Is Culinary School Worth It? Answered by 75 chefs

When our son decided he wanted to be a chef, there was no question about it: he would attend culinary school to gain an education and a qualification. In South Africa, education is valued, and our kids are encouraged to qualify, no matter what field they wish to pursue.

It was an eye opener to learn that many chefs pursue a culinary career without formal qualifications, obtaining a job in a restaurant kitchen washing dishes and working their way up.

We found that in the culinary world, there are two camps: Those for and those against culinary schools. We thought tackling this topic was worthwhile as many aspirant chefs and their parents may wonder what the best route is to take.

To write this article and answer the question ourselves, we surveyed 75 chefs and culinary graduates to gauge their response to this question and the reasons for their views based on their experience.

Below is a summary of the predominant view of the chefs surveyed. Our focus was on the question: Is culinary school worth it?

Culinary school is worth it, says 69% of the chefs surveyed. But make sure you: have clear goals for going, like becoming a food writer; value good education over monetary costs and rewards. If cooking is a passion, make sure of it and work in a restaurant kitchen before going to culinary school.

Ultimately, going or not going to culinary school is a personal decision. Listed below are the reasons that made it worthwhile or not, as noted by the chefs in our survey. Hopefully, this will help you weigh what’s best for you.

Why culinary school is worth it: What chefs say

1. Culinary school equips you with a basic knowledge

At culinary school, you learn the basics of what you need to start your first job. This foundational knowledge is a good entry into the culinary world. The chefs in our survey warn that it’s a mistake to think that finishing culinary school means being a chef. That comes with the experience you gain when in the restaurant industry. However, the foundation knowledge from culinary school kick-starts your career.

2. A culinary school learning environment allows for mistakes

As culinary training is hands-on, it is natural and expected that mistakes would be made in the learning process, and provision is made for this. Students learn through trial and error and are encouraged to practice until perfection is attained.

3. You learn in a less stressful environment at culinary school

Culinary graduates from our survey who were shy and introverted say that a culinary school was a better learning environment for them.

For such students, learning in a fast pace, high-pressured work environment where chefs yell at you and orders must be served in good time can make learning challenging and stressful.

The focus is on the student and learning in a culinary school environment. The pace is slower and allows for the time needed to master the various skills taught. It’s easier to ask questions and learn what you need without being yelled at.

You receive regular feedback and close supervision from experienced chefs as you cook and refine your skills.

4. The knowledge and experience gained are invaluable

A culinary education is structured and intense. It covers a diversity of topics and includes theory and practice to provide the culinary student with comprehensive education, preparing them for the apprenticeship part of their training. Here the student experiences life in the real world, working as part of a kitchen team in a food establishment.

The combination of what is learnt at culinary school, and the apprenticeship results in a well-rounded culinary education that prepares graduates for the world of work.

When reflecting on the education they received, the chefs in our survey had this to say:

  • The knowledge and experience gained are an invaluable introduction to the culinary world.
  • You learn not only the how but the why of everything from the uniform you wear, health and safety in the kitchen, to understanding the technique behind the food you prepare.
  • You learn things much faster than if you were learning on the job, where it may take you longer to gain the same knowledge.
  • Your learning is more comprehensive. There are fewer gaps in your education.
  • You enter the workplace feeling much more confident than if you didn’t know anything. You know what to do in the kitchen and how to work as part of a team, and you can function as a chef, even though you may not have that much work experience yet.

You don’t only gain culinary skills from a culinary education. You learn the skills needed to become an executive chef and to be a restaurant owner.

5. Culinary school prepares you for working in the real world

Attending a culinary school doesn’t mean you get a textbook education. You get a good idea of working in a busy kitchen from your chef-instructors who have worked in the real world for several years. Their stories, experiences, life lessons, and best practices which they share, do much to prepare you for work in the real world.

As learners complete an apprenticeship as part of their education, they are transitioned into what it’s like to work as a chef. The industry training prepares them for their first job placement. During this time, students experience first-hand the physical, mental, and emotional stamina needed to work as a chef. 

6. It depends on your long-term goals for going

You must know why you are attending culinary school and what you hope to do with a culinary education. Your reasons for going are what makes it worth it, says the chefs in our survey.

Here are some of the most common reasons listed by the chefs in our survey. These include chefs who, at the outset, knew that they might not earn huge salaries, and their reasons for going went beyond this:

  • The need to make a career change. One chef who had a passion for cooking but was in a corporate career felt that going to culinary school was the easiest way to move from one career to the other.
  • Cooking is your first passion. You love it and want to learn how to do it well, above all else.
  • You have high aspirations for what you’d like to achieve in your culinary career, and education is vital for getting you there more straightforwardly and faster.
  • It gives you the necessary know-how to achieve your ambitions. If, for example, your dream is to go into business and own a restaurant, being a professional chef means that you know and understand the industry. This makes hiring good staff easier as you know what to look for and are more credible amongst your team. You are more business savvy in managing your team and comprehend the roles and responsibilities within the chef hierarchy. It is also easier for you to find solutions to the problems you encounter, such as high staff turnover, as you understand the stresses and strains of the work environment.

7. You are part of a student community

Being a full-time student as a young adult is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only do you get to experience the fun and light-hearted side of being a student with fellow students, but support and professional networks are built during this time.

Ex-students we spoke to have said that it’s nice to have co-students who encourage, help, and look out for them and that the friendship they formed at culinary school is amongst their closest. You also get to know the professional aspirations of your fellow students, how this tie in with your own, and how you can network to support each other post culinary school.

8. It creates access to alternative culinary careers

The culinary world is broad and diverse. Not everyone who enters has ambitions of working in the restaurant industry. Some of the people we have met attend culinary school to access careers outside the kitchen, like being a food journalist or a food stylist.

The knowledge and experience gained from a culinary education open career opportunities outside the kitchen; these careers may not be accessible without culinary qualifications, and companies are unlikely to hire you.

9. A culinary qualification offers a backup plan

Working in the kitchens of busy food establishments can be stressful and lead to burnout. Further, the older you become, the more difficult it may be to keep abreast of the demands of working in a busy, competitive kitchen.

Many chefs start working in kitchens for several years and later follow career paths outside the kitchen, like vocational education.

Of the chefs we have met, some started out working in kitchens and later obtained a culinary education to pursue less stressful culinary career paths where you have more control over your working hours and the work you take on, like working as a culinary school instructor.

10. You build invaluable networks through a culinary education

Networking to build your career is quite important in the culinary world.

A significant advantage of culinary education is that it is a melting pot of network opportunities: fellow students, chef lecturers, industry chefs you meet during your on-the-job placement, and fellow students who may be older than you and have worked in the industry before going to culinary school.  These are opportunities to learn and grow from their wealth of experience and knowledge and build ongoing personal and professional support for your career.

11. You gain knowledge to fulfil specific career aspirations

Suppose your ambition is to become a restaurant owner, for example. In that case, the knowledge gained at culinary school about managing kitchen operations and staff becomes invaluable, according to the chefs in our survey.

Culinary school is not just about learning to cook. The general education, learning about managing people, operations and resources, menu planning, costing and kitchen design and layout makes this next step in their career easier.

12. It opens career doors and looks good on your resume

Entering the job market with the name of an excellent culinary school behind you looks good on your resume and has influence.

 A recognised school in the culinary world carries weight as prospective employees are likely to associate a good school with producing good students. The name of an excellent culinary school gives you a foot in at the door. From here, it is up to you to prove you have what it takes.

Good culinary schools generally partner with good food establishments for the apprenticeship part of the training. Furthermore, you may end up working under a well-known chef and link your name to theirs in your resume. In the end, you enter the job market with the name of an excellent culinary school and a recognised food establishment on your resume.

Of the chefs surveyed, a few mentioned that culinary school:

  • Helped them land their first job.
  • helped them get a job quickly.
  • that they would not have landed the culinary job they did were it not for going to culinary school.
  • that were it not for going to culinary school, they would not have been considered for the job at all.

13. Achieving an education is a personal value

A few chefs in our survey said they went to culinary school to get an education. Achieving a degree or diploma qualification was essential and made it worth it. In these instances, achieving their educational goals went beyond whether being a chef was financially worth it or not.

14. You gain exposure to different types of food cuisines

Compared to not going to culinary school and learning in a competitive kitchen, where you are only exposed to one kind of food cuisine and cook from a set menu, a culinary education gives you exposure to an array of world food cuisines.

Many schools structure their curriculums to include spending time on the various world cuisines, be it Mediterranean, African, or Asian food cuisine. Students gain knowledge and experience of multiple food cultures and dishes.

15. You gain excellent personal and professional work etiquette

Culinary school training helps students develop meaningful personal and professional work habits like being on time, producing high-quality work, paying attention to detail, listening to and following orders, respect, taking pride in your work, and developing good personal and professional health and hygiene. Qualities like these are essential for a successful culinary career.

Why culinary school is not worth it: What chefs say

1. The cost of culinary education is expensive

You pay a high cost to learn. A culinary education is expensive because operational costs are high, and profits need to be made. From our survey, the high price of culinary education is the number one complaint against culinary education.

The return on investment may, especially at the beginning of your work career, not be worth it when you are not earning a high salary and have a huge student debt to repay. It can be economically worth it when you, further down the line, become a restaurant owner or a partner in one. In the role of restaurant owner, the knowledge acquired through culinary school is invaluable.

If affordability is a barrier and attending culinary school is your dream, consider:

  • Applying for bursaries and scholarships before and throughout your culinary training.
  • Work part-time to lower your repayments if you must make a student loan. A part-time job or self-start project, preferably in the food industry, will also build your work experience.
  • Enter competitions with prize money rewards.
  • Use channels like YouTube to create food videos
  • Source a good, reasonably priced culinary school. They do exist. Not all culinary schools are costly. We have found and visited such schools. If need be, look at schools in other countries.
  • Make sure that this is the career you want. Do this before your culinary training.

2. No adequate preparation for the workplace

It may not adequately prepare you for work in the workplace where you must work at a rapid pace and under pressure.

If this is your concern and you really want a culinary education, then consider taking on a part-time job in a food establishment to prepare more for this. Of course, you must make sure you can cope with both this and the demands of your training.

3. What you learn at culinary school can be learned on-the-job

The culinary industry is one where success can be achieved without a qualification.

The chefs in our survey who do not support going to culinary school are adamant that what you learn at culinary school can be learned in a competitive kitchen. The industry is littered with chefs who have risen through the ranks by working their way up in the kitchen.

From our chefs surveyed, those who have not found it worth their while say that if they had to do it again, they wouldn’t go. Instead, they would find a restaurant job, start at the bottom and work their way up.

One chef said they would spend their education money travelling, working, and learning in restaurants worldwide. This way, they would get paid to learn than pay to learn. Notably, the high cost of training makes it not worthwhile for them.

 A common complaint from chefs in this regard is that:

  • Being a chef is one of the most underpaid professions, especially considering the long work hours.
  • The cost of training is high, but the salaries paid to chefs are low, making it a bad return on investment. This is especially in cases where debt was accrued to fund studies. It takes a long time to settle this debt once employed.

In turn, there are chefs in our survey who, despite their on-the-job training, went on to attain a culinary school education to advance their careers.

4. A lack of maturity in handling culinary school training

Succeeding at culinary school requires that students are mature, clear on their motivations for being there, and can take responsibility for their learning.  What you get from an excellent culinary school depends on what you put in.

Some of the chefs in our survey noted that students who were often fooling around, not meeting their deadlines, had terrible grades, or never pitched for classes or lab kitchens said it was a waste of time.

It is mainly younger, straight-from-school students with little or no previous culinary experience who are at risk of not making the most of their training.  This is often because:

  • They may not have the maturity to handle their culinary training.
  • Are not serious about pursuing a culinary career.
  • Do not have a well-formulated idea of their goals and motives for attending.

Whether younger or older, students who have had some work experience in the industry, either part or full-time, are more mature and serious about their culinary education.

Many chefs from our survey recommend:

  • If you are interested in culinary education, spend time working in the industry before going to culinary school. This experience will help you realise if this is the career you want to follow. If it is, you are more likely to understand the demands thereof and handle your studies with the maturity necessary for success.
  • Have well-formulated goals and motives for going to culinary school. This will help you have a good attitude and take responsibility for your success at culinary school.

5. The training may be outdated

A complaint from chefs who regard culinary school as not worth attending is that students enter the industry with outdated culinary knowledge about, for example, the latest plating trends. One reason is that chef instructors have been out of the industry for several years without updating themselves.

A good idea is to:

  • Find out what the culinary school you are interested in does to stay abreast of new trends and changes in the industry.
  • Find out about the chef instructors who will be working with you. Do they have ongoing connections or participation within the industry? What do they do to continue their professional development? This should give you an idea of how trendy an education you will be receiving.
  • Keep yourself updated with industry trends by researching or following well-known chefs.

6. You may not get the job you want after culinary school

Spending three years at culinary school and learning the more refined art of cooking and managing a kitchen does not mean you will walk into an executive chef role. As with many other jobs, you may have to start at the bottom as a commis chef. From here, you work your way up. The higher roles in the chef hierarchy generally come with experience.

Ways of dealing with this are to:

  • Be aware that this could happen, and it takes time to build experience to your knowledge.
  • Be prepared to work hard and do whatever it takes to achieve your goals.
  • Be humble in your attitude rather than feel entitled.
  • Get as much experience working in kitchens of food establishments. Do this before and while you are at culinary school.

7. Senior chefs may prefer to employ unqualified chefs

The kitchen’s senior chef may hire someone off the street and train them or hire an unqualified chef with experience. Several reasons account for this:

  • An unqualified chef can be paid a lower salary than a qualified one.
  • Some chefs report that qualified, entry-level chefs sometimes tend to be arrogant, have a know-it-all attitude, and have a sense of entitlement because they’ve been to culinary school.

As an entry-level chef, it is more advisable to:

  • Have a humble willing-to-learn attitude. Your culinary training is only the beginning of life-long learning. You could end up in a kitchen, working with qualified and unqualified people who all have more experience than you. Learn from anyone who has something to teach you.
  • Show a willingness to work hard and do whatever task you are given to get the job done.

What factors must you consider before culinary school?

Most chefs and culinary graduates in our survey consider culinary school worth it. However, even those who don’t support attending culinary school will outright discourage anyone from attending.

The conclusion we have drawn from our survey results is that the choice is a personal matter, and whether it is the right path for you or not should depend on several considerations that you need to make before deciding:

1. Your motivation for going to culinary school:

What are your reasons for going? What is the long-term goal you are aiming for? Why is a culinary education important for this?

2. Affordability:

Have you got the funding to go, or would you have to take out a student loan?

3. Your values:

Is it critical for you to have a culinary qualification behind your name? If a qualification, be it a degree, diploma, or higher certificate, is important to you, then a culinary school can be a good idea.

4. The type of person you are:

Are you shy and introverted, sensitive to criticism, and would learn easier in a culinary school environment before entering a busy commercial kitchen set-up?  

5. The learning environment best for you:

What kind of learning environment is best for you? Do you prefer a structured, step-by-step learning environment that is less pressured and paced? Or, do you like to learn on the job in the fast-paced, unstructured set-up of a commercial kitchen?

6. The school you are considering:

Is it a good school and worth the money you are spending? Do they stay updated on the latest culinary trends?

7. Culinary experience:

Have you any culinary experience at all, working with food and cooking? Some chefs recommend going to culinary school if you have no culinary experience but want to become a chef.

8. Is a culinary career the right one for you?:

Have you worked in a restaurant-type environment to ensure this is the career you want to follow? If you still love the industry after this, then only consider attending culinary school.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Whether culinary school is worth it or not is personal. Before deciding, you must weigh the reasons for and against going relevant to you.
  2. There are alternatives to culinary school like on-the-training. Whether it’s affordability or culinary school is not the route for you, if you are genuinely passionate about being a chef, you can become one without formal training.
  3. A culinary career is not for everyone. Before spending large amounts on fees, first spend time working in the kitchen at home or in a restaurant to ensure it is what you want and that you have what it takes.
  4. As experience is vital, get a restaurant job while you are studying where you can gain experience.
  5. Not everyone attending culinary school wants to be a chef working in the restaurant industry. A culinary education opens career opportunities outside of the kitchen.

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