I’m not sure if we should blame it on books like Kitchen Confidential for insinuating that sex is practically guaranteed if you became a professional cook or on an economy that‘s still so bad I‘m better off stuffing my money in my bra than putting it in treasury bonds, but it seems like everyone wants to go to culinary school. From 2009-2010, Le Cordon Bleu’s enrollment went up 31 percent, while in the last six years, applications surged almost 50 percent at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), forcing the school to add a satellite campus to help meet demand. But do these eager culinary students really know what they’re getting themselves into?
Since passionate people tend to have the common sense of Charlie Sheen, when you tell a food lover that culinary school and life in a professional kitchen is nothing like he imagines it to be, he tends to ignore logic and goes back to reading his copy of Modernist Cuisine. But if you are a passionate food lover that is seriously considering going to culinary school because you think that you could be the next David Chang, you should read the 5 things everyone should know before they go to culinary school.
- You will be broke before and after culinary school
Culinary school can be prohibitively expensive and can easily saddle people with an exorbitant amount of debt. The preeminent culinary school, the CIA, costs more than $30,000 for the first year (this includes room and board). My own culinary education cost me over $26,000 for a one year program. In order to pay for school, I took out a student loan, drastically cut my expenses, and worked while in school, but even then I could barely cover my expenses. Things didn’t get any better when I got my first culinary job. I made $9 an hour and didn‘t get paid overtime during my six month externship. Even though I often had to dip into my savings to cover my bills, I was one of the lucky ones. One of my classmates was paid $7 an hour. The federal government has become so concerned with for-profit schools burdening students with a lot of debt, officials plan on making it harder for students to receive federal financial aid if their likely salaries won’t cover their debt payments.
- Culinary school is nothing like a professional kitchen
While culinary school did a great job of teaching me classical techniques and helped me develop my palate, there was no way it could prepare me for a professional kitchen. Unlike culinary school, a kitchen is sweltering, crowded and incredibly intense because you are trying to feed as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. And unlike the few hours you spend in culinary school each day, in a kitchen you will be on your feet, without rest, for at least 12 hours a day.
- You will not become a chef as soon as you graduate
For some reason, most people think that once they graduate from culinary school they will automatically become a chef. This is not true. It takes years of hard work and sacrifice to move up the culinary ladder to become a chef. The truth is that as a recent culinary graduate, you know less than an experienced dishwasher and will probably end up at the garde manger station, where soups and salads are prepared.
- You will have no social life when you become a professional cook
During the almost three years I worked in a kitchen, I missed several weddings, the baptism of my close friend’s son and countless birthdays. The only time I took time off was when I had to go to a funeral. And because I worked evenings and every Friday and Saturday, I hardly got to see my friends and family. So if you like your weekends, seriously consider pursuing another career.
- The kitchen can be a cruel environment, so develop a thick skin
When people are hot, tired and sleep-deprived, they tend not to be at their nicest and they can say things to make grown men cry (trust me, I‘ve seen it). And as unbelievable as this may sound, some chefs actually throw things at their cooks, so you better be good at ducking. So if you can’t handle being yelled at, belittled and made to feel inadequate on a regular basis, a professional kitchen is not the right place for you.
Another take: Lauren Shockey survives kitchen stages, lives to tell about it.
Did you go to culinary school? Share your experience with school versus real life cooking in the comments below.