I'm $100K Richer And I Can Still Make Risotto With My Eyes Closed
As an adjunct to our catering/personal chef service, we occasionally conduct cooking demos or “classes” for interested people in the community. We recently mentored a young person who expressed an interest in attending Johnson and Wales for a culinary education in pastry. That's great and we certainly don't discourage it, but it brings up the question of what exactly constitutes a “culinary education?”
I have a “culinary education.” It started more than fifty years ago when, at age seven, I mounted a step-stool in front of my mom's stove and learned how to cook bacon. By the time I was ten, I had added poached and scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, boxed macaroni and cheese, instant mashed potatoes, frozen French fries, and Minute Rice to my expanding repertoire. I look back now and say, “Oh my god! Minute Rice?” But hey, it was the sixties. That was as close to scratch cooking as we came in those days. I can do a little better now. The point is I took the initiative to learn. And I've never stopped learning. A “culinary education” is never complete.
I demur a little when I'm introduced as a “chef.” I guess I qualify in the most liberal sense of the word because, yes, I can cook, I can create a menu, and I can supervise the running of a kitchen. And I bill as a “personal chef” because there's no such industry title as “personal cook,” although it would be a more accurate representation. I didn't go to culinary school. I am entirely self-taught. Like a lot of professionals, I started out as a teenager, busing tables and washing dishes. I had grandparents and aunts and uncles in the restaurant business and a mom who had the talent be a professional cook even if she wasn't one. With the notable exception of my ten-thumbed father, everybody in my family cooked and cooked well. So I had a lot of excellent teachers. And I carried on the family tradition: both of my sons can cook. When they were growing up, their mother was a multiple award-winning biscuit baker for a national fast food franchise. My older son was turning out scratch-made cakes when he was ten and he is now a successful restaurant manager, having worked his way up from McDonald's and through stints as a waiter and as a line cook. He never set foot in a formal classroom, but I'd say he has a fairly good “culinary education.”
The traditional European model for a “culinary education” is based on apprenticeship. Even the world's first “celebrity chef,” Marie-Antoine Carême, started out as a kitchen boy in a cheap Parisian chophouse. His heir apparent, Auguste Escoffier, began his celebrated career working as an apprentice at his uncle's restaurant in Nice at age thirteen. Jacques Pepin, Wolfgang Puck, and Heston Blumenthal are just a few of the many current European chefs who have no “formal culinary education.” But if you count the awards and the Michelin stars they've accumulated, you'd have to admit they've done okay without one.
Culinary schools are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. In the 1870s, the Women's Educational Association of Boston created the Boston Cooking School, America's first school dedicated solely to a culinary education. You may recognize the name Fannie Farmer, one of the school's top students who later became its director and gained worldwide acclaim for her work on “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” most often called “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” still in print and still in demand today.
There are currently about five hundred cooking schools of one sort or another in operation in the United States. One of the more famous, the Le Cordon Bleu school, modeled after the historic institution of the same name that opened in Paris in 1895, recently announced that it was shuttering all sixteen of its American campuses. According to Eater.com, “Le Cordon Bleu and other culinary institutes in the U.S. have come under increasing scrutiny for their outrageous tuition costs, high drop-out rates, and dismal job prospects. Eater analyzed the data this summer and found overwhelming evidence that culinary school isn't worth it. These for-profit centers have even been sued for their deceptive recruiting tactics and falsified rates of post-school job placement. Career Education Corporation [Le Cordon Bleu's parent company] settled one class action lawsuit from former students to the tune of $40 million.”
Now, if you want to talk about bang for your buck, consider this: a formal culinary education can set you back as much as $100K for a full four year program. That equals about twice what a graduate can expect to make, assuming they land a top job as an executive chef at a high end restaurant, a position that yields between $50K and $60K per year. If they don't quite make the top spot, they can expect to rake in between $35K and $40K as a sous chef. My young student can figure on slightly less, about $32K, as a pastry chef, and if a culinary grad winds up working the line, they'll get by on somewhere around $25K per year.
The biggest problem facing the industry right now is that prospective culinary students watch too much TV. They all want television contracts handed to them along with their diplomas so they can all be the next Bobby Flay. And it just doesn't work that way. None of them want to start in the trenches. They expect to start at the top. They blow $100K on an education that will net them $25K, if they're lucky, and often wind up walking away from the industry bitter, disillusioned, and deeply in debt.
The funny part is that most food service jobs don't require a degree of any kind. Check your newspaper listings: “experienced line cook wanted,” “hiring experienced sous chef,” “looking for experienced cook.” So go ahead and show up in your starched whites with your shiny blue ribbon diploma, but be aware that the grubby guy who's been prepping veg in a restaurant basement for the last four years probably has a better shot at the job than you do.
So what, exactly, do they teach you at culinary school? Technique. Lots and lots of fancy French technique. You'll be able to brunoise and julienne with the best of them after graduation because you'll be schooled and drilled in prep technique until you can do it in your sleep. You'll also learn more about butchery than you ever thought you'd need to know. Not only will you be able to efficiently hack your own steaks from a side of beef, you'll be able to disassemble a chicken blindfolded. You'll become proficient at sauces after they hammer the Mother Sauces and their derivatives into your skull. Same goes for making stocks. You'll learn the importance of mise en place, French for “everything in place,” an absolutely essential concept that stresses the necessity of organization throughout the cooking process. And you'll learn tips and tricks to enhance your creativity. But be aware: like acting, singing, dancing, and other creative endeavors, cooking is both a skill and an art. If you have raw talent and natural ability, going to culinary school will develop and enhance it, enabling you to attain greater success in the field. If, however, you simply suck in the kitchen, you'll still suck after cooking school, except you'll have the added burden of being broke. Star Trek's Jonathan Frakes once told me his acting degree (a BA from Penn State) was just an expensive piece of worthless paper. Either you are an actor or you aren't. Going to acting school won't turn somebody with no talent into an actor. Neither will going to cooking school make a chef out of a person who can't boil water. They might be able to pound enough technique into such a person as to enable them to function in a kitchen, but the art part, the creative process necessary to be truly successful, simply can't be taught.
So, do you really need to impoverish yourself (or, more likely, your parents) and mortgage your firstborn in order to acquire a decent, functional “culinary education?” Not really. Witness the aforementioned Pepin, Puck, and Blumenthal. Add Thomas Keller to the list. And Tom Colicchio. And Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Jose Andres, and the late Charlie Trotter. Ina Garten didn't go to culinary school and neither did Rachael Ray, but it doesn't seem to affect their TV ratings or earning potential. Many chefs, like Mario Batali, gave culinary school a shot, but dropped out. Not because they couldn't hack it, but because they found it too structured and limiting. Batali advises young people to “attend college while cooking in high-end restaurants; after graduating you'll have enough experience you won't need to go to culinary school.”
I say again, I'm not a “chef.” And I don't want to be one. I'm a very good cook and that's good enough for me. I can more than function at home cooking for friends and family and I can hold my own in my somewhat limited professional capacity. I don't cook with rarefied ingredients that I can't pronounce, but I defy you to beat my lasagne. When faced with a side of beef or pork, maybe I don't have the chops to break down my own chops, but I do know a great butcher and I can still strike fear into the hearts of chickens. I may not be as fast or fancy with my knife skills as a Le Cordon Bleu student, but my strip cuts and cube cuts are just as good thanks to the free “Knife Skills” class I went to at a nearby kitchen store and the follow-up online course I took for twenty dollars. The fifty bucks I spent on a “Basic Sauces” course at a local cooking school taught me everything I need to know to turn out a bechamel as well as any Johnson and Wales grad. Give me some herbs and aromatics and a chicken carcass and I'm your stock man. Learned that one on You Tube or someplace. Marcella Hazan taught me a kick ass tomato sauce – or at least one of her cookbooks did. Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking is a bible to nearly every professional chef. I have an autographed copy that Dr. McGee signed after I drove halfway across the state and shelled out a few bucks to sit in on one of his presentations. Amazon and my local bookstore are loaded with textbooks from the CIA and other institutions and my kitchen is as good a place to study them as theirs is. In fact, I've spent hundreds of hours studying with some of the most noted Italian chefs in the world. My extensive instruction at the hands of Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich, Michael Chiarello, Giada De Laurentiss, Mary Ann Esposito, Rocco DiSpirito, David Rocco, and a host of others didn't cost me any more than the price of basic cable. I'm $100K richer and I can still make risotto with my eyes closed. And, of course, I've spent years learning from the very best: my mom, my grandmother and a host of family and friends in home and restaurant kitchens everywhere. So, am I a formally trained and educated “chef?” No, but I sure as hell can cook.
Bottom line, if you've got the talent, the dream, and the drive, but not the big bucks, here's how to make it in the food business without culinary school:
- Have passion. If you don't eat, sleep, and breathe food, don't bother. You can't half-ass it or make cooking a part-time hobby.
- Get your act together. Figure out where you want to go. Classic French, Italian, Hispanic, Asian, American, or wherever your passion leads. Then gather your resources and get into it. I am part Italian, but the only “foreign” language I was exposed to as a kid was French. It's a long story. But when I decided that Italian food was my passion, I boned up on Italy and learned Italian in order to better understand that culture and its cuisine.
- Study. Everything. Cookbooks, food magazines, local classes, online courses. Don't overlook the value of TV cooking shows. Just ignore the dreck and drivel that Food Network puts out and find some real cooking shows on PBS. You might still learn a little from some of the less egregiously stupid network shows like Chopped or Top Chef, but don't waste your time with the vast desert of idiotic food-themed game shows that the chowder heads at Scripps seem to think represent America's taste. Work especially on technique: that's 90% of a “formal” culinary education. Seek out knife skills classes and technique classes pertinent to your particular passion. Take a food safety course. Restaurants snap up ServSafe certified people practically on sight.
- Find a kitchen. Unless you just want to be a better home cook, at some point you're going to have to venture out into the bigger, badder culinary world. And, for cryin' out loud, be realistic in your expectations. Unless you're a real prodigy, you're not going to waltz into a fancy restaurant after watching Bobby Flay cook a steak on TV and land a head chef job right out of the box. Don't be afraid to be a dishwasher. I did it. I also hated it, but it got me exposed to a professional kitchen environment at an early, formative stage. Just being around a kitchen when I was a kid helped me understand what I was getting into. Wait tables. A lot of European culinary programs make their trainees work both sides of the house. Again, you may not be cooking, but you'll increase your food knowledge. Offer to stage (stazh) or apprentice in a local restaurant kitchen. Free labor for them, free education for you. Win-win. And once you land that kitchen job, work your ass off. Reality check: not every kitchen is “Hell's Kitchen,” but every kitchen is hot, sweaty, grueling, repetitive, and prone to long hours with short breaks and endless cycles of high-pressure intensity alternating with periods of mind-numbing boredom. Get used to it. Don't bitch and complain. You'll get marked as a whiner and made to suffer for it accordingly. Just keep your head down and chop the veg, stir the sauce, scale the fish, flip the burgers, sear the steaks, and......
- Don't Ever Stop Learning. Guess who learned something new today? Me. And I've been cooking for more than a half-century. Check your ego at the kitchen door because you will never know it all. Cuisines evolve, techniques change, equipment improves, innovations abound every day. And if you don't keep up, you'll be left behind. If you ever reach the point where you're no longer challenged, where you no longer care to be creative or innovative, where cooking no longer excites you or stirs your passion, just hop on the first delivery truck that pulls up to the back door and ask them if they need a driver.
Okay, now that I've pointed you in the right direction and saved you thousands of dollars, go out and get a job. Open a nice Italian restaurant. And if you look through the pass someday and see some cranky, gray-haired old fossil giving your waitstaff a hard time for mispronouncing “marinara” and “bruschetta,” just step out and shake my hand and say, “thanks.”