Attend Culinary School vs. Getting Experience in Kitchen

Joined Oct 5, 2016
Hello! I've always wanted to work in the kitchen for my career. I am currently obtaining a Nutrition degree at a university, but am curious if culinary school is necessary for me, as well. I just got my first job in the kitchen as a line cook about four months ago and feel like I have already learned so much. My chef used to teach classes at a college back in her home state and told me she would never deny someone should get education, but thinks I will learn a lot from them, along with experience in other kitchens, hotels, catering, etc. I know the answer varies from person to person, but I just want to know the pros and cons of it. I really don't want to be in any more debt than I already am, but also don't want to not make any progress if I don't have a culinary degree. Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!
Joined Mar 29, 2016
I think culinary school is good to make it easier to get to hospitality position, which is extremely hard without previous kitchen job.

I will say it from my own experience - It depends where you want to get to.
I started from zero. Literally zero.
I always loved cooking as a child, I was surprising my mother with recipes she still cannot cook, I experimented and watched tons of cooking tv shows.
I never thought I will get to hospitality until I've lost my job in a hotel and I was very, very desperate. I saw one sushi maker job in London and I applied. Few hours later I've got a call with a trial proposition.
I went there. Started to work. Worked hard. I cooked my ass off. First week I was portioning kilograms of pickled ginger into small, plastic containers, each portion 30 grams. After that week, when they saw I work hard no matter what job they give me, they allowed me to do basic sushi. And that's how in three months I've got up the line and could manage every section in the kitchen.
But it was only a small sushi shop.
After that, then, I went to one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants, asking for a free stage.I felt in love with the food. And employers felt in love with my CV!
With that on my CV, I became a head chef in the next two years. I was working in a few high street kitchens in London.
Nothing. Absolutely NOTHING will give you as much experience as cooking by itself.
You just need to want to learn. You have to show them you want to learn, that you want to know more. You have to show up every day with a great attitude and LISTEN to what they want to teach you. No matter whether it's scrubbing the kitchen floor or making a veloute.
Of course, it depends on where you end up and what kind of chefs you have around you. I've met a lot of people with years of experience who knew nothing.
Do your research.

Read about things like mother sauces, sugar temperatures, knife techniques, basic cooking techniques, learn how to make basic french desserts (a lot of techniques, useful everywhere later on), how to make a proper stock, and I guarantee at one point you could be better than most people who despite the fact they have finished a fancy cooking school can't make a good hollandaise or anglaise without scrambling it.

Good luck!
Joined Oct 31, 2012
     School should not be confused with education. Culinary schools have become way too expensive and what they offer may not be worth the cost. Whatever choice you make, your effort will make all the difference.  So you can continue to learn on your own and take classes when affordable. If you take a class, make sure it is matriculated and counts towards a degree but try and avoid graduating with a lot of debt.  

     Your chef is correct that you can learn a lot  from working in various hotels, country clubs and restaurants. Not every place operates the same way or offers the same menu. So a varied experience opens you up to learning more. 

     You should also be studying cookbooks. There are several threads on ChefTalk that discuss good books to read. Joy of Cooking is the first basic book, Sauces by James Peterson is an excellent book and Ratio by Michael Ruhlman as well. But there are many, many more. 

You can read those and practice making things at home that your workplace may not do. 

     Remember too that many places use pre made products, some more than others. So take a look around at the inventory and see which products they buy that you don't know how to make. That should include every edible food item, from rolls and bread to sauces and sausages, pickles and preserves, wine and beer. Baking, butchery, harvesting, sauce making, various preservation methods, pastry and decorative work are all areas you can learn about.

     A good school program can show you something about all these in a relatively short period of time but you pay a great financial cost with little practical experience. Employment can provide the practical experience but then the educational aspect is completely up to your own initiative. 
Joined Oct 5, 2016
I really appreciate the feedback, chefwriter. I know it kind of differs from person to person, but that was what I was leaning more towards. I will definitely take your advice and get those books, as it seems they will help tremendously. Thank you again for the helpful advice!
Joined Oct 5, 2016
Wow, your hard work and dedication is very inspiring! I hope I get half of where you are one day. I try to ask a lot of questions and show that I am interested. I feel that I have a good attitude and am very open-minded to what they tell me, considering I have no experience so I can't act like I know everything. I will definitely take your advice! Once the fall semester ends at my university, I plan on using my winter break to really buckle down on teaching myself more about cooking. I cook dinner almost every night and feel that is good practice, but I definitely need to brush up on the basics about it. Hopefully more practice and a lot of reading will help me out. Thank you so much for your helpful input!
Joined Feb 8, 2009
Amy, welcome to Cheftalk. My ideas in most of these areas are a bit different than other views. Why does a person look at culinary school over practical experience working in a few different food services. The reason why School would be a good idea for most is because someone else is structuring your culinary goals. When you set up a career goal that fits your needs then you are in charge. This is your life, manage your life and life goals to fit you. You mentioned "I've always wanted to work in a kitchen for my career" nothing wrong with this but, just add the word passion. I have worked in over 25 food services and owned my own management and catering companies. The people I see over succeed in this business are the ones with passion. If you have a passion for this business a day will never go by that you don't feel a sense of pride and fulfillment in your job. There is nothing you will learn in school that you can't learn on the job. I'm not saying Culinary school does help some people, I'm saying it doesn't have to be for all people. I believe with a bit of passion a person can structure their own lives to achieve their own goals. When I look back at what made me successful as a manager and chef. It all came down to how I managed my business with a passion from my heart to succeed. Passion to be the best pushes you to get the knowledge needed to succeed. If I want to be the same as everyone else I follow them. If I want to be my own person, I follow my own path........Good luck......ChefBill
Joined Oct 5, 2016
I really appreciate your feedback. I definitely am passionate about cooking and what I have accomplished so far at my job. I had my first evaluation this past Friday and received some feedback on what I need to work on. They said they could see the passion I have for cooking and food and that I have a good attitude and open-mindedness. They did say, though, that I need to work on the basic culinary skills that I would have received from going to school, such as basic knife cuts, etc. What I plan to do right now is just practice a lot while at home by watching videos and cutting a ton of potatoes in different ways in order to get even more comfortable using my knife. When I finally get on Christmas break from my university, I want to read the cookbooks suggested above and just use that extra time to really learn and soak up even more of what I can. Hopefully this helps!
Joined Nov 5, 2016
Hello, coming from a different career and how I got there I will add these two cents. When I had the same question when I decided to become a photographer I asked a relative in the TV industry who said this to me: "You should go to school, that way you will learn how good you are." I followed that advise and saw the benefit to it. Now my advise would be to do both. No need to limit yourself. As is noticed by most folks. You learn more in a year of doing than you do four years in school. So both help in different ways. Some people in any industry only look for degrees when it comes to hiring. So lacking a standard education can be limiting in some ways. So, sure... I'm playing both sides of the fence with my answer but more information is always better than less. And the bottom line true answer and question to ask is. "What works best for you?" That should probably be your starting point.

Cheers, and good luck with your decision!
Joined Dec 1, 2015
I know this thread is a couple months old but I figured I would throw in my two cents.

I have realized that whatever time I have left in this world, I would rather spend it in the culinary industry than my current profession.  As such, people are surprised at a 50-ish guy showing up willing to work, but that's what some chefs I know have recommended.

I have been taking time off work from my regular job but then going to work in any restaurant that will have me.  I did 2 weeks in a small French bistro last fall and just finished a week in a kind of new Southern Italian place.

There is really so much to learn that only marginally has to do with cooking.  For example, after the first day at the Italian place, I went home and studied pan charts because they kept saying things like "get me a Cambro, get me a ninth...".  During a bit of a slow time, one of the sous was kind enough to take a minute and walk me through a lot of them.  I still made some mistakes but worked hard.

Another thing, they would give me recipes I could make at home while drunk and half asleep, like braised octopus.  However, one thing I was acutely aware of was that it was not MY recipe.  Therefore, I would take a second and ask "is this how much color chef wants on the vegetables?" or "is this the amount of seasoning he wants?".  I had to swallow my pride and look like a knucklehead sometimes but I knew at the end of the day I was helping make is idea of what the dish should be.  I followed what other people did.  They wiped their station, I wiped mine.  The sous didn't wait for the dishwasher to sweep something, so I figured out where the broom was and did it.  I took any instruction they gave, especially regarding prep efficiency.  One guy let me slog along on a case carrots for about 5 minutes before showing me how to do it better.  The owner of the 4 restaurants happened to come in one day and we realized we had met before so he offered to have a drink with me sometime if I just wanted to talk about the industry or my future, I guess.

One night, I made a reservation upstairs with a friend and sat at the bar with a drink waiting for her.  While there, I saw someone eating mussels I had scrubbed, another eating pizza I had shaped, someone else with a dish where I blanched one of the components, and so on.   I can't remember the last time I felt so satisfied after a day of work.  My fingers are still dingy from scrubbing carrots, but who cares.

So I don't know yet if I may go to culinary school but I do feel more confident getting some kind of work somewhere and continuing on this road.
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Joined Aug 21, 2004
The beauty of this industry is that culinary school is wherever you find it. Some find it in a formalized educational environment, others find it in a working environment. It is available to anyone, 24/7.
 There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.

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