The topic of culinary school has come up lately here in Blackbirds pastry department as we get to know the newer members of our team, Krystle and Harry. Through conversation, it’s clear we all have a lot in common. However, it’s interesting how divergent our paths into this kitchen are.
Jane currently attends the french pastry school and spends the few hours she has before an overnight baking shift on the weekends learning with us as an extern. Harry opted for a degree in food science while staging under an enviable list of pastry chefs before he took his first paid position in our kitchen. Krystle went to a Jr. college in California as her father urged her not to take out loans, landing at Bernardus for 5 years before signing on as our Sous chef. Kara took her courses at the CIA, passing through Cafe Boulud and The Peninsula before I found her in our dining room eating the entire dessert menu and hinted that we had a job opening up. Both Molly and Amy went to JJC here in chicago, and between the two of them have seen the inside of pie shops, chocolate shops, large scale bakeries, and Bouchon in New York before they joined the team and showed their dedication to craftsmanship.
Me? I dropped out of the Art Institute of Seattle.
Yet here we all are, standing in the same kitchen, sharing the same experience, the same hours, and the same wages.
While all our paths converge here, some of us carry with us the burden of student loans left over from our choices in educational experiences.
Student loans are extremely hard to pay off on a cooks wage. In order to pay student loans, I see passionate cooks take jobs that don’t necessarily further their eduation or satisfy them in order to repay loans, or take second jobs with their minimal free time in order to make ends meet. It’s a challenge enough to live on a cooks wage, and the monthly obligation to repay a loan can be crippling.
So is school worth it? Yes. A culinary school will give you a broad scope survey of the wide world of culinary arts. It is not training ground for working in restaurants. It is not a degree that will allow you to step into a management level position without first climbing the ranks and starting at 10 dollars an hour. You will learn to make a million different things, once, and you will get a taste for the varied nooks and crannies of our culinary profession, of which restaurants are a small but highly visible part.
Culinary school will help you stick your foot in the door, and present yourself as career minded candidate for jobs in the field without any previous experience. Studying formally will also give you an idea of what part of the industry you might like to narrow your career into before you start applying for jobs.
Based on what I have seen passing through kitchens over the last 10 years, most culinary school will do this. Those with prestige and expensive tuition and those housed in junior colleges or trade schools will all send you into the work force with a similar level of experience. Your degree will open a door. But once that door is open, it’s your passion and drive that keeps it from shutting. In my experience, there is no educational marker for the cook that keeps the door open for themselves. They come from every walk of life, and all have two things in common, drive and passion.
I feel lucky. The universe took care of me. I was 19 when I wanted to enter the industry, and I saw culinary school as my way of presenting myself to the profession. I toured the community colleges in Seattle, put off by the job posting board’s inclusion of grocery store bakeries (what a snob!). I was captured by the Art Institutes schmancy kitchens, views of the water, and the promises of an elite education, all of which came with a forty thousand dollar price tag. I wanted to emulate the chefs I held on high like Thomas Keller and Jacques Torres, and believed the path began with a fancier education.
So I enrolled in The Art Institute and agreed to exchange 40 k for my chance to walk down the road to chefdom. I paid my tuition each quarter in 20 dollar bills that I collected, 2 or 3 dollars at a time from the breakfast tables of a family friends Diner where I waited tables full time in the mornings before I went to school. The tips I earned were enough to pay my tuition outright and support a meager life, and saved me from a 20 year relationship with a lender.
I say I feel lucky because its likely I would have taken student loans to pay my tuition had my employment been different. Had I done this, I would never have been able to travel and stage like I have, or take jobs solely for their educational value instead of their wage. Or, knowing me, I would have gone gallivanting around the globe anyways, let my loans default, and worried about it later.
I feel eternally grateful to the universe for giving me the ability to pay my expensive tuition outright. As someone who is now asked frequently for advice by young cooks (or more often their parents) about whether to go to school or not, I can say this.
If you know you want to cook, but don’t know where to start, go to school. Be wary of assuming debt to do it, keeping in mind you will get from any school what you put into it. You will meet working chefs and see various styles of cuisine by volunteering at large events. You’ll spend every day along side people who will enter the workforce with you and remain friends and colleagues for years. You’ll tip toe into the industry through mandatory externships, and when you leave school, you’ll start your career with a budding knowledge of cuisine, ready to begin your career by starting at the bottom and paying your dues just like everyone else.
If you know where or what you want to cook, just go do it. Get yourself in a kitchen, and work your ass off learning things as simple as how to hold a knife. You’ll have to open doors for yourself, but someone will take you. Cast a wide net and start building experience. Actively educate yourself while earning money instead of spending it. In a year or two, when the culinary students are graduating, they will be taking the same job you had a year ago, at the same entry level wages. You will be ready to take a step into your second or third cooking position and can be hired on as a dependable member of a kitchen at an elevated wage. While at The Fat Duck I met a cook who took his college fund and spent it staging in Europe for 18 months. The Fat Duck itself is helmed by Heston Blumenthal, who had never studied formally yet managed to earn 3 michelin stars and the title of #1 restaurant in the world, twice.
I’m glad I went to school. My own desires upon entry straddled the world of savory and sweet, and by the end of studying in both programs, I finally saw my own trailhead existed in restaurants. This wasn’t clear to me when I started, and my education built confidence in me that I was of some value to a restaurant when I finally asked for the door to open. I left school behind, deciding instead to take a mentored position under Scott Carsberg at Lampreia in Seattle. Without looking back, I walked away from the study of sugar and chocolate sculpture, the final class sitting between me and a degree. The 35,000 I had invested in my education up to that point was forgotten and I moved forward without a degree to show for it, investing solely in my skills and abilities by learning on the job from a master.
I can’t tell you which path to take for yourself. I guess you could say I took both paths, abandoning one when the second became clear. My only endorsement for any other individual is that you follow your own path, understanding value in yourself and the direction you take. And by all means, consider your options thoroughly before you take out a large student loan.