Schools of Culinary Arts
It is a good idea to read through the school bulletin for any of the ones you're considering, way before you've settled on which ones to apply too. You don't want to find out in when you open the application that a school requires 6 mos of industry experience prior to admission and enrollment; happened to an inscrupulous acquaintance... who never did end up in culinary school.
I will ditto the recommendations a couple of people have made to look at community college programs along with the "name" schools. The community college program will give you the basic foundation that you need. As also recommended, get a job in the industry, thats probably the most valuable experience. I have a certificate in culinary arts and in restaurant management from a community college and feel my culinary education was more than adequate (and much less expensive than Johnson and Wales or the CIA). That said, I no longer work in the industry...so getting the real world experience will be valuable for you as well. Good Luck.
Before investing a lot of $$$ on a program, work for two or three years in a fast paced environment whether that be fast food, catering, or a commercial kitchen. You will learn very quickly if the industry is one that you can work in. Personally, I have seen some really brilliant, intelligent people who cannot handle a busy grill during a rush period.
In Reno, there are a ton of restaurants and catering opportunities at the casino-hotels.
Also, do remember that working experience, a college degree or military service with experience in the kitchen can get you a job in a kitchen (or running one) that might actually put you ahead of many culinary graduates.
Finally, the ability to speak a second or third language is rapidly becoming an essential skill. In many large cities, you just need to speak Spanish in order to interact with youe fellow staff members.
One more thing. You will go far in the industry if you have the right attitude. Chefs and kitchen managers are looking for people who can get the job done with minimal supervision. They like people who make things happen and who know what to do during slow periods
This is a very smart advice and I second it. Don't do school first but rather work first make sure you like it then pick a school. Also rememeber that the profesional kitchen is a unique environment where being overly sensitive can cause you a lot of grief. I learned to take a lot of s&#% working in professional kitchens and 98% of the time it was never personal, its just talk. Cooks can be the biggest trash talkers you will ever meet and it all is a way of gearing up for a busy night.
I hope that I made sense, I had a hard time getting things out my head and into words. long story short, professional kitchens are NOT PC (and yes this is a stereotype, but also true.)
Another bit of advice is to try to work for a "working" chef rather than one who is more of a supervisor...they have lots to teach you...be a sponge.
Le Cordon Bleu's 18 month education runs around $48K. Art Institute's is $36K. Schools like Johnson & Wales and CIA will run you $58 - 70K depending on your course. Economically, find a community college in your area that offers the AAS - Culinary degree (Associates of Applied Science). That way, if you choose to go on to University (for culinary or not) after you're done, you've got your generals out of the way for usually under $9K.
School will get you part of the way -- on the job will be your best teacher. Get a job right now in a restaurant doing dish or prep. That will tell you whether or not you'll like it enough to pursue as a career.
Since you're in Reno, if you choose, you can go to Vegas after school and apprentice with any of the known chefs in the area. That education is priceless.
There are a lot of community colleges out there that have good culinary programs. I'd start looking around for one of those first, they're a lot cheaper to get your feet wet.
MAny of the commercial schools are turning into student loan mills, you'll graduate owing more than you'll make in your first five years. Check the staff to student ratio, it's a good indicator of the quality of instruction you'll get.
If I were you I would do a lot of research about what it is like to work in a culinary field. Also get a job right away in a restaurant kitchen. Many people think being a chef is glamorous, but 1/3 or more of all culinary students drop out before finishing the program as the reality sets in. Also don't expect to make enough money to raise a family as a chef. The average income is around $35,000 with many making less.
That said, there are tons of other careers in the culinary areas. I studied at the FCI and several other schools around the world and have done some work as a private chef and food consultant, and now I write about food and beverages. It's a lot of fun.
The Culinary Institute of America- http://www.ciachef.edu/
Johnson and Wales- http://culinary.jwu.edu/
New England Culinary Institute- http://www.neci.edu/home.html Alton Brown is a NECI grad.
The French Culinary Institute-http://www.frenchculinary.com/ They focus on pastry and baking
The Cordon Bleu,Paris, http://www.cordonbleu.edu/ Julia Child went there.
The Art Institutes, http://www.artinstitutes.edu/culinary/ They are located in many cities.
A complete list of cooking schools-http://www.cookingschools.com/
The French Culinary Institute has programs in pastry and baking, but it isn't their main focus. It is about 50% of their programs which also include regular culinary programs- The Classic which leans towards French Cuisine and a new one in Italian Cuisine which is taught 1/3 in NYC and 2/3 in Italy..
Jacques Pepin is a Master Chef and Dean, as is Wylie Dufresne, Jacques Torres, André Soltner, Alain Sailhac, Cesare Casell, Andrea Robinson is Master Sommelier and a Dean, and Bobby Flay studied there. (I don't know whether that's good or not.)