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Joined May 15, 2018
I am a student at a business school in south Texas. I was studying finance until I realized how little passion I had for it. Realizing I enjoy cooking for others and have an immense sense of pride whenever a friend or family member likes what I serve. I have recently started working for a catering company as a cook and although the work I do there is unimaginative and monotonous, I enjoy it. Basically what I'm wondering is how did most of you get your start and how did you progress through your career? I find it difficult to pay for a formal culinary education and am wondering if there are any respected alternatives.
Joined Mar 1, 2017
Hi ConfusedYoungin' and welcome to CT! :)

To answer your first question, I count my first real start in this business when I began working in my uncle's restaurant full time. Before then, when I was in high school, I worked for him over the summers as a dishwasher, fill in line cook/food prep, busboy, server, name it, I did it. I think I learned more about life in his kitchen than I did anywhere else. I even had my first crush when I was about 16 while I was working there. She was the "older woman" (and by older woman, I mean she was 19) that worked as a server and hostess. :) Her name was Sophia and she had raven black hair and soul crushing blue eyes. We've been married now for almost 40 years. :)

After I graduated from college, I returned to work for my uncle while I figured out how I was going to put my degree in business administration to use. I never left. 12 years later, I was running his kitchen and 5 years after that, my uncle turned over the business to me and became my "silent partner" until his death almost 19 years ago.

So, to answer your second question, yes, there are very respectable alternatives to culinary school. Some of the greatest chefs I have ever met never stepped foot in culinary school. This is not to say that culinary school is not important or irrelevant. What I am saying is culinary school is but one of several means to an end. If I had to do it all over again knowing what I know now, I think I would've gone to culinary school. But, my degree in business has also proven quite valuable in running a restaurant for all those years.

Joined Oct 1, 2006
Welcome to CT confusedyoungin,

I worked for five years in restaurants and a country club before attending culinary school. When I started school I worked at a bakery from midnight until 7 in the morning 5-6 days a week, made a delivery on my way to school, classes from 7:30 AM until 3:30 P.M. and repeat. Full-time job and a full-time student. I work for free at a local butcher shop every Saturday morning for five months because the meat classroom wasn't finished. I did 4 out of 5 semesters, but did not graduate, and left because I had a job offer from a former employer to work for a green card, french chef stolen from Hotel Sofitel, at a private country club and because I was a little disappointed in what was being taught in school. I felt I could learn more from that chef than the school. I think I was right.

Exposure is what the schools are there for. Culinary programs are typically designed to expose students to techniques, ingredients, flavor combinations, presentation, etc. You will spend a day or two learning the flavors and common ingredients of some major cuisines like Asian, Mediterranean, Caribbean, etc. and move on. So, in a school, whether the lesson plan is to teach you clam chowder or profiteroles, and whether you have success or not, you will still move on to the next product or training module. Simply exposure, not perfecting... They typically don't prepare you very well for the pace of working as a cook in a restaurant. So the value in the school environment is in opening your eyes to culinary possibilities and the value in working in a restaurant is in learning to move fast enough to keep a job!

I totally understand not having a bunch of money so, I suggest that you use your most abundant resource, the energy of youth!
Get out there and find opportunities to learn what you want to learn. Find the part of the food world that gets you excited! Best BBQ in Texas? Best Pizza? Best doughnuts? It's OK if you don't know that answer right now, but try to work in a variety of places until you find the one that gets you excited. I quit a management position and took a pay cut to work as prep cook/dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant because I really wanted to learn REAL Chinese cooking. (It was worth it!)

I didn't think I was competing against other chefs in those American Culinary Federation competitions, I was competing against myself. How good can I be? Just try to impress yourself with how hard you can work and what you can achieve.

As usual, the effort you apply is proportional to the benefit you gain.

Good luck!
Joined May 30, 2015
Another option would be to find day-classes or seminars that you can attend.

When I started out learning the bread business, the first thing my boss did was send me to an upscale pastry shop about an hour away for a 4 hour cake decorating class. The bakery I worked for also contracted with Maplehurst, and so I got to go to my fair share of seminars, workshops, etc. in addition to them coming to the bakery I worked at and giving one-on-one lessons where they essentially walked you through your entire 8-9 hour shift. I might not have learned a lot of theoretical knowledge by being educated like this, and a lot of the breads/pastries I learned to make were specific to the bakery I worked at (I only learned how to make the ones we sold), but I can tell you it was well worth the effort and gave me a lot of hands-on knowledge.

I know one of the major culinary schools in my area also offers day classes for around $100. Some are obviously geared towards home cooks wanting to make a specific dish, but a few could be a good starting point to get some classroom training in addition to apprentice-style on the job training.

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