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Jun 25, 2006 05:09 PM

Where do the best chefs train?

Where, I'm curious, are the best culinary schools in the United States?

We all know what the "best" universities are; U.S. News & World Report tells us each and every year what universities we're supposed to be impressed by and which are just ho hum.

Is there a similar hierarchy for chefs? Obviously, dropping an name like Cordon Bleu in Paris means something to most people who have any kind of interest in food. But what about in the states?

And is there an official ranking? It semes like anyone can open up shop and call their business a cooking school. "The Sur La Table Cooking Academy," for example, could sound very fancy to someone who's never shoppled at SLT, but it would in the end just be a bunch of classes taking place in a kitchen supplies store.

Where, in the big cities (LA/NYC/Chicago/SF/Vegas, even) does one go in search of chefdom?

And no smart aleck responses about just applying to be on Top Chef or some such show!

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  1. CIA (Culinary Institute of America) is generally considered the "Harvard" of Culinary schools. NECI (New England Culinary Institute)in Vermont and Johnson & Wales in R.I. are probably close seconds. Scottsdale Culinary has turned out some very fine Culinarians, there are a series of other fine institutions right down community colleges across the country.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Winemark

      Here is a ranking site:

      There are lots of sites with lists. Google is your friend.

      1. re: Winemark

        A chef can go to school as much as he wants - but he will never be great until he trains aside another great chef in a kitchen. Many chefs go to Europe and will work in different kitchens for training for a few years in order to see all the different styles and methods each unique place has to offer.

      2. Most great chefs learned on the job, not in school.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Have to agree with Robert, most learn in a kitchen. Some Chefs even refuse to hire culinary grads, too many preconceptions. If a great Chef takes an interest in you, he usually wants a clean slate, someone he can mold into his ideal, Chef's can be very egotistical!

          1. re: Pablo

            While I agree 100% that on the job training is critical, I think many American chef's starting out today have professional school training. Look at the kitchens of the great chefs...Keller has traditionally been filled with CIA grads, Benno, Cerciello, Ziebold, with other schools represented as well. And, yes there are exceptions especially pastry and foriegn born. Unless you can will yourself back to age 17 for an internship in Europe professional school is a good option.

            1. re: Chris Rising

              Thomas Keller hires cooking-school graduates, but he's not one himself.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Obviously there are strengths and weakness of the school-first approach and the no-school approach. It is silly to think that one path is right for everyone. Michael Ruhlman's book is excellent, as is Doug Psaltis', though they give different perspectives.

                As for Keller, here is what he said in an interview with about his lack of formal training: "I have no formal culinary training, right. When I started cooking, in our country, there weren't really any schools to go to. The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) had just been founded. A couple hotels had apprenticeship programs, but I was ignorant to those. My mother ran a restaurant and said, 'Do you want to be a chef?' I said yes. She said, 'Here you go, you're the chef. Now learn how to cook.'

                "As I worked through those first two years, it was very mechanical, learning how to make hollandaise...But it was a challenge, trying to make it perfect every day, as I talk about in the [French Laundry cookbook]. It wasn't until 1977 when I met Roland Henin, who became my mentor, more or less, that I understood what cooking was all about. It wasn't about mechanics; it was about a feeling, wanting to give someone something, which in turn was really gratifying. That really resonated for me. I wanted to learn everything I could about what it takes to be a great chef. It was a turning point for me."


                I wouldn't say he eschewed formal training on principle. Clearly, most of his chefs have formal training.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Thomas Keller's about the same age as Anthony Bourdain, who went to the CIA.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    "Thomas Keller's about the same age as Anthony Bourdain, who went to the CIA."

                    I don't follow -- what's your point?

            2. Keller..Bouley.. Trotter. All on the job. Save your money and start at the best restaurant you can. Even if its peeling carrots and continue to work up to better and better restaurants.

              1 Reply
              1. re: oysterspearls

                Add Patrick O'Connell, who is self-taught (acc. to him).


                "What advice do you have for our professional students, young men and women just starting out on their careers?

                Learn how to taste. Learn what a wonderful peach is supposed to taste like, learn what a really excellent tomato is supposed to taste like. I think some young chefs fall victim to the idea that they must demonstrate their wild and zany creativity before they learn to cook. I recommend both to the culinary professionals and home cooks that they need to take time to establish a sense of mastery. If it's making a salad, make it over and over and over, and learn everything possible about what makes a fabulous salad, and really become a salad master. Focus on one concept or aspect of cooking and really excel at it, and that will transfer to other areas..."

              2. Being a culinary school graduate, I can see both points of view. Some say the best education is to work alongside a chef and learn their techniques. But....and it's a big only learn how that one particular chef does things. If you train under many, that may be different, but what you learn in culinary school is the basics for doing anything, any way, in any kitchen. You learn how to make the basic stocks and sauces, so that when you get into a kitchen, and a chef tells you what to do, you at least know the fundamentals. They may teach you a variance that makes their stock or sauce, for instance, something on a level above the basics, but you still need to know the basics. I was at a local state college culinary school, and my tuition was a fraction of what the private colleges required but the curriculum was exactly the same. I learned an enormous amount, and that is a lot considering I have been cooking (and cooking well) since I was 7 years old. There will be a lot of people who can say that experience is the best lesson, but as many others will vouch for education for the same avenue. Getting a culinary education, for me, was meant to cement my abilities and skills. I have no desire to be a chef anywhere, I want to teach others about food and eating well. I probably could do that without a culinary education, but having one gives me more credibility for this particular facet of the culinary world.

                1. I worked through most of the 90's in top SF restaurants and I can't tell you how many times I saw CIA grads become upset at the fact that they had to clean cases of fava beans or had to grind wheels of Reggiano cheese because "they were above that". Even better was to see them reduced to cleaning ovens during slow service - the horror! Culinary school gives you the basics, but be prepared to be a grunt and start from the bottom without the attitude when you graduate! And I have one more comment, pay for restaurant cooks is very poor even in SF, so be prepared to spend years paying off that culinary school loan through blood, a lot of sweat, and probably a few tears too!

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: Pablo

           kidding! Being a chef is a blue collar job with a white collar reputation! But everybody starts as a grunt in a kitchen, you gotta prove yourself somehow

                    1. re: cooknKate

                      Union jobs will start at higher wages, but not everyone wants to join a union. I know some people from my school who are working as prep cooks making $8.00 an hour, and others who started in corporate dining working M-F, no holidays or weekends who are making more than $10.00 per hour. One of my classmates was union at a hotel and was making $14.00 per hour with full benefits but he was worked over like a mule every night. It's not a job with high starting pay, the better you are and the more experience you have, the higher you can command your pay. But you won't get rich starting out, we were all told that right from the start. It's a blue collar job, no doubt.

                      1. re: cooknKate

                        One of the great misconceptions is that if the position is unionized (in the foodservice industry) that the pay and benefits are better than the non-union competitors. In Detroit, we called around to some of the non-union operation close by and found out that we were the lowest paid employees in the area. And we were paying as much in monthly union dues as some of the UAW automotive shops.

                        Furthermore, management offered significant increases for the higher skilled positions (read chef, cooks, etc.) so that people would stay. The union refused, arguing that ALL employees should get the same raises.

                        Personally, I would NOT hire a culinary school graduate unless the individual had SIGNIFICANT experience OUT OF SCHOOL in the real world. I don't care if the individual worked five years at Denny's prior to the culinary school. I have seen too many of the graduates flame out when they get into a busy commercial kitchen and have to pick up their pace a few notches.

                    2. re: Pablo

                      i'm curious. what's the average salary for someone who just graduated?

                      1. re: rolypoly

                        I think it depends where you are.. I started at 6.25 an hour in 1988 in an oyster bar (shall remain un-named). 1993 San Francisco, I was at Geordy's for $9.25 on the line. At Stars and Campton Place, I made the big bucks $15/hour! Postrio, Zuni, Alain Rondelli, One Market, The Heights, around $12. Hopefully those guys make more these days.. oh yeah, no health benefits either.

                        1. re: Pablo

                          Union line chef hotel jobs in the city of San Francisco pay $18.80/hour.

                          1. re: Chris Rising

                            It's about time! That means non-union are still getting screwed!