeply satisfying in so many different ways -- from the creative joy of being able to conceive of and execute a dish, to the personal satisfaction of being able to bring pleasure to those for whom I cook!

Are there any personality traits that you feel are desirable in a chef?
Karen: Psychological research shows that chefs are disproportionately INTPs -- that's Myers-Briggs personality type shorthand for "Introverted Intuitive Thinkers using Perception." However, Elizabeth Terry of Elizabeth on 37th (Savannah, GA) points out that, "This is a field with a tremendous tolerance for individual differences. There's amazing flexibility and space for creativity." As a result, we see successful chefs who are introverted and extraverted, intuitive and sensate, thinkers and feelers. The differences in great chefs are what make the (cooking) world go 'round!

Other traits that serve cooks and chefs well include curiosity, humility, nurturance, perfectionism, and persistence.

What do you recommend as the best way to obtain a culinary education, e.g., apprenticeship, vocational cooking school, college program? Why?
Andrew: While I was able to work my way up in professional kitchens without a culinary degree, today most of America's leading chefs strongly recommend cooking school as the best place for an aspiring chef to start.

But however one arrives to a professional cooking position, the most important piece of advice I can give is to make learning a never-ending process. The best chefs learn something new every day, and never think they know it all. Think about your education in the broadest possible manner -- what can you learn from eating out in a restaurant and thinking analytically about the experience? What new ingredients and techniques can you be exposed to when you travel?

And, of course, the importance of reading cannot be over-emphasized. Here are the top 10 books (besides our books Becoming a Chef and Culinary Artistry) that America's leading chefs recommend most highly to aspiring chefs:

1) Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire
2) Larousse Gastronomique
3) Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking
4) Joy of Cooking
5) Elizabeth David's Classics
6) James Beard's American Cookery
7) Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook
8) Paula Wolfert's World of Food
9) Richard Olney's Simple French Food and French Menu Cookbook
10) Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cookbook
And we'd add Madeleine Kamman's The New Making of a Cook to this list as well!

Do you consider it important to have prior work experience in the field before starting school? If so, what experience do you recommend?
Yes. Figure out whether this is what you really want to do by getting a realistic view of the profession from a professional kitchen. The day-to-day work is often a lot different than food-loving amateurs realize -- the hours are long, the work is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding, and the conditions are, well, HOT! So make sure you love it before making the significant investment of time and effort required of a professional culinary program.

What should a prospective student look for and ask about in selecting a school?
Students should seek out a program that offers a close fit with their individual needs and interests. As ShawGuides illustrates, there are literally hundreds of cooking schools around which differ from one another in both major and minor ways -- so make sure you find a program (whether it's a school that allows you to attend part-time or one with a vegetarian emphasis) that is offers the best fit for YOU.

How can a student get the most out of his or her training?
Students should not be afraid to ask questions -- especially, "Why?" Asking "why" something works or something doesn't work will help students understand the underlying principles of cooking, which they can then apply in other situations.

Also, students should make every effort to train their palates well -- a great palate can be one of their most important career assets! So, taste, taste, taste! And see which flavors and flavor combinations please you. We've included hundreds of combinations in our book, Culinary Artistry, which can provide a useful starting point for experimentation. As Molly O'Neill wrote in The New York Times Magazine, "[Culinary Artistry] provides food and flavor pairings as a kind of steppingstone for the recipe-dependent cook....Their hope is that once you know the scales, you will be able to compose a symphony."

And students should always go the extra mile -- seek out opportunities to learn from the best people in this profession, whether it's working for free at a top restaurant or assisting a leading chef with a charity event!

What job can a culinary school graduate expect to start out with?
It varies. Some may graduate with high-paying offers to be the chef of an establishment -- but that's not necessarily the best career path. The most ambitious graduates understand the value of accepting an entry-level job in the very best kitchen that will hire them -- where they can learn standards and practices of excellence.

Besides becoming a chef, what other careers can a graduate pursue in the foodservice industry?
From the front of the house (restaurant management) to food styling to food writing -- the possibilities are endless! For some ideas, we recommend the book FoodWork by Barbara Sims-Bell.

Aspiring chefs shouldn't underestimate the challenges and rewards of practicing this profession at its very highest levels, and raising their work to a level of culinary artistry -- which manifests itself through all the senses. Dishes, not to mention the order of their presentation on a menu, can communicate a chef's vision and offer opportunities for artistic expression.

Alice Waters of Chez Panisse told us, "Being a really good cook has to do with having a point of view." We encourage (even challenge!) aspiring chefs to spend a lifetime developing their own!

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