Education vs. Experience: Tough Choice for Aspiring Chefs

Education vs. Experience: Tough Choice for Aspiring Chefs

Food & Drink

Education vs. Experience: Tough Choice for Aspiring Chefs


It seems there’s an emerging trend in the restaurant industry: young people opting out of the culinary school track and instead working their way up from minimum wage-paying jobs like dishwasher and line cook to, hopefully, eventually, chef.

Betty Hallock, writing for the Los Angeles Times, describes the cautionary tale of the would-be chef: “A starry-eyed youth dreams of helming a restaurant kitchen and enrolls in a $60,000 culinary program but upon graduation still qualifies only for a job as a $10.50-an-hour line cook and struggles to work off crippling school loans that, with interest, can balloon to nearly $100,000. Dream crushed.”

Starting at the bottom with no culinary school training has a long tradition in the foodservice field. It has only been in relatively recent times that schools such as the C.I.A., Johnson & Wales and others have become viewed as the preferred path to becoming a chef.

For many restaurants, whether they be a celebrated white-table cloth establishment or a casual dine chain, a culinary school background is not required—or necessarily recommended for employment.

In her L.A. Times story, Hallock reports that in her interviews with a dozen chefs and restaurateurs , very few recommended culinary school due to the financial burden, and none said it was necessary.

A spokesman for the C.I.A. counters that while a graduate of a culinary school may not earn much starting out, C.I.A. graduates can expect to double their salaries within the first five years.

For a growing number of young people looking to start a career in the restaurant business, they’d rather get the two or three years of hands-on experience in real world kitchens than the time spent in classrooms and teaching kitchens of culinary schools.

Ralph Serpe, writing for, does a good job of presenting the pros and cons of culinary school vs. on-the-job training. He points out that a restaurant owner is not going to be impressed by a resume filled with the grades a person made in their classes in culinary school. He or she will be more interested in whether or not the prospective employee can perform in the often stressful environment of a busy kitchen—and that kind of experience can only be gained on the job.

On the other hand, a culinary school education will likely give one a more well-rounded background in the culture and techniques regarding the preparation of food.

With the cost of a culinary school education rising significantly in recent years, the choice of enrolling versus working your way up from low person on the totem pole in a real world kitchen has become a more difficult decision.

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