Between the finances and time commitment, there’s a lot to think about if you’re considering starting culinary school. It took me 20 years of dreaming about it and several years of research before I took the plunge. Here are a few things I considered before diving in, and hopefully they help you, too.
What’s Your Game Plan?
Before deciding whether to pursue school, I had to think about my desired outcome. I knew going into school that my passion was food media. Attending school was the way to be better at what I love to do – writing, filming, talking and teaching about food. Some people go back to business school, some go to law school or med school, but for me, culinary school was my hands-on version of grad school.
If you want to work in a restaurant kitchen, you usually do not need the formal education from culinary school. (However, it certainly does not hurt!) Many chefs are outspoken about the fact that it can be silly to take on massive debt from school when you can instead work your way up in the kitchen. If you are interested in working in restaurants and want to feel it out before you commit to the hefty price tag of school, put yourself out there by going door to door at your favorite restaurants or places that are looking for help and ask if you can work in the kitchen. Whatever opportunity that may be – anything from dish washing to peeling potatoes to plucking the leaves off herbs for hours – there is value in being present in the kitchen as a prep cook to really immerse yourself in the environment. You may get an opportunity to do more eventually, or not, but at least you will begin to see if that is what you’re trying to pursue. If anything, you will find a spot to grow, maybe even with the help of a mentor, and might not even need to go to school. If you are thinking about making a career change, you can absolutely try to obtain kitchen experience on the weekends while staying in your current job. Take time to really decipher if you want the change in environment and see all the sides (including the not-so-glamorous sides) of restaurants! If nothing else, at least you will have lived it and gotten a little taste before completely jumping ship and diving into your pocket for school.
If You Don’t Want to Work in A Restaurant…
Maybe you are not trying to pursue a career that is entirely in the food world and instead are thinking about culinary school as more of an enhancement to a hobby. In that case, I would suggest looking into recreational cooking courses. There are so many opportunities to take extended courses to develop your kitchen fundamentals – and save so much money! Whether you’re wanting to develop fundamental knife skills, immerse yourself in pasta or sushi, learn an entirely new type of cuisine, or dabble in making wedding cakes, start with specific short-term courses. These are much more affordable, very manageable for time, and will give you a sense of how much a commitment you want to make. If anything, taking these recreational classes before eventually deciding to do culinary school will never hurt!
Break Down the $$$
Formal culinary school training is so dang expensive. (We’re talking $30,000+ in NYC for example.) You can pursue loans through the government, through private banks or a combination of both, but it will all depend on your personal financial situation. Ultimately, my advice is to really consider if you are potentially ready for years of loan payments after you graduate. Is it worth it? Will the investment of attending school eventually return to you through career advancement or financial growth? Ultimately for me, school was an investment in my future and something that would be a lot of time and money upfront, but hopefully earn itself back in opportunities later.
There are many different scholarships out there, too, but preparing the applications, financial statements, letters of recommendations and essays can definitely be time consuming. Applying for scholarships brought me back to days of college applications. I spent lots of time narrowing down the field to the ones I would *potentially* qualify for and then took time to prepare all the materials. I was lucky enough to receive scholarships from the James Beard Foundation and New York Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, so the time did pay off. Either way, I had to be prepared financially if I wasn’t going receive financial support.
Programs can vary in time, but at the Institute of Culinary Education where I am studying, the culinary programs range from 8-12 months with options for days, nights or weekends. When deciding to embark in school, I had to mentally prepare for weeknights being devoted to class for the next 8 months or so because I wanted to flexibility to be able to travel or totally relax or enjoy the city on the weekends. I chose to do the evening program so I worked a full day and then went to class 3 nights a week in the evenings. One thing I didn’t totally prepare for was that anytime I wasn’t in school, I usually was thinking about the corresponding readings we were assigned or recipes I needed to copy down to refer to in class. We also had quizzes and occasional papers that required research or studying on weekends. Just like with anything – you get out of it what you put into it. There were days (ahem, weeks) where I didn’t read along with the material we were covering, but I always had to catch up because there were so many details I didn’t want to miss.
Things Are a Little Different Right Now
It goes without saying that every type of education is different now during COVID-19. There is no replacement for the hands-on learning that happens in the kitchen during culinary school, and if you’re going to do it, I personally would recommend waiting until we are out of the global pandemic. Life by no means should go on hold during this time, but life was so much simpler in the kitchen pre-COVID. Our class has felt a dramatic difference from January to now as masks and gloves have inhibited so many senses (feeling the dough! smelling the sauce! testing the risotto every 3 minutes without having to move your mask!) and we’re all trying to be aware of social distancing as much as we can.
If you feel comfortable with the safety precautions a school is taking and are eager to start, don’t let me hold you back, but if you are *thinking* about school, I would suggest taking this time to save up, hone your skills at home and see how in-person education changes over the course of the next year.
Utilize the Resources on the Web
Culinary school is not the end all, be all. From watching videos to reading blogs and cookbooks, to a subscription-based app like Food Network Kitchen, there are unlimited resources available to learn anything you want about food. Give all those free or inexpensive resources a try to see if you can learn what you are craving on your own. If you do decide to start school, I believe that part of being successful in the food world is being a sponge of what’s happening in the industry. To get inspiration, watch cooking videos with Sohla El-Waylly, binge every episode of Chef’s Table, catch up on old episodes of Good Eats, read Serious Eats and NYT Cooking, take courses on the Food Network Kitchen app, read Salt Fat Acid Heat, The Food Lab and other cookbooks, listen to food podcasts and read newsletters from your favorite chefs, bloggers or brands.
There are so many pro’s and con’s to consider when you are thinking about culinary school. As long as you’ve thought out the time commitment and how you’re going to pay for it, it ultimately is so worth it. I haven’t met a single person who says they regretted school – that’s for sure. Even through the highs and lows of the year in school, I am so glad I took the plunge and know it’s made me such a better and smarter cook.
The commitment I am making to myself, and I hope you do too regardless of your decision to enroll in formal training or not, is to constantly be learning. In school, I pick up something new or see a chef do something different every single night. I am promising myself to continue learning on my own and from other chefs once I graduate to keep honing my skills at home, volunteering or working in kitchens. I can’t wait to share these learnings here with you all!
As always, if you have questions about culinary school, reach out in the comments or message me on Instagram. And if I missed anything you think would be helpful to include, please let me know!