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Is a culinary degree worth it?

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Question:

I recently signed up for an intense short certificate program for culinary arts. I feel like that’s the right program for me. I already have a college degree in film and worked my way through school in restaurants. But my chef said I should go for the degree. What am I missing by not getting a full culinary degree?

– Cook, New York

Answer:

This is a question I hear often, between my educator hat and my columnist hat. Adding to the confusion is that if you look up the answer, you get a flurry of advice, much of it from culinary schools who have a horse in the race and argue that either:

  1. A degree is a waste of money—you just need to learn the cooking skills as efficiently as possible.
  2. A degree will better prepare you for long-term success and adaptability.

 

As usual with these questions, there is no single answer that will work for everyone.

My advice is to ask yourself a series of questions that may help you decide on the program to meet your needs.

First: What is the goal? If your goal is simply to get a job in a restaurant kitchen, consider learning on the job with a good mentor. I know that may seem like surprising advice from a culinary educator, but employers are desperate for talent, culinary school is expensive, and a popular misconception is that you need a degree to get a foot in the door. While that may be true for top kitchens, you can learn a lot from working full time in the right environment and supplementing your work with reading and classes.

If the goal is to have formal culinary training, think about your career trajectory. Culinary degrees—from a regionally accredited institution—and some certificates are great in that they carry college credit. Perhaps a year or even decades from now, you decide to take the next step in your career and get a hospitality management degree, or you have a career change and want to pursue a college degree in another field. An associate degree in culinary arts generally sets you up better for that.

On the other hand, let’s say you are not the college type (or in your case, already have a degree), so you want to learn the formal culinary skills and get into the culinary workforce as quickly as possible. In those cases, a certificate is probably a better option. Just beware that certificates can mean very different things. Be sure to check the reputation, references, and bona fides of any program in which you are considering enrolling. Check their status with the state department of education, ask to speak with alumni and sit in on classes to talk to current students.

At many schools, certificate and degree coursework are similar or identical in the kitchen. It’s the extra classes that make up the degree (such as wines, supervision, liberal arts, business, etc.) that set them apart.

To be sure, there’s no such thing as too much education: I am always in favor of getting more than you think you’ll need. But only if you want to do it. As an educator, I also know that there’s nothing worse than a student in a class whose heart isn’t in it. In your case, since you have a college degree and restaurant industry experience already, I think you’ll be happy with a certificate. You can always add more schooling later.

More on certificates versus degrees here.

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