So you’re trying to decide if you should go to culinary school to further your career in the restaurant industry. There’s a slew of commentary all over the internet on whether or not it’s a good idea to go—and the plethora of opinions vary widely. 

To help you decide, I interviewed a former culinary student to provide a perspective directly from someone that decided to go. Stephen Eriks graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in 2009 with a degree in culinary arts and went on to open his own pizzeria from 2009 to 2013. This is what he has to say.

Do you think culinary school is worth attending?

It depends on what you want to get out of cooking school. If your goal is to move up in the ranks and become a professional chef for a country club, I think a culinary program prepares students for a high-level kitchen, but you can also learn the skills you’ll need on the job—while making money—versus going into debt to earn your pedigree over basic skills but having to start at an entry-level position anyway. 

Worst case, you’ll have to re-learn because each kitchen does things their own way. A julienne cut at your school might be different than a julienne cut at a high-end country club. So if you have the time, it could be better to just start at the bottom, because after culinary school there’s still a chance you could start at the bottom and work your way up. 

As most degrees work, you don’t come out of college and just have a CEO position. The executive chef is the CEO of the kitchen and you have to work your way up to achieve that status no matter what educational moves you’ve made to further your culinary career

Why did you choose to go?

I was planning on opening my own restaurant. I didn’t have the work experience needed in the culinary industry, so I thought going the school route and entering into a prestigious culinary program would be the best option to learn how to make different food items and gain the necessary knowledge to successfully open my own pizzeria. 

Do you think it helped with running your pizzeria?

I do believe it helped me run my business because I came out of the program with a strong background, a strong skill base and the confidence I needed to be in the kitchen. Instead of just being a good cook, my culinary education made me an excellent cook because it gave me a strong foundation, which is what students receive when they choose to learn from the experts. 

If someone wanted to open their own restaurant like you did, would you tell them to go to culinary school?

If you have the financial backing to go to school and open a restaurant, then culinary school will pay off for you. You’ll gain that strong foundation you need to enter the culinary world. If you’re already good at running a business and simply want to learn the food aspect of running a kitchen, you should go.

There you have it, straight from a culinary grad’s mouth.

Now, I looked all over the internet to read all the opinions I could find as to whether or not you should go to culinary school. The overarching theme seems to be that you have to weigh your own pros and cons carefully and make an informed decision based on what you want to do with the degree. Here are some of the pros and cons:

  • Pro: Education is always helpful, no matter what career field you’re planning on entering. Culinary school will give you a wide skill set in the kitchen and teach you valuable skills such as food preparation and culinary arts management. 
  • Pro: Graduating from culinary school could boost your confidence in the kitchen, especially if you have the funds for it. 
  • Con: Though you’ll get a wide skill set, the way the school taught you to cook might be very different than the way any given restaurant wants you to cook, so you’ll need to be prepared to enter the real world with an open mind and a willingness to potentially forget everything you learned. 
  • Con: It’s expensive. The tuition for Le Cordon Bleu is $38,000 – $41,000 per year, and around $47,000 annually to attend the Culinary Institute of America. In some cases, that price tag could pay for a full 4-year degree at a university.

Weigh your pros and cons carefully and ask yourself this list of questions before looking into the various certificate programs offered in the United States (or abroad):

  • Why do I want to go to culinary school?
  • What do I expect out of culinary school?
  • What do I want to use the degree for?
  • Do I have the funds to get this degree? If not, can I handle loans?

Another option to consider if the price tag of culinary school is a little daunting is the American Culinary Federation apprenticeship program. With more than 17,500 members in over 150 chapters nationwide, the organization offers apprenticeships (whether you’re a cook or a pastry chef) where students gain a combination of on-the-job training (meaning you “earn while you learn”) and related classroom instruction. The best part is that they require no previous experience to enroll.  

Make sure you’re honest with yourself about what you truly want and what you expect. Hopefully, that will get you one step closer to making a decision. But there’s one universal truth to help you:  If you feel good about the decision you make — it’s the right one.

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