In today's New York Times, Kim Severson reports on the plight of graduates of the nation's private culinary schools, whose numbers are growing quickly, fueled by Food Network daydreams. Don't get me wrong—schools like Johnson & Wales and the Culinary Institute of America are helping drive a massive, rapid shift in America's gastronomic consciousness, but they're also producing legions of graduates whose earning potential is far, far lower than their educational expenses.
This comes as no surprise to anyone who's ever worked in the industry. I'd worked in restaurants all through college, but when I decided to cast aside my white-collar aspirations in order to cook full-time, I ordered brochures from the California Culinary Academy and polled cooks I knew about whether I should enroll. No way, everyone said. Buy yourself a set of good knives and just get a job on the line. Three years later, I was the sous-chef of a well-respected bistro, training and supervising a crew of CCA grads trying to pay off $25,000 in student loans while making $8 an hour.
What these school brochures don't hammer home to aspiring chefs is that cooking is a skilled trade, not a liberal art. A CCA diploma is not the same as a Yale degree: Where you go to school is not as important as whom you work for afterward. CIA grads quickly learn that it's one thing to be taught in class how to reduce and season a pan sauce, and another thing to do it 100 times a night, perfectly and instinctively. There's a lot I would have liked to learn in a more formal environment—pastries, food-cost budgeting—but, had I stayed in the kitchen, I could have learned much of that by trading free labor for education. Or, I could have taken courses at one of the nation's network of community colleges, many of which offer solid, affordable culinary programs that prepare students more than adequately for their first apprenticeship.
When people ask me whether they should go back to school to become a cook, here's where I tell them they should apply. Cost: approximately $3,000 for the first quarter (tuition plus equipment and fees), $1,200 per quarter afterward.