Do I Need To Go To Culinary or Baking / Pastry School?
I want to introduce you to Chef Leslie Bilderback, Certified Master Baker and author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Success as a Chef. She is an amazing person who has accomplished an incredible amount in the culinary industry.
A graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and then one of the first instructors at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, CA, Leslie has written a book specifically for anyone thinking of a career in cooking.
You can learn more about Chef Bilderback at my Novice to Pro interview with her including 5 baking mistakes she sees home cooks making:
How to get over your fear of cooking?
Leslie’s favorite style of cooking.
Favorite cooking gadget.
And her signature dish.
What About Going to Culinary School?
Young people considering going to culinary school everyday ask me how important is it and is it right for them. There are so many important issues to think about so not being a professional chef I asked Leslie what she thought and here is her reply in form of a letter to anyone interested in attending culinary arts school.
Dear Food Lover and Potential Chef,
I spend a lot of time talking to people about culinary school. I was a student at one, a teacher at one, and the Executive Chef of one, so you might think you can guess my opinion. But I am not so sure that these schools are for everyone.
The culinary education business is booming now. Food TV, and an increase in the frequency Americans eat out, has generated an interest in food. That part is good. But people are entering the business for the wrong reasons, and without enough knowledge. And unfortunately, not all schools are stepping up with the best interest of the student or the industry at heart.
If you are thinking about life as a chef, please consider these five points before you do anything with permanent or financially serious repercussions.
1. Be realistic. Being a professional chef is not glamorous. It’s hot, and dirty, the hours are awful and pay sucks. Chefs on TV look like they’re having fun, but they rarely show all the prep work that goes on behind the scenes. Remember, slicing a case of onions is part of cooking for a living too. Everyone has to work his or her way up, regardless of education. Landing a chef or sous chef job right out of school is EXTREMELY rare.
2. If you still think it sounds fun, get a job in a restaurant and test your hypothesis. Regardless of your skill level, there will be a place for you somewhere. Only 30% of culinary school graduates stay in the field 6 months after graduation. The jobs are never what they hoped for. This leads to high job turnover, and lower pay and benefits over all.
3. If you still want to pursue a culinary career after that, then you need to consider how to go about it. Can you afford school? Are you sure? Remember, student loans must be paid back, and you will likely have to do it with your $9.00/hour salary. Visit as many schools as you can, and talk not to the admissions staff, but to the students and teachers.
4. If you want to go it alone, it is certainly possible. Many great chefs have. Find a chef you respect and work for him or her. You’ll learn the real-life restaurant lessons that they never teach at school, while still learning the basics, and getting paid! You should also supplement your education by serious at-home book learning.
5. If you choose school, take it seriously. Get A’s, and impress your teachers. They are your first chance at a reference and a culinary network.
Regardless of your culinary path, I have provided a step-by-step plan to help you become a chef in The Complete Idiots Guide to Success as a Chef (Alpha Books, Feb 2007). Each of these topics is examined in depth, as well as how to make a success of it once you’re out there. I hope it helps you realize your goals!
Leslie Bilderback, CMB