If you tell someone in the food industry that you are interested in getting a cooking school degree they are likely to ask you, “What kind?” Rather than staring back blankly, you’d be well advised to get a broad overview of the types of degrees available. Then you can impress your acquaintance with your deep understanding of the field, and he or she is likely to help you pick the right school or industry for you.
Cooking school degrees can be divided into three main categories:
To make things still more confusing, many cooking programs offer none of the above. And while these programs tend to be aimed at the amateur enthusiast, some are considerably more professional than others and do attract aspiring professionals.
- Certificate or diploma programs tend to be of very short duration and are heavily focused on hands-on training. They may last as little as eight weeks or as long as a year (especially if it is a part-time program). These are very popular with career changers or those who are not sure they want to pursue a professional career in the culinary arts. Most certificates or diplomas will qualify you for an entry-level food preparation job, but you always have the option to go back to school for further training and a formal degree.
- Associate’s degrees are generally two-year programs, widely available in a variety of disciplines (though most students pursue a general culinary arts or baking and pastry degree). Accelerated programs may take only a year or slightly more. These degrees qualify you for an entry-level supervisory or management position in the food service industry.
- Bachelor’s degrees are for students who are sure they want to make a career in the culinary arts, and who wish to be prepared for both the creative side of the field AND the business side of the industry. A BA opens a wider window onto the industry as a whole. You will study global cuisines, marketing and management, nutrition and dietetics. Graduates with a BA often pursue interests outside the kitchen, as in writing, teaching, consulting, or business development.
Cooking School Certificates, Diplomas, and Licenses
The American Culinary Foundation (ACF) has established a comprehensive program of 14 professional certifications. To be certified in any of these areas you will need to have taken a certain number of classes in such topics as food safety and sanitation, kitchen management, and nutrition. If you have a lot of experience but little formal training, you can often take classes online or prove your expertise by passing a test, administered by the ACF.
This is often an attractive option for people who have received training through alternative pathways, such as in the military. In fact, there is a special certification process designed for cooking professionals coming out of the US military. Check the website of the ACF for further details. You want to receive credit for the knowledge you have acquired, whether in a classroom or in the real world. And most of the time, there is a way to get it.Cooking schools offer certificates in specific aspects of the culinary arts, such as pastry and baking. Certificates are typically intensive, hands-on training programs lasting six to 12 months, with little or no course work outside the kitchen. For instance, the French Pastry School in Chicago offers a 24-week professional pastry and baking program that will prepare students for careers as pastry chefs or professional bakers.
Some of the advantages of certificate programs are that they do not necessarily follow a traditional school year, but begin new terms two or three times a year. These types of cooking school programs are ideal for career switchers who may already have an undergraduate or advanced degree and have no wish to earn another, but who want to learn the skills they need to survive in a professional kitchen and get on with a new career as soon as possible.
A relatively new certificate available at some cooking schools is one that combines training for a career in catering with that of a personal chef. Demand for personal chefs is rising rapidly, as people with disposable income but little time opt for the convenience and luxury of having someone else cook dinner for their families in their own homes. Unlike degree programs, certificate programs can be periodically updated or expanded to reflect trends in the real world.
These diploma and certificate programs do not necessarily come cheap. The six-month pastry certificate at the French Pastry School currently costs $22,000. A similar program at the French Culinary Institute in New York is roughly twice as much, but it offers the options of taking the course in the evening or daytime.
Diplomas are available from a variety of cooking schools as well as technical and community colleges. They typically take a very short time to complete (eight to 10 weeks is common), making them affordable and appropriate for someone just starting out as a professional food worker. Among the more popular diploma offerings are professional cooking, baking and pastry arts, and restaurant management.
A license is needed only if you are planning on starting your own home-based cooking or catering business. In that case, your state may require you to register as a professional business and open your home to inspection to ensure that it meets food safety and sanitation codes. Typically, if you are hired as a chef in someone else’s home you do not need to register or be licensed. You should check the regulations in your community.
Cooking School Associate’s Degrees
An AAS (associate of applied science) degree is available from thousands of cooking schools, technical and community colleges, and private institutions around the US. Quality and price will vary considerably depending on your location, whether the institution is public or private, and how long it takes to complete the degree.
Prerequisites for entering an associate’s degree program at a cooking school vary somewhat. Nearly all require that you either be a high school graduate or have completed a general equivalency diploma (GED). You will probably not need to take the SAT or ACT to apply, but if you have done well on standardized tests, you may be able to win scholarship money to help pay the bills. In addition to tuition and fees, and possibly room and board, you will need to purchase standard equipment like a set of professional knives, which do not come cheap.
The most common courses of study are an AAS in culinary arts (an all-around cooking degree) and an AAS in baking and pastry. Many schools offer accelerated programs in one or both of these fields that can have you ready to enter the work world in a little over a year. Some students prefer to combine their studies with paid work, so they may need to find a school with a flexible schedule that includes evening and weekend classes.
The AAS degree is the most popular degree for food and restaurant professionals, combining classroom work in such subjects as chemistry, psychology, business management, and nutrition with lots of hands-on instruction in modern kitchen work labs.
Typical classes you will take for the AAS degree in culinary arts include: survey of food service; intro to stocks, sauces and soups; storeroom operations; and sanitation. A student in the AAS program will take courses like pastry theory, art for baking and pastry, and basic skills classes. All students will take classes in cost control, because restaurants are businesses and part of your job will be to make money for your employer as well as yourself.
You will almost certainly be required to perform an internship (for credit, often for pay as well) in order to complete your AAS degree. Cooking schools often have extensive connections with local restaurants and dining establishments and can point their students to the best kitchens to gain experience.
Once you have completed your AAS, you will probably enter your chosen profession at not quite the bottom rung, but still a quite modest entry-level position. You will need to earn your stripes as a food preparation worker or, if your degree is in baking, perhaps an assistant pastry chef. If you are interested in a career in management, the AAS is a good starting point, but you will still have to work your way up.
Cooking School Bachelor’s Degrees
A Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree is still looked at as something of a luxury item in the world of professional cooking. It is by no means a prerequisite to becoming a chef, and many of the world’s greatest chefs have had no formal degree at all.
So why consider getting one? Well, for one thing, the world is changing, and having a bachelor’s degree is increasingly viewed as a necessary stepping-stone to rising in any industry. There are many advantages to obtaining a BA when you are young and unencumbered. And you can obtain a rigorous culinary training under some of the country’s best chefs at the college of your choice. What’s not to like?
A BA in culinary arts is available from a growing list of colleges and cooking schools. It is the next step up from an associate’s degree program, in which food preparation is combined with business principals. At the BA level, a much greater range of studies are opened up to students. For example, students often have the opportunity to extend well beyond the traditional French/Western culinary tradition. They can now explore Asian and Latin American cuisines, which often use very different techniques and ingredients.
Also, cooking schools that offer a bachelor’s degree will place a heavy emphasis on the business end of the culinary arts. Students will take accounting and management courses that prepare them for any potential career path – owning a restaurant empire, managing a chain for an international corporation, or opening a restaurant from scratch.
We see how a bachelor’s degree can open doors professionally, but how do you get in a cooking school that offers one? These are often the most demanding schools with the highest reputations. It will help if you have done well in high school and perhaps have taken some college-level courses. Some schools require you to take a standardized test like the SAT or ACT. Others will allow you to substitute a test of their own.
If you were not a great student in high school, don’t let that prevent you from applying to cooking schools that award the BA; they also take professional interest and experience into consideration. If you have worked in the food industry and feel a passion for it, that may help in the admissions process. Extracurricular activities will also be looked on favorably, especially if they demonstrate community spirit and engagement.
The downside to getting a bachelor’s degree from a college or cooking school is that it will take four years to complete and may cost a small fortune. Some would argue that those four years could be better spent serving either a formal or informal apprenticeship in some of the great kitchens of the world. The money you would save could be better spent, some would argue, traveling the world in search of those experiences.
On the other hand, it is very difficult to get a scholarship to support such a lifestyle, and not everyone is suited to camping out while they apprentice for next to nothing in Europe, Asia, Australia, or North America. Some people need the structure that a college provides.
Certainly, with a BA in culinary arts or pastry arts you will not jump to the head of the kitchen hierarchy, at least not immediately. But you will be better positioned a few years down the road should you wish to move into management or some food-related profession (like writing or teaching).