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
What courses, textbooks, and course materials
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
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
co-authors of Becoming
Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page travelled
throughout the country to interview more than 60 leading chefs for their
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
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
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
Le Guide Culinaire
3) Julia Child's Mastering
the Art of French Cooking
5) Elizabeth David's Classics
6) James Beard's American
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
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
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
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!