Should You Go to Cooking School?

After "How do I become a chef?" the question I get asked most often is "Should I go to cooking school?" The short answer: maybe. The longer, more complicated answer: maybe, kind of?

"Your opinion is vague and irritating."

I went to the Natural Gourmet Chef's Training program. It lasted four months, and I chose to go there because it was the only place I could find that was mostly vegetarian - I knew that meat-fondling was going to gross me out and be something I sucked at. The Natural Gourmet was exactly the cooking school I needed so for me, cooking school worked. However, I'm EXTREMELY reluctant to recommend any cooking school to anyone...because of the debt.

Here's what Le Cordon Bleu costs. That's right: $17,550 to $39,250. Back in 2007, Kim Severson wrote a great piece in the New York Times about the financial reality of cooking school, noting that tuition and supply costs can reach as high as $48,000 for a two-year program, that the average kitchen wage (as of 2005) was $9.86, and that cooking school graduates default on their loans at a rate twice the national average. I know what I pay my kitchen, and I know what most restaurants pay their kitchens, and so I can't, in good conscience, tell anyone to take on cooking school debt because YOU WILL NEVER EARN ENOUGH TO PAY IT OFF.

You don't need cooking school to become a chef, but you do need to learn how to work in a professional kitchen. I was shy and I needed to be in an environment where I could learn the basics without getting yelled at and a professional kitchen isn't a teaching-focused environment. I try to teach things to the people who work for me, and you'll always be able to learn a lot in any kitchen, but it's not a calm and relaxed place to learn. I wanted to get my basic skills in a place where my job wasn't on the line and where I was encouraged to ask as many questions as I wanted. That's cooking school, not a professional kitchen. So if you're thinking about cooking school, the number one question: can you afford it? The number two question: what do I need to learn and how do I need to learn it?

What you learn in cooking school is really up to you. Nothing will ever prepare you for working in a professional kitchen, and cooking school can teach you some really bad habits, but I needed to learn how to hold a knife  in a place where no one would laugh at me. I needed to learn how to dice, chop, and sautee in a place where I could make mistakes and have someone show me how to do it better without losing my job. School taught me my basic knife skills and cooking techniques, and more importantly I learned how to work with people.

In cooking school you usually work in groups, and everyone has an opinion on how to do each project. Over time you learn how to manage the group, who gets the stove first, whether you need to be pushy, or stand back and trust that your food will get cooked at some point, or whether you need to work out a schedule for the stove. It's where you start learning how to navigate the interpersonal dynamics of a kitchen. However, if you don't have the money for a two-year program, you can learn that in a kitchen, it just might mean that you'll get fired a few of times along the way.

I've met some people who say they don't like school but they want to be a chef, and to them I say that if they want to try cooking school, they should. Maybe it's not school they hate, maybe it's that they were never being taught something they felt passionate about. Or maybe that's something that people who are bad at school tell themselves to feel better? Hard to be sure.

Being a chef and cooking for a living will teach you what kind of person you are, but trying to figure out if you should go to cooking school requires that you already know what kind of person you are. Do you need to learn from teachers, or can you learn on the job? Are you shy, or are you an extrovert? Are your parents rich, or are they not so rich? Are you going to cook meat, or are you just going to cook vegetables? So spend some time looking in the mirror and figuring out who you are behind the BS you tell other people. If you're going to take on $34,000 in debt, the one thing you can't afford is to lie to yourself.