Culinary School: An A-Z on what it is and how they work.

Culinary schools have popped up worldwide, but you may be new to the culinary world and need clarification on what a culinary school is. In that case, this article is for you.

1. Description of a culinary school.

The obvious question, of course, is:

What is a culinary school?

A culinary school is a learning-based institution devoted to training culinary students in the art and science of professional cooking and patisserie (pastry and baking) and awarding students with accredited culinary qualifications.

Culinary schools train students in two distinct specialist areas of the culinary field, namely:

  1. Culinary arts and
  2. pastry arts.

In culinary school, culinary art students learn the theory and practical application of different food preparation and cooking methods, the science of cooking, preparing sauces and plating food in a way that makes a visually appetising display.

A culinary school trains pastry students in the art and science of baking and pastry making to work with various types of dough and batters, creating bread, pies, pastries and sweet food like eclairs, meringues, cakes, and hot and cold desserts. Pastry students also learn the art of creating platted desserts, designing new sweet food and creating dessert menus.

Culinary schools vary in how they structure their training programmes and courses concerning content and duration. However, culinary schools produce commis culinary chefs who have learnt the fundamentals of preparing, cooking and presenting food.

In turn, pastry chefs emerge from culinary school, learning the fundamentals of baking and using these to create various baked products, sweet and savoury.

Culinary training goes beyond what a culinary school offers and involves lifelong learning to become an accomplished chef.

Many culinary schools structure their courses to include some of each. A culinary arts program will generally have some training in baking and pastry arts, and so will a baking and pastry arts program have instruction on some cooking skills.

It is possible to be competent in both culinary and pastry arts. Culinary or pastry art students who want to further their interest in either can pursue further training.

The purpose of culinary school training is only to offset the career of the aspirant culinary chef and pastry chef by providing the essential skills in meal preparation for the culinary chef or baking and pastry for the pastry chef.

From here, the chef must learn all they can from chefs and others who work within the workplace and pursue their independent learning through books, online learning, attending additional courses and following renowned chefs.

While not all culinary schools have life skills or soft skills as a course in their culinary school training, inevitably, under the tuition of culinary instructors with vast experience working in food establishments, make students aware of and try to cultivate necessary soft skills, like handling criticism or coping with stress in a healthy way that students need for a successful career in the culinary field.  

If you need to learn more about the soft skills necessary to be an excellent chef, please read our article on this topic.

Culinary school training can include full-time or part-time training, often after hours, to accommodate students who have full-time jobs but want to pursue a culinary career.

Many culinary schools have added online training as part of what they offer. While this has advantages and disadvantages, students who live remotely from a culinary institution of their choice can now access such training, nationally or internationally.

Culinary schools offer additional types of training. Besides specialising in training professional culinary and pastry chefs, many culinary schools offer additional courses to students who want to pursue work in the culinary field, like assistant cooks or a baker.

For members of the public, cooking and baking classes are also offered.

Culinary schools encourage lifelong learning: students can always return to further their training. A chef can, for example, return to culinary school to complete a course on wine pairing.

2. How culinary schools operate.

A question often asked is how culinary schools work and operate, and the short answer is:

Under the teaching of experienced chefs, culinary schools work and serve to provide students with theoretical and practical education on the art and science of cooking for culinary students and baking and pastry for pastry students in preparation for their externship and the workplace.

Culinary schools focus on three critical areas:

1. the theory of cooking,

2. hands-on practical training in food preparation and preparing for the externship part of training, and

3. completing the externship.

The split between time spent on theory and practice is usually 30% for theory work and 70% for practical work, so learners gain much experience working in the kitchen.

1. Attending Theory classes on cooking.

Culinary schools have classrooms or lecture rooms where students receive lectures from their chef instructors on everything related to the culinary world and the food-making process.

Students are taught about food production and the scientific principles involved in cooking food, like the chemical changes that heat transfer triggers to transform raw to cooked food or the different cooking methods, like dry-heat cooking as in roasting or grilling.

In addition to knife skills, students learn about kitchen hygiene and workplace safety and the role of culinary in the hospitality industry.

Pastry students, in turn, are taught topics like the basic principles of baking and the baking process and to understand science’s role in baking.

2. Attending Practical kitchen labs.

In the culinary school lab kitchens, students apply the theory learnt in class, learn how to use knives correctly, prepare vegetables, and practise various cooking techniques to create and plate dishes.

Chef instructors are there to supervise, guide and provide feedback to students on the quality of food produced so that they know how and where to improve their work.

In addition, they have to apply everything they learn in theory classes, relating to the correct ways to hold and use their various knives, food hygiene and safety, kitchen cleanliness, safety in the kitchen, and applying culinary maths to work out recipe proportions and costing recipes.

3. Completing an Externship.

The externships are called different names – industry-based learning, internship, workplace training, experiential training, work-integrated learning, apprenticeship – depending on your culinary school or area and country.

The externship is when culinary students are placed in a real-life work set-up in a food establishment, usually a stand-alone or hotel restaurant.

Culinary schools partner with various food establishments like hotels and restaurants and arrange placements for students to complete their externships.

Some culinary schools have a food business attached to the school, like a restaurant, catering company or hotel where students can complete their work-integrated learning.

In this setup, they work alongside the kitchen staff, supervised and guided by the line chefs, sous-chef and ultimately the executive chef, learning all they can about working in a commercial kitchen environment. They are required to do their part, like any other staff member.

This hands-on experience is invaluable as students learn many culinary skills working with experienced chefs.

Culinary schools vary in how they structure this part of the training. Some students work on end for several months of the year, while others break up the industry learning to spend some time in the industry, returning to culinary school for further learning and exams and then back to the industry again.

Our son, for example, worked a solid four months in the industry before returning to culinary school to complete exams. In contrast, another student from a different school had his externship split between working in the industry for a while and then returning to culinary school.

3. What you do at culinary school.

What a culinary student does at culinary school is receive theoretical and practical instruction from chef instructors to master the basic skills of cooking or baking professionally.

Culinary students attend culinary school in their chef uniform and do the following at culinary school:

Attend lectures.

One of the things culinary students have to do at culinary school is to attend lectures covering various culinary-related topics, like the theory of cooking, culinary mathematics, cooking methods and so forth.

Attending lectures prepares students with the knowledge and skills they need in the kitchen labs and for the written culinary exams.

Although culinary instructors work through the curriculum of the culinary school, they bring a wealth of invaluable information from their years of experience as professional chefs who have worked in the industry. Not only do they impart the best practices that they have learnt, but they prepare students with what to expect when they work in the industry.

Attend kitchen laboratory sessions.

The training culinary students and pastry students receive during practical classes is an essential part of the training as students learn to make various dishes, master the basic sauces and develop their basic cooking skills, and how to plate the meals they prepare.

The chef instructors teach students to improve their cooking skills and develop intuition in twigging dishes for the correct flavour.

Pastry students learn the importance of measuring accurately and strictly following recipes to create baking products with the correct flavour, texture and appearance.

Complete assignments: Both theory and practice.

Students must complete theory and practical assignments throughout their culinary training to assess their progress. Schools often use these towards the student’s final mark.

Complete exams: written and practical.

At culinary school, students have to complete exams. These are of a written and practical nature. Exams can be internal, set by the culinary school or external, like the City and Guilds exam, learners write to get international accreditation.

What it is like attending culinary school.

What it is like attending culinary school differs for each person, depending on their interests and why they are going to culinary school. One student may love the lab work but not the theory class on food science.

4. The difference between a culinary and a cooking school.

The most notable difference between a culinary and a cooking skill is that:

Culinary schools mainly train chefs in the art and science of professional cooking, and cooking schools teach cooking skills to lay cooks. Culinary schools are sometimes called cooking schools, but for culinarians, ‘culinary school’ is strictly the proper term, although they also upskill novices.

A professional chef may, for example, open a cooking or baking school to teach people how to cook or bake. This can range from a single or a few classes to entire courses on the fundamentals of cooking or baking.

Culinary schools also offer cooking classes and short courses for novice cooks and train professional chefs and others who want to work in the culinary field with qualifications like assistant cooks.

These classes can be real-time and online or virtual cooking classes. When offered by professional chefs, they are helpful as induction for anyone who’d like to enter a culinary career.

5. Types of the content offered by culinary schools.

Culinary schools differ in the content covered but generally cover the following:

For culinary arts:

  • Food science basics.
  • Theory of food production.
  • Food Nutrition.
  • Cooking methods and techniques.
  • Understanding and preparing food: fruit and vegetables; meat poultry, game, offal, fish and shellfish; rice, grains and egg; stocks, soups and sauces.
  • Presentation of hot and cold food.
  • Gastronomy.

For baking and pastry arts:

  • Principles and processes involved in baking and pastry.
  • Understanding baking ingredients and the science of baking.
  • Creating biscuits, cakes and sponges.
  • Creating dough products.
  • Creating paste-based (pastry) products.
  • Making hot and cold desserts.
  • Working with chocolate.
  • Creating plated desserts.

Common in both culinary arts and pastry art training:

  • Understanding the profession.
  • Knife skills.
  • Food health and safety.
  • Workplace hygiene and workplace standards.
  • Kitchen health and safety: this can include basic first aid training.
  • Tools in a professional kitchen.
  • Kitchen operations.
  • Culinary mathematics.
  • Sustainability and care for the environment.
  • Culinary business skills and can consist of critical matters like food costing, managing food stock and controlling costs, budgets.
  • Business success and management.
  • Entrepreneurship.
  • Understanding the catering, hospitality and tourism industry.
  • Personal development and soft skills.

For answers to questions frequently asked about culinary schools, such as: What are the requirements for culinary school? How long is a culinary course? We encourage you to read two articles we wrote: the culinary student: all you need to know and the culinary student roadmap.

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