Is culinary school worthwhile or can I learn everything I need to on the job?
– Marie Whitehead, Philadelphia, PA
As a culinary educator, this question is one I get a lot and, while my bias is obviously toward education, I’ll try to answer in a balanced way.
When I was a 16-year-old cook thinking about going to culinary school after high school graduation, my chef gave me advice that I think still holds true: everything a cook needs to know can eventually be learned on the job but culinary school accelerates that process. “In two years you’ll learn what it took me twenty to figure out on my own,” he said.
While it would be nice, there are very few restaurant workplaces that consistently rotate staff among every station, both front- and back-of-house, teach cooks managerial functions like purchasing, cost control and supervision, and take time out to make sure employees know not only how to do their jobs but why things are done the way they are. Culinary school does those things.
Putting a dollar value on culinary education is more difficult. Yes, culinary school graduates often move quickly into management and these days, leading chefs went to culinary school more often than not, a big departure from years past. On the other hand, calculating the cost of culinary education demands you consider not only the tuition but the opportunity cost of choosing school instead of work.
If you mean “worthwhile” in terms of the satisfaction of learning a craft in a systematic way and accelerating the learning process over that of an on-the-job trained cook, then yes culinary school is definitely worthwhile. If you mean is it a good ROI, my answer is somewhat less enthusiastic. Unlike other professional training schools, cooks do not see much income starting out with or without culinary school; and no licensure is needed for chefs so culinary school is not a must-have credential compared to, say, nursing school. In that way carefully consider community colleges, many of which are priced at a fraction of the cost of private culinary school and do just as good a job or universities which, while not a competitively priced as community colleges, offer more than culinary education.