Are Culinary Schools Helping or Hurting the Industry

There are so many culinary schools in existence today that the pool of students graduating with a solid foundation may possibly be diluted. The underlying need to keep enrollment up has often lowered the standards of acceptance basing admittance entirely on whether the student can pay. The bottom line is that many schools are business's and the need to make sales a.k.a. student enrollment. Slick commercials and mass media paint a picture of an exciting career that most students will never realize. Most graduates without prior industry experience will have limited opportunities and will fill the demand for low paying entry level Food Service and Contract feeding positions. The truly talented naturally born cooks and chefs will progress and fulfill their dreams of becoming a chef. Don’t get me wrong I am a big fan of a quality culinary education; I also realize that many people have limited resources and must take advantage of any opportunity available to them. When I applied to culinary school I received a response stating that I would need one year of additional cooking experience before I was officially accepted. There was an expectation from the school that I would at least have some level of kitchen savvy and experience which would help me on my journey.

As I interview prospective cooks I cant help but to have sympathy for applicants who tell me that they have never worked in a kitchen. When questioned on what has prepared them for a career in the culinary world many say that they have worked in a similar fast paced environment such as a factory assembly line or a call center. I am the first to say that a great work ethic, determination and the will to succeed will get you far in life, but you still have to execute the daily functions of the job. The bottom line is that a school is just that a school and not the real world. The right combination of past practical experience and advanced instruction should come together and give the student a foundation that will ensure some level of success in the industry. A Culinary schools reputation and ultimately the value of their diploma rest solely on the quality of the graduates.

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Comment by Vernon on August 10, 2009 at 8:43pm
I love reading these comments. This dilemma has been on the table for a decade. I have a dream that will solve this concern for ever, and it's a guaranteed win win situation for business investor and the whole industry. I just need the dough :)

Comment by Anthony on August 10, 2009 at 1:35pm
I feel that the main problem with culinary schools is that the number one goal is to convince students that they need to be in a four year program at there school to develope the skills to be a chef and or food and beverage manager, Look everyone knows that passion for food and passion for the industry is what leads to sucess I believe this to be the same in every other field, we need to stop trying to convince kids that more school is going to lead to sucess and making lots of money and talk to them more about developing the passion for this field, stop trying to selll the idea that the more school the more money you can make because the future of culinary america believes what you teachers and culinary instructors are telling them, only to find out that they graduate making $10 hour cooking on the line and not $50,000 a year as an executive chef, stop lying to these kids. Thank you, Former culinary student and now Executive Chef.
Comment by Nick Padilla on August 9, 2009 at 3:35pm
Absolutely. I am my own worst critic, usually, hopefully. It keeps me on my toes.
Comment by Chef Len Elias CEC on August 8, 2009 at 7:35pm
I think your probably being to tough on yourself, we all make mistakes, hopefully we learn from them and become better chefs. Its certainly not a good feeling to screw up, but all great chefs make mistakes. Have you watched any of the Top Chef Masters? Big name, big time chefs have trouble putting out a few plates, it just shows we are all human. I have been cooking since the mid 70's with lots of ups and downs, but at the end of the day I have no regrets. You have to recommit yourself every once in a while, it will give you renewed energy and focus.
Comment by Nick Padilla on August 8, 2009 at 5:21pm
It's a blessing and a curse. Every plate that goes out, good or bad. Short memories are essential. Good P&L that just ended yesterday? What are you doing today? Great wine dinner turn out and reviews? What are youdoing today or tomorrow? Burned 5 gallons of lentil soup? Take better care next batch...This business can humiliate anyone, given enough time. Even the most arrogant chef can be brought to their knees by a poor souffle, broken buerre blanc, or steak sent back...
Comment by Chef Len Elias CEC on August 8, 2009 at 4:38am
Nick made the point of mentioning one of the most important necessities of being a cook or chef. A lifelong commitment to education in whatever form that works for you, keeping an open mind to new ideas and ongoing improvement. There is never a day in my life that I don't say or think, Wow! why didn't I think of that before. That is why I love cooking for a living.
Comment by Nick Padilla on August 7, 2009 at 10:29am
True. I did not mean to generalize. There are fine institutes such as CIA, Le Cordon Bleu etc. I attended a trade school in Los Angeles. Without the foundation it's much more dificult to move through the ranks. Idealy, ayoung cook can travel and stodge in Europe or under a good chef via hotel etc. Unfortunately I have come across young cooks with culinary degrees that cannot hold a candle to most of my crew that came up through the ranks and started as a dishwasher. Maybe that'd be a great first semester- closing the dish station on a busy Friday night. Do that for one month and if you are still here, move on to the fun stuff. Thank you, Mr Elias and Mr Schmidt for your insights. I suppose I am still a student and will continue to learn my entire career.

Comment by Tony Martinez on August 7, 2009 at 7:07am
I agree with almost everything stated so far and to be truthful, I thought the initial question might have been, well, kind of silly to ask. However, there is a sense of entitlement by the youth of today. Younger students are turned on by the allure of the "reality shows", enter the industry thinking that when they graduate, they are qualified to run a kitchen, let alone their own business.
Those qualifications come only after years of understanding every possible scenario the the industry can throw at them. I can honestly say that in my business, I tend to not hire those that drop names in the first 10 minutes of an interview. Typically, they're riding on the success of someone they've worked for, not what they've accomplished or what they can bring to my kitchens.

Paying your dues is critical and even at that, it's no gaurentee you're going to make "X" amount. There is great potential in our industry, but as stated above, it comes at a price!
Comment by Chef Len Elias CEC on August 7, 2009 at 5:15am
Thanks Arno for your informative comment. I believe what Arno is referring to "getting ready for the demanding schedule" is the CIA's hours of operation. Many students are in class at 4 am baking, cooking breakfast and performing many tasks that would be required in the real world. Others are closing one of the many restaurants open to the public late into the evening. It is as close to the real thing as possible.

In reference to Nicks comment that all Schools are business' is not entirely true. Many are part of a state system, others are not for profit and many put everything back into the school. There are of course the ones that Nick speaks of, to which I directed this blog at from the beginning. An education by itself is just that an education, add to that education quality work experience, working for a real chef and a life long pursuit of excellence and then you have something. Thanks Nick.

Comment by Arno Schmidt on August 6, 2009 at 6:04pm
One more point about having prior experinence. The CIA started to require applicants to have at least 1 year kitchen/restaurant business experience was instituted during the Vietnam war. People going to college could postpone draft and there were applicants who believed that a culinary school would be the least demanding college. The policy instituted when Mr. Rosenthal was president worked so well that it is still in force. An additional yet important benefit is getting the student used to the demanding work schedule in the restaurant industry. The changes in social life are dramatic and could be traumatic as well.




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