Is Culinary School Hard? How to prepare for culinary school

Our son wanted to go to culinary school, applied, and got accepted. Like a good student, he started worrying about how hard culinary school was. Of course, being the good parents we try to be, we assured him that it’s natural to feel some anxiety when one begins anything new and that pressure, if not too great, can help one work hard to succeed.

You may find this article helpful if you, as a potential culinary student or the parent of one, have similar concerns, wondering: Is culinary school hard: how will I cope or succeed at it?

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.

Your concerns about doing well at culinary school are real. There are some things you can do before you start your culinary training that can make your culinary school journey more manageable and enjoyable. This is the focus of this article, with much of what is shared being drawn from our own experience. In another article, we, in turn, focus on things you can do to make a success of your culinary school journey once you begin.

Tips to prepare for culinary school

1. Normalise your anxiety and be your own best friend.

An excellent place to start is not to let your anxiety about going to culinary school get the better of you. Being your own best friend is what psychologists advise, and one way to do that is to remind yourself that probably everyone in your class feels nervous about this new journey called culinary school. Everyone worries about whether they will perform well, cope with the demands of culinary school, whether the instructors are strict or not, and if they will make new friends.

You are all in this together, and it helps to be on your side and say encouraging and motivating messages to yourself like: I can do this; I’m going to do the very best I can, and that’s what I ask of myself; I’m going to culinary school to learn, and I’m not supposed to know everything upfront; Mistakes will be made, but I’m going to learn from these; The worst-case scenario is that I don’t do well, but I can always try again. There are always other options.

Words like this help to take the edge off the anxiety you feel.

2. Build basic culinary knowledge.

While it is not strictly necessary, you can benefit by doing some prior culinary knowledge building.

Gaining pre-culinary school knowledge has several advantages:

  • You are expanding your knowledge and familiarising yourself with important culinary concepts, tools and equipment, and basic culinary knowledge.
  • You are likely to enter culinary school with greater confidence and less anxiety about how hard culinary school is because you have some idea of what you will be learning.
  • By making an effort to build your culinary knowledge, you are demonstrating your seriousness in a culinary career. You are more likely to be a hardworking culinary student, taking responsibility for your learning.

Build your pre-culinary school knowledge in areas like:

  • The basic knife set you will be using, the name of each knife, and its purpose. Take this a step further and learn the correct way to hold, use, clean and sharpen your knives.
  • The essential kitchen utensils, like a whisk and spatula. Know their names and uses.  
  • Knowing and becoming familiar through regular use with the measuring tools used in the kitchen and scales for weighing ingredients.
  • Knowing basic culinary terminology like mise en place, a French term referring to having all your ingredients ready and preparing your vegetables by peeling and cutting before you start cooking. Practice this as well, and keep a clean, organised kitchen.
  • Knowing your chef’s uniform, known in the culinary industry as chef whites, the different components, the functions of each, and how to keep it clean and care for it.
  • Kitchen health and safety.
  • Personal hygiene in the kitchen.

3. Practice cooking and experiment in your home kitchen.

It doesn’t matter whether you’ve known for a long time or just recently discovered that you want to pursue a culinary career; start cooking or baking if that’s your passion. You don’t have to wait to go to culinary school before you do so. A natural drive to cook is how many chefs recognise their love for the art.

Gaining pre-culinary school cooking experience has several advantages:

  • It makes you more confident working in a kitchen.
  • You become familiar with using the various cooking utensils and equipment.
  • It helps you build up a portfolio of your cooking projects.
  • It provides the opportunity for you to assess if cooking is your passion and if this is the career you want to pursue.

You can build your own experience with any of the following:

Start at home, cooking for your family.

Cook as often as possible in the safety and familiarity of your family and home kitchen. Many chefs start this way. You can:

  • Try out new and old family recipes, and perhaps add something special to them.
  • Develop your creative flair by experimenting with new dishes and creating new food flavours. Come up with your recipes.
  • Experiment with plating and styling food. There’s a common saying in the culinary world, “You eat with your eyes first,”. You are learning to arrange food on a plate in visually appetising ways. This is what food styling is all about, and you will learn some of this at culinary school, so why not get a head start and experiment?

I have fond memories of our son doing the above and especially of the keen attention and effort put into his food presentation, doing his best to plate and style it with whatever he could find in the garden, flowers, mint leaves and so on.

Host smaller dinner parties for family and friends.

We are a family of 6, so I guess cooking for us is like doing a dinner party regularly. On a serious note, tackle the challenge of cooking for family guests and hosting small dinner parties. You don’t have to do it perfectly. It’s about getting the experience.

Explore food styles and trends from around the world.

Experiment with cooking food from different countries, be it Mexican or Italian. You can try a few dishes from one country and move on to the next. This means you may have to read up on and research different cultures to expand your culinary knowledge about cuisines worldwide.

Cater for events like small-size birthday parties.

Turn up the heat in the kitchen and go bigger than only cooking for dinner parties for family and friends.

If you are given a chance to cook for a small event, do it! This is a great way to see if you enjoy cooking for more significant numbers and the pressure that can go with this, including standing for several hours, as is needed in a culinary career.

I remember our culinary son started with a few home projects, cooking for special celebrations, and when this became known, he was asked by his scouting group to cater for a group of 30 leaders. Pulling this off meant planning a menu, shopping for ingredients and cooking.  It also meant overseeing the kitchen and the scouts who were supporting him, officially, and of course, the six family elves were assisting with some food preparation. All we could say was, “Yes, chef!”

After all the hard work, he could still say that he enjoyed the experience and found it rewarding. It also boosted his confidence in the kitchen and was a helpful indicator that he was making the right career choice.

5. Don’t only cook but also try your hand at baking.

Some people instinctively know that they want to pursue a culinary career in baking and working with pastry. If that’s not you, try your hand at both cooking and baking. Only by doing enough of both can you tell which you have a decided preference for. In our home, we went through periods of lots and lots of cooking to lots and lots of baking, but I guess that’s all part of the journey of discovery.

Of course, you may only truly discover what you love once at culinary school when you are exposed to the more refined skills of cooking and baking. Some students arrive wanting to learn how to cook but discover that patisserie art is their passion.

6. Learn from novice chefs amongst friends and family.

Find out who you know with a natural flair for cooking or baking and learn from them. A family friend had an excellent way of making cupcakes. Our culinary son spent a morning with her and learned the special techniques she used to do so.

His granny, who also had a natural flair for cooking, taught him her family-famous mutton curry recipe. Needless to say, I no longer cook mutton curry for fear that it will not be as good as his, or at least that’s my excuse.

7. Do shadow work at a local restaurant.

Make it a priority to spend a few days in a restaurant as a kitchen hand or doing whatever they allow you to do. Many places are open to this, provided you get the right gear like a chef’s uniform and safety shoes.

With our son’s initial interest in the food industry, my husband arranged for him to spend a day in the kitchen of the company’s catering facilities, where he helped with food preparation and gained an idea of what it is like working in an industrial kitchen. It was a worthwhile experience as it made him more confident that this was the career he wanted to follow, even though he spent many hours standing and slicing loads of mushrooms.

8. Do a first aid course.

Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes. The kitchen can be dangerous; you may burn or cut yourself at some point. Someone may place a hot pot in the wrong place for you to wash. You pick it up, assuming it’s cooled off, and just like that, you’ve burnt your hand.

An introductory first aid course will teach you how to treat a wound or a kitchen accident and help you remain calm and act swiftly and decisively in an emergency.

9. Attend the Orientation of your chosen culinary school.

Most culinary schools start training with about two to three days of orientation. This is where both students and parents are welcomed to the culinary school, and, as a student, you are eased into your culinary training.

It’s a time to meet and connect with the team of people who will be directly involved in your instruction as well as the admin staff of the school. You will also meet and interact with the fellow students you will be training with. Use this time to get all your questions answered.

You are taken on a tour to familiarise yourself with your new campus and training facilities and orient about what your culinary training is made of and essential things like health and safety. Some schools invite guest speakers to share basic information about the culinary industry.

Culinary schools go out of their way to make this time memorable, enjoyable, and fun. Attending the orientation can help to lessen the anxiety you may be feeling about culinary school as it makes more of the unknown known to you.

10. Make a vision board.

A vision board is simply a collage with pictures of your goals. It includes the essential things to you, including your values like, for example, wanting to be a respected chef. It also has where you see yourself in the future. Perhaps your career aspirations are to be an executive chef or own a restaurant. These are the things you would put on your vision board. Once you’ve made a vision board, hang it where you often see it. Regularly seeing and connecting with your vision helps to motivate you as you move through the ups and downs of culinary school.


While there are aspects of your culinary training that you will likely find challenging, overall, it doesn’t have to be complicated. Preparing for culinary school increases your confidence to tackle culinary school and succeed at it.

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