Is Culinary School Hard? Chef tips for success

It’s normal to feel a measure of anxiety when starting anything new. This anxiety, if not in excess, helps us to work hard and do well. If you are embarking on your culinary school journey and wondering if you can cope with the demands of culinary school, then this article is for you. Let’s start with a common question asked:

Is culinary school hard? Culinary school can but doesn’t have to be hard. You can succeed if you are passionate about cooking, take your training seriously, work hard in mastering the theory and practice of the art, remain teachable, learn from mistakes, and commit to life-long growth as a person and culinary professional.

Having the necessary know-how to make a success of your culinary school journey helps. Below are the top tips for succeeding at culinary school. These were gathered from chefs and culinary graduates in South Africa and worldwide.

How to Succeed at culinary school: Tips from chefs

Many culinary programs have two parts: 1. the onsite training at the culinary school, which consists of culinary theory and practical training in lab kitchens; 2. on-the-job learning within the restaurant or hotel industry. These tips cover both.

Part 1: Training at Culinary School:

Take ownership of your culinary education and be proactive

Your culinary education is no one’s responsibility but your own. The chefs stressed this on the welcome evening held by the culinary school our son attended. You are at culinary school for yourself, for your career and life.

Realising this guides the decisions you make and the actions you take. You don’t wait around for your culinary instructors to make it happen for you.

Taking responsibility for your learning means:

  • Have high expectations about the work you deliver for academic and practical learning,
  • Take the initiative and not wait for your culinary instructors to teach you what you want to know but find out for yourself. If your school does not offer exposure to world cuisines, learn this on your own,
  • learn everything you can know whilst at school,
  • See every opportunity as a chance to learn. Even a boring lecture can become a chance to test your concentration and extract learning gems.

In researching the topic: Is culinary school worth it, we found that among those who thought it was not worth it were also graduates who admitted that they did not make their best effort.  They did not pitch up for classes or complete assignments on time. In the end, they were unprepared for the demands of industry training.

Ultimately, what you put in is what you get out.

Cultivate the right learning attitude for culinary school

Speaking to chefs we’ve met about culinary training, it seems unanimous that the more challenging part of training is doing on-the-job training where you work as a full-time employee in a commercial kitchen. This is an integral part of your training, and the on-site training at culinary school prepares you for this.

More attention can be given to you in this smaller group setting, and learning is not as fast-paced as the real-life situation. It is thus essential to develop attitudes and behaviours that can optimise your learning. These are things like:

Remember why you are going to culinary school and work hard

Not everyone can go to culinary school. While you enjoy being a student, having fun, laughing, and building relationships with fellow students, working hard is essential as you are now busy building your future career.  Successful chefs will tell you that to be a good chef takes solid knowledge, time, practice, hard work, and dedication. If you are willing to work hard, you will most likely carve out a successful culinary career.

Show up for culinary theory classes

Showing up for classes is part of being responsible for your learning. If you don’t enjoy the theory part of your training and would rather be in the kitchen cooking or don’t fancy a particular class or instructor, show up for class anyway.

Doing so, irrespective of your opinions and emotions about a class, develops the discipline and tenacity to do things you don’t enjoy. Attending also shows and helps you build respect for those in authority over you, which is critical in the restaurant industry.

Be proactive and prepare for classes

Read ahead in preparation for an upcoming lecture is what the principal of Capsicum culinary school in South Africa recommends. This way, your learning has already begun, and you are not coming to class to be spoon-fed but to engage in the lecture by engaging in discussions and clarifying information you did not understand.

Ask the questions so that you know the answer

Asking questions is a tip emphasised by many of the chefs we encountered in our research, some of whom are culinary school instructors. Chef instructors often join culinary schools because they are passionate about teaching. They love it when students ask questions as it allows them to share the wealth of knowledge they have accumulated both from their culinary education and their experience in the industry.

One chef mentions leaving culinary school, regretting not asking the many questions she had for fear of being seen as stupid or that she should know the answer. Her advice is to ask, even if you are scared or worried about what others would say. The chances are others want similar questions answered. Don’t leave culinary school without your questions answered, even if you have to go to the lecturer after class.

Speaking up when you don’t understand something

If you are on the shy side and don’t like speaking up in a group, it is essential to ask, even while feeling scared, to gain the knowledge you need. One successful chef who undertook a culinary career in the industry mentioned that she was shy. Still, asking questions within the smaller group set up at culinary school was easier, and she got the help she needed. This learning environment made it easier to move onto the busier work environment in corporate kitchens.

Be flexible and open to new learning experiences

In culinary school, you are going to learn many new things and have varied experiences: You are going to:

  • work with different kinds of food that you’ve never worked with before.
  • have to do things that are uncomfortable and that you don’t want to do.
  • work with different people, some older or younger than yourself, some of whom you don’t want to work with or get along with.

Be open to these learning experiences rather than avoid them. See each experience as a learning opportunity and squeeze the most out of it. Many chefs and ex-students say these experiences shaped them as people and professionals and impacted their careers.

Learn discipline and manage your time well

Developing discipline and time management is another way of taking responsibility for your learning. To be successful at culinary school and beyond:

  • Arrive before the time for classes.
  • Complete assignments on or ahead of time.
  • Do your work: don’t plagiarise.
  • Complete your practicals in the allocated time.
  • Keep your station tidy and organised and work methodically.
  • Keep your uniform clean and have high personal hygiene standards.

When you complete your on-the-job training or pursue a career in a commercial kitchen, being disciplined in your work approach by qualities like arriving on time, processing orders in good time and with high standards, and managing your station well are essential. These are also important qualities to have to be a successful chef.

Develop healthy study habits

Perhaps your anxiety is more around the theoretical side of your culinary training and the exams that must be written, mainly because you prefer the more practical and hands-on tasks.

 If that’s the case, one consolation of culinary school is that theoretical knowledge is cemented by its practical implementation in the kitchen of the culinary school.

Developing good study habits can also make mastering your theoretical training easier. I found a four-step, simple study strategy I regularly followed helpful in my studies. This involved:

  1. To mentally prepare yourself for learning. You can do this by entering your lectures with the attitude of learning everything that is taught to you. Demand this of yourself, and you will likely be more mentally alert in the class than if you didn’t.
  2. Use as many of your senses as possible for learning: Listen attentively, look at your lecturer, make notes as you go along, using keywords to remind you of specific things you would like to remember.
  3. Later in the day, at home, write down everything you can remember from the various lectures you attended.
  4. Go back to your class notes or textbook and find the information you may have forgotten. Read it and then see how much of this you can remember by writing it down in a different colour pen.

Ask for the extra support needed: academic or practical

Taking responsibility for your learning means identifying where you need additional help and mastering your culinary theory or your practical skills in the kitchen.

I remember the school principal where our son attends culinary school telling him to please ask if he feels the need for extra assistance in these areas. As instructors, they are there to help and provide whatever support is needed to develop excellence in their students.

This could mean a lecturer giving extra time to tutor a student who doesn’t understand concepts like converting recipes for larger groups or spare time in the kitchen to perfect a sauce or master your knife skills.

What’s more, you have fellow students you can ask for extra support. Our son mentioned how he and his study buddy support each other. He’s more hands-on in the kitchen, supporting her whilst she’s better on the theory side and, in turn, assists him.

Build relationships and networks

While your qualifications are necessary, who you know in the culinary world is also essential to advance your career. This is advice that chef after chef that we have spoken to says.

The wider the spread of your network, the better for your career. A recommendation from a colleague, a friend, or a mentor for a new role or a recipe or food product you want to promote can be the break you were looking for.

Build networks far and wide, taking a sincere interest in the unique skills, knowledge, and career aspirations of others.

Create opportunities to practice, and perfect your skill

Cook at home for your family, guests, and dinner parties. Take on small functions. Take and create opportunities to practice and perfect the recipes and skills you are learning at culinary school, but also venture out and try out and create new recipes.

Remind yourself that mistakes are part of learning

You may not know anything going to culinary school, but you are going with the purpose of learning everything you can.  As culinary training is a hands-on experience, you will make mistakes and sometimes experience failure. If you don’t yet have a healthy attitude towards these and have unrealistic expectations that you must get things right all the time or are concerned about what others think or say, cut this notion from your thinking.

Instead, develop a realistic one that mistakes are a natural, regular part of learning, and yes, we don’t feel good when we make mistakes, but that too is a normal feeling. The thing to do is develop a ready response to mistakes and failure that could be like: “Sorry, Fiona, that you got this wrong. Getting it wrong doesn’t feel good. It feels crap, but it’s not the end of the world. Moving forward, what can you learn from this experience?”  We often learn best from the mistakes we make.

Have a real-life perspective on your culinary training

Going to culinary school does not make you a chef. You are a chef in the making. The day you can say, “I can cook, and I can cook well,” is the day you can call yourself a chef, says Chef Mandla from Capsicum culinary studio, after working in the industry for some years.

Your culinary training is one of life-long learning. Having this attitude keeps you humble and always willing to learn. This helps you in your culinary career as a common complaint from industry chefs relates to culinary students entering the restaurant industry with a know-it-all attitude.

Work in a restaurant while at culinary school

Supplement your culinary training by working in a restaurant, doing whatever role you find, whether it is waitressing, washing dishes, or preparing food. This has several benefits:

  • You will get a real-life learning experience in the culinary industry. From our research, not all culinary schools offer on-the-job training in the restaurant industry. Working while you are studying will give you this exposure.
  • You can ensure you have a passion for a culinary career before spending more money on training or years in the industry before realising it’s not for you.

Part 2: On-the-job training in a commercial kitchen:

Be Diligent in the work you are given

While you will not be given your station, you are given a section of space to work in, doing whatever it is you have been asked to do, peeling vegetables or slicing mushrooms, for example.

Do this well: diligently, with speed and accuracy. Keep your section clean and organised, and work similarly.

Be visible and driven, doing the needed to get the job done

What you put into your industry-based learning is what you get from it. The chefs at our son’s culinary school instruct them that if you are lazy and do only what is required, hanging around until the next task is given, you will not get out much.

Instead, after completing your work, find out if there is anything else needed to get a task done or achieve a goal.

Be willing to do whatever is necessary, whether dishwashing or floor-sweeping. Just do it.

Someone is always watching, be it senior chefs or kitchen staff. By being diligent and hard-working, many chefs have landed their first job, either by getting good references from their industry placement or by being offered a career in the very establishment of their industry placement.

Be humble, eager to learn and look for learning opportunities

Move beyond your station and take an interest in what you can learn from other stations and chefs. Ask as many questions as possible, and observe and learn as much as you can from them. In so doing, you will learn best practices from chefs that have real-life kitchen experience.

Be humble. While you may have culinary school training, there are kitchen staff who don’t have such training but have more experience than you, and if you are humble, you can learn much from them. Be willing to learn from anyone who has something worth teaching.

Develop an attitude to lifelong learning

From the chefs we spoke to, we have learned that culinary training forms the basis of your culinary education, and from here, it is a life-long journey of continued learning.

Be engaging with the staff, even if you are shy

As you are the outsider coming into a set-up where people know each other and have been working as a team, building rapport and having a friendly attitude makes it easier to be accepted and become part of the group.

Make attempts even if you are more of a shy person. Being warm and engaging will also make it easier for you to ask and get your questions answered, thus adding to your culinary knowledge and experience.

Develop a thick skin to criticism

“Don’t take it personally” is a phrase we have heard repeatedly from chefs and culinary graduates. The reality is that you will be corrected, even yelled at when you make a mistake.

Develop your resilience in this area, especially if you are sensitive to criticism, and start doing this at culinary school before starting your industry-based training. Make it a habit to not take criticism to heart but rather see how to grow from it and, in doing so, develop a thick skin toward criticism.

Should the criticism be delivered in a harsh tone, learn to separate the delivery style from the feedback, then learn from it and move on.

Cultivate the ability to control your emotions

Learning to control your emotions is related to developing a thick skin toward criticism. For one,  never walk away from a chef disciplining you, no matter what you think or feel at that moment, is a tip Executive chef Jonathan Moreno, a well-known South African chef,  gave a group of students embarking on their culinary journey.

Emotions can run high in a busy commercial kitchen and lead to blow-outs. While it can take time and practice, learning to control overwhelming emotions and maintain calm under pressure will stand you in good stead as a developing chef.

Keep your uniform clean and always be presentable

Our clothes impact our mood and how we think and feel about ourselves. A clean uniform makes you feel better, says Alechin, a culinary student with prior industry experience.

With the long shifts you will be doing, taking good care of your uniform, making sure it is always clean and well ironed and wearing it with pride is likely to:

  • make you feel more confident in your role.
  • make you look and feel like a professional chef.
  • help to keep you feeling fresh physically and mentally.

Take care of and keep your knives sharp

A chef is only as good as the sharpness of their knives. You may know the right way to hold a knife and use a knife, but if your knife is not sharp, your cutting is ineffective.

This is critical in the kitchen industry, where speed and effectiveness are essential. The chefs you are working under are watching you, and without a sharp knife, you can come across as not knowing what you are doing. One chef from our research shares his story of not getting a job because he cut chives with a blunt knife. So, if you want to become a great chef, make this a priority.

Wear perfect chef shoes

As you could be standing for 8-10 hours, wearing comfortably fitting shoes is vital to coping with your day. Wrong shoes can determine the outcome of your day. As the work is sufficiently stressful, wearing good shoes is an act of kindness to yourself.

Develop grit and stick it out, no matter how tough

This is the challenging part of the training. You are working in a real-life commercial kitchen. It is a work environment, and you must work like a full-time employee. It is noisy, the hours are long, you can get yelled at, and you must work fast and efficiently to meet client needs.

As a commercial kitchen can be a stressful environment, and you may, especially initially, find it hard to cope. Many chefs advise sticking it out, no matter how tough it is.  Getting through this builds your resilience and prepares you for your first job.

Take care of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being

As this part of your training can be stressful, taking care of your overall well-being is critical. Doing so involves developing healthy lifestyle strategies you can use beyond this training phase of your career and into the next.

The essential things are to:

  • Get enough rest to cope with the workload and the long hours. Sleep at least 7-8 hours.
  • Eat proper meals before and after work, so you have more energy for work.
  • Know yourself, your strengths, weaknesses, and what coping mechanisms work best for you.
  • Develop good and positive coping methods that take you towards your ambitions, like exercise, rather than ones that take you away from it, like drugs and alcohol overuse, which is a problem in the restaurant industry. An ex-culinary student we spoke to mentioned that it was in the industry-based part of his culinary training that he started smoking because of the stress he was experiencing.
  • Keep healthy and fit through exercise like running or swimming, 3-4 times a week.
  • Get daily sunlight primarily because you work indoors for long hours.
  • Sleep at least 7-8 hours;
  • Journal daily for at least 10-15 minutes to process daily issues and related emotions.
  • Find out what you enjoy and what makes you happy and include this in your life. It could be reading, cooking for relaxation, or spending time with family and friends.
  • Have a good support structure, family, friends, fellow students, and mentors you can turn to for support.

The benefit of activities like these is that your brain releases healthy feel-good chemicals like serotonin that make you feel good and relaxed and improve your overall resilience to stress.

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