Don’t Ever Go to Culinary School!

Last week, I quit a relatively posh winery job in order to resume my career as a professional chef. This transition was a long time coming, and perhaps a bit foolhardy, but I ultimately had to remain true to my own aspirations. For me, there was just no way around it anymore. After three years of selling $50 Chardonnay and $100 Cabernet, my sudden return to the kitchen had caught some people by surprise, but I had been contemplating this move for well over a year, perhaps even longer. Deep down, I felt as if I still had unfinished business in the culinary realm, so many more skills that I still wanted to learn, and quite frankly, I had never been completely at peace with the fact that I had left the kitchen. Dont Ever Go to Culinary School!The fact is, I left professional cooking three years ago for all of the wrong reasons, the main reason being money.

• • •

There is a growing debate these days about for-profit universities and trade schools, and whether or not these institutions are acting responsibly. I’m not a complete expert on this subject, but I am quite familiar with the gist of the argument: For-profit schools can secure easy federal funding in the form of student loans, only to saddle the students with burdensome financial debt upon graduation. Basically, it’s one thing for a student to fork over $40,000 for an engineering degree, quite another thing for a student to fork over that same amount for a culinary degree. In the latter instance, a culinary student can expect to make between $10 to $12 per hour upon graduation. And with such low starting wages, paying back $40,000 in student loans becomes difficult, even laughable. As it is, many for-profit schools are little better than diploma mills, and these institutions deserve their scrutiny.

Despite what the common perception may be, graduating from a culinary school will not transform anyone into a chef. Far from it, actually. In the best scenario, a culinary degree might open some extra doors, but a new culinary graduate will never waltz into a kitchen and become the executive chef or even the sous chef. There’s just no skipping ahead, at least not in any respectable, high-level restaurant. In my own case, I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America with honors, and upon graduation six years ago, I sent out resumes to about 70 restaurants within Napa and Sonoma. Of those, I received just two call-backs, but was incredibly fortunate (as I only realized later) that one of those restaurants was Auberge du Soleil. The downside, of course, was that Auberge offered me just $11 per hour to start. Before attending culinary school in New York, I had been earning $10 per hour as a short-order cook in Los Angeles, so the return on my newly-minted culinary degree was negligible and dubious.

To make a long story short, I quickly learned the real-world value of my CIA degree when I moved to the Napa Valley. I discovered that the CIA had taught me just enough not to embarrass myself in a Michelin-star kitchen, but that was about it. As it turns out, my real culinary education began on the job at Auberge du Soleil, and quite honestly, $11 per hour was about all that I was worth back then. At the end of the day, it really didn’t matter if my two-year degree from the CIA had cost me a cool $40,000 or not, since it really didn’t prove anything. A diploma, after all, doesn’t mean much if you still need to learn how to cook in a bona fide professional setting. Luckily, I did learn, but I also went heavily into debt that year. I had lingering credit card obligations, mainly from being an out-of-work culinary student for two years, as well as some hefty student loans, which kicked in six months upon graduation. The honeymoon was over.

• • •

Having made a pretty decent salary for several years during the dot-com boom, it was deflating to spiral back into debt. I didn’t take it very well, and I was determined to do something about it. When I left Auberge to take a slightly higher-paying job at Martini House, I also took on a second job pouring wine at Grgich Hills. It was a crazy schedule: I poured wine from 9am until 3pm, then I worked the pastry station at Martini House from about 4pm until midnight. Under these circumstances, money did become less of a problem, but I was also working a 75-hour week, which burned me out after about nine short months. Working two jobs is one thing, but when cooking is one of them, it becomes extremely taxing. Frazzled, and at the end of my rope, I decided I had to cut back to just one job, or else I was going to become seriously unstable and unhinged. Naturally, I kept the job that paid the most, which was the tasting room job. I soon found a position at another winery that would pay even more.

Fast forward to the present day. After my three-year departure into the wine business, I’ve now found myself at another crossroads. My credit card debts are finally gone, although the student loans remain. The way I see it now, at least I’ll be returning to the kitchen much better off than I was six years ago. Luckily, I’ll be making more money in the kitchen than I ever have before, though I’ll definitely be earning much less than I was earning at the winery. On the surface, this transition back to the kitchen makes very little sense, at least financially, except that it’s what I really want to do. I had become bored with being a talking head, repeating the same exact thing every day at the winery. For better or worse, I want to cook, and to keep writing in the meantime. I feel that it’s now manageable, so I’m optimistic. Still, it would’ve been nice if I didn’t have as much student debt as I do.

The moral of the story: Instead of spending two years in culinary school (money out), I recommend just spending them in the kitchen (money in). Cook in a couple different restaurants, maybe enroll in a junior college cooking program, but don’t pay $40,000 for a culinary degree. At Auberge, I cooked alongside folks who earned their culinary credentials from Napa Valley College, and who started off just the same as I did, but without all the ridiculous student debt. That said, I don’t have any pride in the fact that I have a degree from the CIA. The diploma is practically meaningless to me, and the degree only impresses people outside of the business. Sure, I did form lots of great friendships during my time at the CIA, but I also encountered plenty of deadbeats who coasted all the way through to graduation. Basically, if you can qualify for a student loan, then you can attend culinary school. But as a chef — a real chef — a diploma means nothing, and cooking means everything.

17 comments to Don’t Ever Go to Culinary School!

  • I really enjoyed this article! About the time I discovered your blog a few years ago, I was in grad school in Davis. I had decided to drop out and go to culinary school. Everyone told me not to because of the salary. Well, I listened and I have mixed feelings about that decision. I’m trying to do this food blog thing and get a cookbook deal (and who isn’t these days?), and I think if I had a culinary degree, I’d go further. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter!

  • Great post! I once considered attending culinary school, and I am still attracted to it from time to time, but have decide to focus on wine for the time being.

    I was turned off by the high price tag at the prestigeous schools, and the low rate of financial return. I would still love to get some additional training in cooking someday. I think your suggestion to go the local community college is a good one. Here in Baton Rouge, it is possible to study at our local community college and get a degree in culinary arts for a few thousand dollars.

    Good luck with the career change!

  • ElGordo

    Congrats on the move! Where are you cooking?

  • Jo

    This is very very very realistic article. I want to show this article to many parents and yougn kids who have asked me about culinary schools. I can feel your experience because I have gone through similar career routes after culinary school. Thanks for speaking out loud about this issue. Very well written!!!

  • Thirsty Reader

    Etoile@Chandon.

  • Jobu

    Very strong words my friend. We’ve had this discussion before. Although I agree whole heartedly with you that the degree means nothing, from any culinary school, I appreciate what it did for me. It gave me a good, and very expensive, foundation to build upon. I was a young 25 when we started school and didn’t want to spend 5 years figuring out the proper techniques of braising, grilling etc… I just wanted to learn how to do it, so I could go out there and figure the rest out on my own. I’ve run into a lot of wastes of time in my travels and am thankful they weren’t the ones training me in these techniques. I am not even close to the cook you or Kooter or Larry etc… are, never will be. But without the CIA, I wouldn’t be where I am today, (broke, paying off debt) but happy I have the foundation. Is culinary school the answer? More times than not, NO! But telling people to go out there and chance it with learning from the shoe hacks that inhabit the learning environments in the real world can be just as damaging as the $40,000 we are paying off. Do your homework and decide which risk is more worth the reward.

  • cochon21

    Do an apprenticeship. It takes an extra year but you won’t be in debt,and you’ll learn how to cook. Good apprentices should be close to a sous chef level after they graduate. Also you don’t have to live in poughkeepsie. I lived in Vail,CO during mine for example. Plus you still get the piece of paper.

  • godfather

    a very thoughtful article. I agree that the cia is a diploma mill but it is also what you take away from it..I think that you really need to ask yourself the question of just why are you doing this.. very few get rich in the kitchen. Is busting your ass in a kitchen for 12 hrs fun?? what is your ultimate goal? To me cooking is my creative outlet.. always will be. I am to damn old to start my own place but you are not..

  • I don’t know how I found this post. Maybe it found me. But change some of the words to photography and you could be me… GREG

  • latisha

    I’m a graduate of YTI for culinary arts. I went in with 0 experience what so ever after I too know little and is stuck with the big bills I’m thinking of taking a step and going to a fine dining restaurant but I’m a little freaked about it cause if I get fired cause I’m not good enough i’m screwed cause I got to pay those loans. but it would be the chefs fault for hiring me in the first place seeing on my resume I have no experience other than school in the fine dining business

  • I just added this web site to my rss reader, great stuff. Can not get enough!

  • CMD

    Great article! I’m aware of the student debt involved with going to culinary school, which is why I’m looking into a community college program that costs only about $9k to “learn the basics” as you put it and come out seasoned enough to work efficiently in a kitchen. I’m also an aspiring food writer, and the culinary experience will allow me to look more deeply into the food world and speak with authority (also some publications require you to attend culinary school in order to write for them at all). Thanks for confirming that the $60,000 loan required to attend the CIA in New York is NOT worth it. Good luck in your great love of cooking, I’m happy you re-entered the kitchen. Thanks for posting!

  • Thanks for reading. Glad I could save you a few bucks!

  • Byron Halliburton

    Thanks for the very insightful article. Your title says “Don’t EVER go to culinary school” (emphasis added). Would your opinion change if you could have attended CIA at no cost whatsoever? Do you think there is value in the CIA education at all, or just not enough value for the price? I am really interested in what you think.

  • The CIA does have a nice curriculum that covers a lot of the basics of cooking, so there is inherent value in the program from an educational standpoint. However, a large percentage of culinary students will not follow through with careers in the restaurant business. I’ve seen it, and my colleagues in the kitchen have also seen it among their own classmates.

    The restaurant industry is much tougher than people are willing to realize, and a significant number of people waste their time by going to culinary school, simply because they never pursue a culinary career afterwards. So, even if the CIA curriculum was free, the opportunity cost of not working (or only working part-time) for two years is worth considering as well.

  • I’ve been in the game for over 13 years. I was the executive sous chef at the Hilton Gaslamp in San Diego. Don’t go to culinary school, learn as you go. http://insatiablefoodies.blogspot.com/2014/06/thinking-about-culinary-school.html

  • Thank you for writing this. This has been a subject of extreme “back and forth” for me over the past year. I work in an office in a field I have no interest in. My passions are cooking, eating, writing and any combination of the three! I have been writing a food and travel blog for a few months now but I have felt quite lost as to what my next steps should be. I am in my mid-20s with a college degree in an unrelated field. I wanted to go to culinary school so badly, not just for the career options but for the fact that I KNOW that I would love every single minute of it. The reality is though that I want to be able to do more than one thing. Working in a winery is another “dream” of mine, as is having the time to incorporate writing into my life in some kind of permanent way. All these things would not be possible with the financial turmoil that an expensive school would bring me. I couldn’t even afford to work for $10/hour (in NYC) without debt. I’m starting to realize that there is more than one way to live the dream, and that “the dream” can be a combination of many things, and that doesn’t make it any less of a success.

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