Specialist vs. Generalist

Cooking school should be seen as a part of a broader training program that includes (ideally) some classroom instruction and lots of hands-on experience. Chefs have always followed an apprenticeship model, in which everyone starts off at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy and rises as they gain new skills and confidence.

Cooking school changes none of that. It just shifts some of the costs onto the shoulders of the “apprentice” and moves a lot of the training that used to take place in professional kitchens into a classroom setting.

Many of the skills you will learn during your apprenticeship are shared across all cultures and all cuisines. Menus must be planned, raw food procured, work spaces must be clean and sanitary, and food must be washed, prepared, cooked, and served in a timely manner. Whether you are learning to cook in Asia, Europe, or America, these are the basic things you will learn as a student.

The two most popular courses of study in American cooking schools are:

  1. A general culinary arts program, that prepares you to cook main courses, usually in a classic European manner.
  2. A baking and pastry arts program that teaches students how to bake breaks, sweets, and pastries, usually in a classic French style.

It’s not that everyone is hoping to work in a French restaurant when they graduate, but that French cooking has become the bedrock of fine dining around the world by refining techniques that were practiced around Europe and made their way to North America a long time ago.
Specialized courses of study are certainly available, especially if you are earning a two-year or four-year degree at a good cooking school. There you will be able to focus on Chinese cuisine or Latin American cuisine , learn how to make sushi, and maybe even master vegan or raw food preparation. Serious chefs, however, should begin from a generalist course of study and branch out into specializations. Otherwise, many career avenues may be cut off to them.
Does this mean that a French cooking school is preferable to, say, an Italian cooking school? Not at all; Italian cooking utilizes the same general techniques as French cooking. Both have long, distinguished pedigrees, and deep roots in the US and around the world.
If you know for sure that you will only wish to cook in Italian restaurants or have already mastered the techniques of French cuisine, then attending an Italian cooking school is a good option.

And the same holds true for other “specialty” cuisines that one can study in cooking schools today. You can attend a sushi academy that will prepare you to work in a Japanese or sushi restaurant, or to oversee sushi production in a grocery store or for a caterer. But unless you also study classical French cooking techniques at some point in your career, you will not be able to work in the vast majority of restaurants or food service establishments.