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« Kelly Choi, Shuna Lydon, Peels Spicy Ginger Cake & Pastrylandia on TV, NYC | Main | two thousand ten. »

28 December 2010


Shuna, this is a great piece. I am a writer not a cook and just from my bit of time in food (as a writer eternally developing her craft) and from my experience prior to this life, as a high school teacher, I would say that this may be a particularly American issue where as we tend to think of schooling no matter the type, as the training ground where we pay our dues. I think this is the case, now more than ever. Remember that we live in the land of instant gratification and there is no room for personal responsibility there only dollar signs. Sigh.

I remember that I taught a food writing class at a culinary school in Chicago one quarter and I was stunned by the attitudes of the students in and out of my classroom. In the elevator, all I heard were conversations about television shows (read: them having their own) or catering companies (they thought they'd come out of school opening companies pulling six figures to start) or stages/jobs with local chefs like Charlie Trotter or Carrie Nahabedian or even internationals like Ferran Adria. All just because... The best were those mimicking the attitudes of Bourdain, Ramsey, and Batali. In my writing class those who couldn't string together a sentence, or just barely, thought they'd be submitting to Saveur, Gourmet (RIP), or NYT food section after finishing the class.

Anyway I ramble on...Thank you for writing this. Since everything is about making money I fear that things won't change until, well, ever. The industry--my side and yours--has been changed forever, I'd say.

Wow, I don't even know what to say. Sounds like you're hurt somewhere. Honestly I think culinary school can be an opportunity but most waste it, set themselves up for failure or come out of it looking for the world to hand them something they feel is owed them. They don't last. They can't handle it because once you're on the line, no one cares where you went to school.

Cooking is the great equalizer. You either got the chops and the cojones to handle it, or you don't.

p.s. are there seriously places where the cooks nine to five and have their mise/dishes/knives prepped for them? waaaaaoooowww...

Culinary School is what you make it. I am a graduate of a culinary school and about to open my own restaurant (this is not the norm). But the negativity towards Culinary Schools is a bit to much.

I milked my education for all it was worth. Part of that was being a member of our culinary competition team. I was at school by 5am and left no later than 5p.

I guess this is where I should mention that I'm 38 years old. I was in the radio industry for 13 years - before deciding to 'retire'...

I milked my time in school for all it was worth - while watching the young kids who were only there because their parents wanted them to get a 'degree'.

Hell at least in my experience, a lot of job postings are asking for a culinary degree.

I know I'm not the 'norm', it just irritates me to no end when I get lumped in that "Culinary School" crowd, the one you're discussing here.

I started working in professional kitchens when I was 17 (1980). But I learned more in my year and a half at CCA, than I would have learned in many years working in restaurants. And in those days (86/87), we were not coddled at all. It was a strict French kitchen and we were literally yelled at all the time. It was an 8 hour school day and most people worked in restaurants part time before or after school. Although we were repeatedly told that we would only be qualified to be prep cooks upon graduation, some foolish people thought they were going to be chefs immediately. And I do not come from a privileged background. It was much less expensive back then.

Let the students waste their money, that don't care to cook/mis/scrub/clean and think they are owed something. One thing about this industry it weeds the bad people out. The higher are more prestige the chef is the less likely to find people like this in his/her brigade.

This industry takes care of the people that put their time (blood sweat and tears) in. I am a recent grad of a culinary school in Vancouver, b.c where tuition is not an arm and a leg.

And at my school the very first day they stated this a school for cooks not "chefs". You have to earn that title, it comes with great sacrifice and hard work.

School for me was important it grounded me, opened up my eyes to different cuisines, and techniques. I worked in this industry for 7 years prior before committing to cooking school. That is where a a lot of kids go wrong-- they jump into a field/trade not knowing anything about it and come out of school thinking the world owes them.

I hope things change because it makes it that much harder on the people that care and want to work in our industry. Nothing worse then holding someone's hand well they mis away. Thanks for the read.

Terrific piece.
I am an FOH person, but went to Johnson and Wales where I got my 4 year BS in Restaurant Institutional mgt. We had to go through the culinary program for 8 months, as well. I think JWU is one of the better programs, but this was 14 years ago. JWU, is also geared toward kids who want more hotel and mid scale restaurants. I wanted fine dining. Luckily, I had the right people around me. They got me stages that allowed me then to get a dining room mgt job at a 4 star in nyc after graduation. JWU gave me the blue collar ethics to keep it. I thank JWU every day for the basic education, but wonder if i had not been born into a restaurant and wine family what i would've learned.

I think we have a change in attitude. Kids today want to be famous, want to go on top chef and make money. I've fired more kids coming out of Le Cordon Bleu, CIA and JWU, than i care to remember. I blame the teachers and the schools.
Please PLEASE PLEASE tell these kids that 6 months, 2 years or 4 years does not make you a chef, gm, or sommelier. SCHOOL is terrific, but i don't want a doctor 1 year out of med. I want my doctor with 20 years of experience. When he yells at his 1st year resident they listen. YOU GUYS SHOULD TOO!!

I went to culinary school and feel that all the things you mention; never call in sick, hard work, respect for the chef, etc. were all driven into me during those 2 years. Sure I could have jumped right into the work force at 18 and humped it behind a line somewhere, but knowing my 18 year old self, I would have told the chef to stick it the first time he raised his voice to me. Culinary school opened my eyes to the world of professional cooking. I was taught by professional chefs in state of the art facilities using top of the line ingredients and equipment. It would be very hard for an 18 year old kid, with little cooking experience, to be exposed to such an environment out in the "real world". Sure, culinary school was very expensive, but in no way was I raised in a priviliged environment. I took out loans and paid them off. I was able to do this because my degree helped me get a good paying job out of school. I worked my ass off because I knew that there was real money on the line if I f'ed it up and my parents would be pissed. This definitely prepared me for the grind and pressures of a professional kitchen as well as giving me the necessary technical skills and knowledge of various cusines. As Ken said, a lot of people waste the opportunity. I saw many of my friends drop out or get dropped from school, due to their lack of hard work and overall laziness. They probably wouldn't have suceeded, school or no school. I'm not sure which school you are talking about, if it's any particular one, but my school (Johnson & Wales) never led me to believe that I would't have to work hard after graduation. It was actually the opposite. I think your anger should be unleashed on a case by case basis, not on culinary schools as a whole.

Hello Rob, I think my point here is less about 'culinary schools' as institutions but more about the attitudes culinary schools, as a concept, breed, through their students/graduates.

I do not despise all of anything-- people or education models or kitchens or styles of cooking etc.

I'm saying something more subtle: that because there's the concept that a place: a school, an institute of learning, an education model, can sell and give and teach people something which cannot be condensed/streamlined, an attitude is growing/taking hold in kitchens everywhere that this craft, this lifelong learning experience, is cheap and easy and easy to come by.

This attitude of which I speak has infiltrated/invaded/taken hold and flourished exponentially with the growth of culinary schools and their growing numbers of graduates. I could give a thousand examples, but it's nothing any of us cooks do not experience daily.

Culinary school changes the playing field. For all cooks. Meaning: Even Me! And I couldn't afford culinary school!

Thank you for reading & leaving a thought provoking comment. ~ Shuna

Great post. I think the key bit inside of the kitchen or not is:

When did personal responsibility become a thing of the past? If it's "always someone else's fault," when will you challenge yourself to become better, cleaner, faster?

People also seem to want things handed to them more often than not. They forget that we all, each and every one of us, make our own luck. There are no shortcuts. In every craft, every profession there is a progression where things have to be learned and (gasp- oh the horror) dues have to be paid.

Formal schooling is wonderful for those that can afford it but the real learning takes place on the line (literally and metaphorically).

In my field (IT) formal education is the cost of admission for most but actual proficiency comes from doing the job itself for years at a time.

Funny thing though... When I have a truly vexing problem the solution is far more likely to come from someone who started in the trenches and worked their ass off (autodidact) and listened and learned from the people around them rather than from the assembly line (sounds familiar eh?) CS graduate.

You are so right. And that is why so many culinary school graduates are now working in the front of the house. They can't handle it in a real world kitchen AND they can't afford to pay back their culinary school debt on line cook wages!


This is such a magnificent post, both thought-provoking and disturbing.

The failure of "education" in general - formal and informal - is astonishing. Most colleges, including those we would consider "elite," have a mandatory writing course for freshman because high school graduates do not get out of twelfth grade knowing how to write!

I hate your story about the SAT's.

I went to a second-rate NYC culinary school (thank god it was cheaper and quicker than the CIA) and then cooked in fine dining there for 8 years. I agree, most culinary "schoolin'" is a joke, or a placemat, but I disagree that line cooks in NYC walk into line jobs with all the prep work done for them. We had prep cooks, sure, but we needed them b/c the other mise was strenuous and fully filled a 13, 14 hour day. What you describe was never my experience. What restaurant would waste money like that?

I guess it was different when I went to school (97-99), because the celebrity chef culture hadn't yet taken hold. I think Emeril was the only really big celebrity chef at the time. I can't remember one of my friends from school having aspirations of being on TV or heading up their own restaurant group. We all worked full time jobs and went to school at the same time, because that's what you did. Work hard, play harder. I could see how the current generation of young chefs are blinded by the bright lights of celebrity. Being a chef is portrayed as glamourous these days and young kids think it might just be their ticket to fame. Those are the future failures and the ones with the shitty attitudes. You have to have the work ethic, school or not. I can see how some of the newer culinary schools have seized an opportunity to make a boatload of cash off of these young kids. They teach them basic skills and hand out their diplomas when the checks cleared, but the older, established schools give you what you need to make it in this insane field of ours, the rest is up to the individual.

I think it is not so much in the schooling as it is in the attitude. I went to culinary school, and even in school, many of my fellow students lacked a very basic work ethic. Many went out of their way to avoid doing the work, which since we had to work in teams was unfair to those of us who wanted to learn and who worked hard. And this attitude, which I thought was only school/student related turned out to be something I found in working kitchens too. Shirking, and only working when the eyes of the management are there. I've spent time in kitchens where people spent half the day on their cellphones, hiding out in corners smoking and drinking, leaving the few responsible ones to do the majority of the work. Very sad. And very very discouraging. can't help wonder which school to go to these days when it comes to a culinary degree. You all have valid points. I don't wish to work on the line or in a restaurant. I want to be a Personal/Private Chef and that's why I am planning to attend CIA in the Fall next year. I am in my 40's changing careers and CIA is a great place to learn and for contacts. What do you think about that?


Schools are like anything else in life, some are good and some are bad.

People need to find schools that train them to be cooks, NOT chefs.

You can't become a chef at school. Becoming a chef takes years of experience and the ability to use the knowledge that you have accumulated over time in a way that gains the respect of your peers.

What a school should give you is a basic understanding on how to operate as a professional cook. That is, you need to find a school that emphasises practical information not theory.

That is the type of school I went to in Vancouver. It was short, sweet and intense. Most importantly, the chef instructors were also the owners of the school which meant they had a vested interest in producing the best students possible.

As for the privilege breeding privilege thing, I agree to a point. Yes, the price of schools, especially in the US, is ridiculous. Yes, it is hard for those who do not come from a lot of money to afford school.

In the end, though, people control their own lives. My last job was a line cook in Vancouver. After tax I made 90 dollars a day working 12-14 hour shifts. All my co workers complained about the shit wages and how they had no money. They would then promptly blow all their money on drinking and drugs.

On the other hand, I saved my ass off and, a year later, was able to fund my dream to move to Europe and stage at michelin star restaurants. I even ended up getting a job at a michelin star restaurant and am living and cooking in Copenhagen now.

I suppose my point is that if you really want something there is no point in being resentful of the "system" or those more privileged than yourself.

In life there are always going to be injustices and instances where you feel the odds are stacked against you. It's your job to nut up and have the courage to overcome these obstacles and go after the things you want in life.

Shuna, the usual, THANKS !!! Open prose wrapped truths, that I do wish the open public wold see and read, especially to those who would send the kids into cs. I also find from the comments, about SATs, that even back in 1969-1970 I wished I could have had help too. AS usual, like I tell young folks, you GOT TO DO WHAT YOU ARE PASSIONATE about, have an propensity also for, to get you through the tough times and people. You keep this up Shuna, hopefully some of 'those' kids will read and re-read them if we get it out to them, about the real world.
I grew up in the restaurant business, where my Dad was Tulsa, Ok. # 1 business man, and we did everything by scratch, and personal envolvelent/relationships with all the help. Passion and ownership and toughlove. You go kid(that is an endearment not a mockey.)

This should be an eye-opener for anyone who thinks becoming a chef is a glamorous endeavour, who can pay their way to stardom instead of hunching down the trenches. I love the perspective "be the foreman before being the apprentice" applying to culinary graduates who think they are god the moment they graduate. It is true about the dilution. Pity the youth who realize too late that this profession is the hardest, but most fruitful, craft to master.
Kudos to you, chef. Thanks for keeping the spirit alive and all of us grounded.

totally dig this post. wish I had a nickel for everytime I had a skippy in the bakery who couldn't bake a cookie or listen long enough to learn because I learned at the University of Hard Knocks. I know I got lucky-I got paid to learn on the job instead of paying someone to teach in a classroom environment. I would never have learned if I had gotten a degree-I had to get my hands in the dough to understand, to gain memory muscle. And when I had to deal with a student, I flinched when they called me chef-I had only been there for 8 years, what did I know? not nearly enough as the grizzled guys with 30 years under their belts.
I blame the Food Network and the glitz/glam fame aspects of food. They all want recognition and a pat on the back everyday. I say if you do your job and the customer is happy, I share that with my team; we did it together so good get your ass back to work because we have tomorrow to get ready for.
Thanks for sharing your brain- I love it

I was a school trained chef and am now retired, I cooked with the best and was well trained. HOWEVER, none of the realities of a professional kitchen were taught, they can't be. Every Chef has to go his/her own way, there is no right way and I say we stop this and applaud everyone who stands on their feet 16 hours a day, has to pee, can't find the time to eat, hasn't had a holiday with their family in years, doesn't know what prime TV is, but salivates and gets that "look" when they smell good food or open a cook book. I applaud us all. Happy New Year and to Shuna, you do a great job of getting stuff out in the open.

What you're saying here transfers-any art and craft, cooking, writing, whatever, requires time and failure to mature. Early success, or promise of quick success, breeds mediocrity.

While I don't agree necessarily with culinary school, I went to one. And I didn't come out thinking that the world owed me anything.

I went because I make a career change late in the game. I'm not in my twenties. I don't have the time or energy to spend 15-20 years learning a craft. I needed to learn techniques and methods across the board, and I use the kitchens I work in to remember and hone those skills. Don't get me wrong, I have been cooking and baking since I was 9 years old, but home baking and industry baking are two different beasts.

I'm a pretty fast learner, but culinary school gave me an edge. I wouldn't advise anyone young to throw away their money. Hell, even I hate the debt incurred with getting this education. While in school I looked at the horrible cooks who passed classes and I knew that they were being taken for a ride. It is an industry and these schools, like all schools are looking to turn a profit. But it's done now.

I've worked with other culinary school grads and am often ashamed with their work ethic. Not that I am the best, but I've busted my ass to do the work asked of me. After prepping the line for the night, I have even helped the savory side with their prep. I cook a lot at home; I ask all chefs questions to get a better understanding of what is done on both sides of the menu. I strive to learn and work hard and I hunger for more. But I think that's more personality and how someone was raised, not necessarily a culinary school-vs-kitchen learning thing. I have meet young people who have worked in kitchens since they were teenagers feel like they were entitled to something at 22. I mean really.

Sorry for the rant, but thanks for the forum. I guess I needed to get something off my chest as well.

Culinary school is not the only way to go, but neither is learning everything organically. Some people do better in different types of environments. In general, post secondary education is vastly overpriced in our country, and its a shame. And yes, there are plenty of things that school "teaches" that you could just as easily learn on your own, but our society is structured to admire that paper. I guess it just depends on what you want out of your culinary career and what you are willing to do to reach your goals.

I read your post and a few of the comments, but not all.

I am a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and my education there was nothing like what you speak of. I chose to attend culinary school at the age of 27, with a BA in Neuroscience and Biology from a top 30 university already under my belt. I was completely dismayed with the future that had been laid out for me post-grad decided to change it. I attended culinary school and it was grueling. I continued to work full time while commuting 85 miles into Manhattan for school at night, paying for parking, tolls and a gas guzzling jeep with a credit card and building up enormous debt, never-mind the 40k plus I already owed in loans for my BA degree. Oh, and my culinary education, that was all made possible through a loan too...not cheap.

At school, my instructors never eased up. They were harsh, straight forward and spoke truly of the profession. If I had to hear about salting my dishes properly, one more time, I swear, at that time, I was sure I would lose it.

Culinary school was tough. Sure, working in the profession was even more tough, but, in school, I was taught the foundation of cooking and received a well-educated palate. These were things I did not have until then. Without it, I would have less debt and less happiness. I love what I do. Without culinary school, I would be sitting here as 30 year old garde mange prep cook rather than lead line/tournant.

While I know that culinary school isn't only one way to enter into the field and learn, I am grateful, every day, for what my culinary education gave me.

I agree with you to an extent. I am almost done with my baking and pastry arts degree. I currently work two jobs, as the pastry cook in a local restaurant and as a teaching assistant. I also intern at a local bakery. The pay sucks for all three.. but it's great experience and I wouldn't trade it for anything. For me, culinary school was just a foundation to build on. I learned a lot in school...and I've learned a lot more working in an actual restaurant kitchen. The two are very different, but I think both have helped me grow as a cook.

I see your point though. I've seen wayyyy too many people pass through classes when they shouldn't have. It sucks for those of us who actually give a shit and who actually work their asses off to see that happen. I think it's really more of the attitude of the student than the culinary school though.

I was a cook for years and finally went to cooking school and graduated in 1999. I am not sorry that I went, I have a good understanding of cooking, more than I had prior, BUT I advise anyone to work in a kitchen in some capacity before you make arrangements to enroll, because if anyone thinks they will be a celebrity chef or never get dirty it's the wrong industry. Shuna can correct me but I read an article in Edible NYC that said Peels makes over 5K biscuits a day. Do you realize how much time that takes or how back breaking it is? I would never tell anyone to not work at their passion but to truly have an understanding of what it is really like to have to be there.

People go to culinary school for the same reasons they go to any other. In this case, they like cooking and think they'd be good at it. At home the process takes at most an hour or two for a fairly elaborate menu. But, working in a commercial kitchen is not like being a famous TV Chef, where the show is over in 30 minutes or less.

They get to a restuarant and discover that it means working their ass off all day in a crummy environment with a bunch of misfits (who seem to gravitate to kitchens). Dinner service means working late into the night, for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.
Not only do they have to prepare someone elses recipes, they have to do them exactly the same every time. :)They could have learned that in one summer job as a scullery maid.

I absolutlely agree with you. I did attend culinary school at George Brown in Toronto and really feel as though there was nothing anyone could do to prepare you for the amount of stress and hardship working in the kitchen. Infact every school, food writer, or tv show has yes to encapsulate the kind of stress endured in a kitchen. They stress the yelling, the screaming, the running your ass off; realistically a well run kitchen does not perform like that and its for the audience. Its the sixteen hour days, the lack of days off, trying to keep your cool when in a rush, losing contact with all your friends and family.... its the subtle amount of emotional and physical stress which I believe is why the job is so damn hard. When I went to culinary I was older and already knew to do your job and keep your mouthshut, however many of these kids did not, and from two classes of 60 people I only know of three that still do the job. I would recommend it to anyone with enough cash to goto culinary school to learn how to cook (a basic life skill), but to anyone with an honest longing for the trade go work in a kitchen, and after youve burned out goto culinary for a well deserved rest.

Education is a stone in a river, getting to the other side is a whole different thing. some people cross the river one way, some people another way, only the strong make it. to quote beetlejuice "its all very personal." or to quote a surfer I once new" its the journey man!"

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