When most people think of cooking school, they probably picture an industrial kitchen with lots of stainless steel counters and appliances and a dozen or so young people in starched white jackets trying to follow the instructions of a teacher wearing a tall white toque. In fact, that’s not too wide of the mark.
- But cooking school today has moved beyond the traditional environment. It is in your grocery stores. It is in the upscale appliance store. It is being held in a storefront kitchen that sells gourmet food and cooking lessons to couples or children. It is in community colleges and high schools. And it has migrated onto the campuses of traditional four-year colleges.
- Cooking school is everywhere. Cooking school is hip. Everyone wants to be Bobby Flay or Rachael Ray. We follow celebrity chefs on their book-signing tours, eat in their restaurants, and devotedly watch their shows.
- And yet, cooking school is one of the most practical of vocational training programs. It is remarkably flexible, allowing students to take a single class, pursue a diploma or certificate, a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree.
We can study the history of food, the science of food, the psychology of food, or its cultural importance at cooking school. We can learn how to write about it, photograph it, promote it, pair it with wine, or make it last longer.
As America continues to grapple with our expanding waistline, students are learning how to prepare healthy meals that satisfy our cravings with fewer calories and more nutritional value.
It’s little wonder that cooking schools are growing in number and size every year or that they are attracting ever more students.
The questions most people contemplating cooking school ask themselves three questions:
- Which program is right for me?
- Can I afford it?
- What can I do with a degree in cooking?
Each of these questions will be answered in detail in the following sections, but here are brief answers to each.
Which program is right for me? Only you can answer that question. Among the things you should consider are your age, physical condition, goals, how much free time you have, and how much money you are willing to spend.
Can I afford it? Again, it depends on your circumstances and what you want to accomplish. Most people can afford a class or two at a local community college, especially if they calculate the potential savings by eating out less often because they have become such fabulous home cooks. On the other hand, it is a serious decision whether to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to get an associate in applied science or bachelor’s degree in culinary arts when entry-level jobs in the industry tend to pay about $20,000 a year. Be very wary about going deep into debt to pay for a cooking school degree.
What can I do with a degree in cooking? This answer is quite reassuring: you can do practically anything that has a relationship to food (which encompasses a lot of jobs). In brief, a certificate or a diploma is most useful for getting jobs in any sort of professional kitchen. Earning an associate’s degree will help you land either a hands-on cooking job or a supervisory/managerial position in the hospitality industry. A bachelor’s degree in culinary arts positions you for jobs in management, the media, consulting, or teaching.
What Makes a Good Cooking School Student?
Reasons to Go to Cooking School
Specialist vs. Generalist
Cooking School Admission
Cooking School Degrees
Cost of Cooking School
Paying for Cooking School
Preparing for the Job Search
History of Cooking School
Choosing a Cooking School
It is impossible to overstate this simple truth: once you have made the decision to attend cooking school, focus all your attention on choosing the right school for you.
This is not terribly important if you are independently wealthy or if you only want to learn how to throw a successful dinner party (a real skill, not to be scoffed at!), but if you want to become a professional cook, your choice of school is critical.
There are so many options available today that it is harder than ever to determine which is right for you. But take a deep breath and read on. I’m going to sort it all out for you.
Choosing a cooking school
- Option 1: A local program at a community college or technical school. The advantages to this option are convenience (you don’t have to move) and cost. If you don’t have a lot of money and need to stay in town for family or other reasons, this may be a good choice.
- Option 2: A certificate or diploma program from a prestigious cooking school in a big city. The advantages of this option are that it is exciting, relatively quick (about six months), and will impress big-name employers. The downside is that these programs are expensive and grueling – a real trial by fire. If you find you are not cut out for this sort of life, your decision (and debt) may haunt you.
- Option 3: A two-year or four-year degree program at a private cooking school or college. These types of programs combine classroom and kitchen labs with elements of a traditional college experience. They tend to have excellent teaching staffs and comprehensive services, from financial aid to internships to help navigating the job market. Your degree may (I repeat, may) be more flexible and valuable than a certificate. On the downside, this option can be enormously expensive. You will also need to devote anywhere from two to four years to these programs – years some professional chefs better spend gaining real-world experience.
Types of Cooking School
Cooking schools can be divided into degree-granting institutions and non–degree-granting institutions. Degrees can either be a four-year bachelor of arts degree or a two-year associate’s degree. Recently, as the popularity of the culinary arts has grown in the US, more four-year schools are adding cooking programs to their repertoires and offering majors and minors in food-related studies.
Relatively few cooking schools grant four-year degrees, while many grant two-year degrees. Most private cooking schools grant both types of degree. In addition, many community colleges and technical schools offer some sort of culinary arts training. Some are quite good and are a good deal less expensive than private cooking schools.
Other cooking schools or programs do not grant degrees at all. They may grant certificates or diplomas, offering proof to employers that a certain standard of accomplishment was met. Typically, such certificates require as little as eight to 10 weeks to complete. These certificate programs may offer an inexpensive introduction to life in a professional kitchen, offering a chance to try out this line of work. Alternately, these programs can be a way for an experienced cook to explore a new style of cooking, study wine and beverage service, or gain new skills.
Other cooking school programs offer no formal certification at all. Many programs that cater to the home cook or amateur enthusiast fall into this category. Enthusiast training programs range in terms of time commitment from a few hours to a few weeks (or a semester of part-time study). Often, these are offered in a vacation setting, perhaps overseas or on a dedicated cruise ship.
Cooking School Accreditation
There was a time when just about anyone could hang out a shingle and open up a cooking school. Sometimes, such institutions were run by highly trained chefs who imparted their expertise to students in their well run, if small, establishments. At other times, these “cooking schools” were fly-by-night operations that took students’ money in return for useless diplomas.
So, in an effort to ensure that students were getting quality training and chef-teachers were not being taken advantage of by unscrupulous administrators, a movement was begun to monitor and accredit US cooking schools.
There are a number of accrediting agencies in the United States that have taken on the responsibility for ensuring the quality and standards of cooking schools. The best known of these is the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation Accrediting Commission (ACFEFAC). This branch of the highly respected American Culinary Federation encourages cooking schools (at the high school and college levels) to apply for certification, which amounts to an official seal of approval.
To receive certification, a school must demonstrate that its staff is properly trained, facilities are up-to-date, its curriculum is demanding, and students are actually learning. Inspectors visit schools to ensure that everything is up to snuff before the accreditation is given, which helps guarantee to students and their families that a diploma or degree from that school will be respected by potential employers and professionals.
In addition to the ACFEFAC, which operates on a nationwide level, numerous regional accrediting agencies also monitor cooking schools. These include the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, and the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. Accreditation by these organizations should also be deemed a stamp of approval by knowledgeable professionals.
Rankings of Cooking Schools
Unlike most colleges and schools, there have been few attempts to rank US cooking schools in a strict hierarchy. US News & World Report, for instance, produces a popular and influential ranking of colleges and universities, business schools, and graduate schools, but does not assess cooking schools.
So if you are hoping to find a list of the top 10 cooking schools, you are out of luck. However, an unofficial ranking system is certainly in place, and there are a handful of cooking schools that are universally recognized as “one of the best” in the country.
Near the top of the list is the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. An easy jaunt from New York City, the CIA is the world’s only four-year residential college devoted exclusively to the culinary arts. It has an extensive range of majors, top-notch facilities, and highly respected instructors. Even so, it accepts 65% of applicants, so you should not be put off by its phenomenal reputation. And while costs are roughly in line with other four-year colleges, the CIA also has the same excellent access to financial aid; some 85% of its students receive some form of assistance.
Upon graduating from a school like the CIA, you will instantly have access to an unparalleled network of 40,000 alumni, most of them active in the field around the world. It’s no secret that alumni from a top school like to hire fellow graduates! They know what to expect, and share a connection.
Other high-ranked cooking schools include Kendall College in Chicago. It recently moved from a suburban location in Evanston, IL to modern facilities in downtown Chicago and has benefited from close working relationships with acclaimed restaurants in the city. It accepts fewer than 40% of applicants, so admission is quite competitive.
Then there are cooking schools that focus exclusively on hands-on training. They do not offer classes or degrees, but you will hone your skills in the kitchen in as little as six months. Among these schools, the French Culinary Institute and Italian Culinary Academy, both in New York City, are ranked very highly by professionals.
Many branches of Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools are ranked very high by food industry professionals, and they are located in some of the most popular “foodie” cities in the country. Additionally, there are up and coming new schools designed to train food professionals in exciting, hip areas of the country. These would include the Texas Culinary Academy in Austin and the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh.
Reputation and Name Recognition of Cooking Schools
If you want to be a great chef, you should strive to attend a cooking school with an outstanding reputation. This is important, not for bragging rights but because established chefs will know and trust a graduate from these institutions, making it easier (though by no means easy!) to further your training in a top-notch kitchen.
But perhaps you are not really interested in being a world-class chef. Perhaps you want to own and run a small restaurant in your home town. Or perhaps you dream of traveling the world, working in glamorous resorts and learning new cuisines along the way. In that case, it may not be as important to attend one of the most prestigious (and expensive) cooking schools in the country. You may be able to find an excellent program right around the corner, at a fraction of the price.
Let’s assume, for the moment, that you are in the first category. You want to attend one of the “Ivy League” cooking schools. Where are they? Here are three of the best in the US.
- The Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY): The CIA has trained thousands of chefs since its founding in 1946, many of whom have enjoyed illustrious careers. Some have come back to teach others the culinary arts. The CIA has branched out to San Antonio, Texas and St. Helena, California, enabling it to tap into the vibrant flavors of the American Southwest and Napa Valley.
- California Culinary Academy (San Francisco): Now a member of Le Cordon Bleu international network of cooking schools, the CCA was established in 1977 and has been an integral part of the Bay Area’s culinary golden age. With its close access to California’s wine and food production centers, and melding of Eastern and Western influences, San Francisco has emerged as one of the world’s most exciting centers of the culinary arts.
- French Culinary Institute (New York City): The draw of the FCI is access to the vibrant restaurant life of New York and its world-class chefs, some of whom are on the faculty or serve as deans. This cooking school is a short, intense, hands-on introduction to the culinary arts. You can graduate and be on your way in six to nine months.
But the best cooking school for you may not be on this short list. It may be a school that has an outstanding program in wine studies, because you wish to be a sommelier (master of wine) or an importer. Or it may be the school that trained your favorite food writer, as you wish to become a restaurant critic and blogger.
So, while it is true that some cooking schools have an outstanding reputation in every corner of the food industry, it is also true that every student is on a different journey. Sometimes the fastest way to get where you want to go is to take a path that is slightly less well known.
Sometimes it will come down to who you most want to work with as a teacher or perhaps on an internship. If the chef you dream of learning from lives, cooks, and teaches in Chicago, then you should think about attending cooking school there.
And if you look at the faculty and curriculum of a cooking school with a great reputation but don’t see anyone or anything that excites you, then that school is probably not a good fit for you, and you might want to look elsewhere.