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Culinary Schools -- Up-to-date opinions for a prospective student?

I appreciate any and all comments here -- I am considering culinary school and have no idea where to begin looking. I'd like up-to-date opinions: For example, is Le Cordon Bleu overpriced and passe nowadays or is it still the peak of the schools? Did you or a friend go to a smaller, up-and-coming school in Oregon and have a spectacular time?

I'm looking for a smaller school (I went to a large undergraduate university and regret it), but like I said -- I'm open to all suggestions. I'm willing to hear about any price (though I'd love to know how the education compares to the price), any location in the world. The program would lean more toward basic cooking than baking, or exclusively French cuisine.

I really appreciate everyone's input. Thanks.

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  1. Katie, I would recommend the CIA, in Hyde Park, NY. It is considered the best school in America (Sorry JW Alumnis but it is true). They have a 2 year associated degree for culinary arts or you can get a 2 year degree in baking and pastry. For 2 years the school costs about $40,000 and it is well worth the price. the facilities, staff and program are top notch and a CIA degree gets your foot in the door better than other programs. They also have a great externship program and job placement.
    there are other good schools located in NYC, but I would stay away from any short term program. They wont have the facilities or contacts to help you after you are finished.

    1 Reply
    1. . Katie,
      I know it is not popular anymore but how about apprenticing... You need to make sure you want to be in a professional kitchen and want to take the abuse of the life as a kitchen worker.

      Bust your ass as an apprentice then you can decide if school is necessary. In all good kitchens, there is always room for a serious apprentice.
      You have to come in without attitude and do any job in the kitchen. I would start looking in the four star restaurants then work your way down!

      You will be surprised how many chefs like apprentices without schooling and without attitude, they get to train you! It's a matter of clicking with a chef who sees a spark in you and that they can train you.

      7 Replies
      1. re: dewdropin

        ideally that's how i'd do it but it seems so .. difficult to pull off. do you have any advice? just walk into a restaurant and ask for the chef?

        1. re: katieheffs

          Back in my province we could ask the local labour office about kitchens that would train apprentice cooks. I don't know which country you are in but there might be a similar setup. Chefs often have associations (some very formal, some not so) that you could contact as well. I am no longer cooking for a living but the last kitchen I worked at I found just by eating at the restaurant a few times and liking it, and then walking in and asking at a quiet time. I do think it pays to get experience at a variety of different places.

          http://frugalcuisine.blogspot.com

          1. re: katieheffs

            You'd be surprised by how many chefs are happy to hire an untrained apprentice. Some chefs actually prefer apprentices who aren't formally trained, as they have less attitude, will work for less pay (as there is no mound of debt to pay off) and don't have an expectation of the way things should be done (the chef's way is the right way, doesn't matter what your culinary instructor taught you). If you are enthusiastic, a fast learner, and willing to work long, hard hours, you will be an asset in most kitchens. You may have to knock on a few doors before you can find an opening, but persistence will pay off.

            1. re: Morton the Mousse

              I agree completely with this sentiment. I graduated from a 6 month boot camp program here in Los Angeles geared toward getting people into the industry. No, I don't have an associates degree, but I'd be a productive member of any staff. I would say the two most important things to learn are 1) knife skills and 2) the ability to say "Yes, Chef" and "Right away, Chef".

          2. re: dewdropin

            I agree with dewdropin, you would be surprised at how many chefs hate culinary grads because of grads "know it all" attitudes. Some grads believe that some work in the kitchen is below them, believing they don't need to work their way up the chain. Frustration sets in for the grads because they usually have a staggering debt to pay off and that's all they can think about while cleaning cases of fava beans at $10 an hour. Go talk to a chef that you would want to work for, be humble and be willing to do whatever it takes, and you will learn fast! For some chefs, one of the best ego trips is molding young prodigies into themselves! Good luck!

            1. re: Pablo

              A couple of resources that grant you access to the wisdom of culinary professionals around the world:

              http://www.cheftalk.com
              http://forums.chef2chef.net

              I agree with the above two posters: apprentice and leave culinary school for when you have more experience and you find that it is something you really want to do, despite all of the downsides (including the fact that it'll probably take you forever to pay off those debts). And you don't need to find yourself a 4-star place at first, just find some place that makes quality food and you will learn a lot. Also a more casual place will teach you a different but nonetheless important set of skills.

            2. re: dewdropin

              Agree completely.

              I have seen several people spend four years at a place like Johnson and Wales just to decide in the 1st year that working in a high pressure, fast moving kitchen is NOT where they want to spend their life.

              As for an apprenticeship, you drop into the restaurant at a slow time (generally mid-morning or mid-afternoon) and talk to the chef. Do realize that you will probably be doing glamourous assignments like prepping a 50# bag of onions or washing dishes. How you respond to such assignments will allow the chef and kitchen staff to assess your willingniess to work as part of the team.

            3. On Le Cordon Bleu - it depends on which one you go to. If you go to the one in Paris, London, or the few in Asia, then your degree still holds a lot of weight. They lease out the name in the US so the schools here aren't run by the parent institution and thus the instruction is a bit diluted. The alumni job page is open only to Paris, London, and Asia grads - not US grads for that reason. No one in my class had a bit of trouble getting a good job straight out of the Paris location a few years ago. You can specialize in just patisserie or just cuisine there - or do both! Let us know what you decide!

              www.refinedrogue.com

              1. Read this article on the front page of today's New York Times
                "Top Chef Dreams Crushed by Student Loan Debt".
                http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/08/us/...
                A reality check if ever there was one for the aspiring cook

                BTW, have you ever worked in a restaurant in any capacity?

                If not, get yourself a job today (host, wait staff, kitchen slave, potato peeler) so you can see if you like restaurant work and the work environment. It is not like TV and has absolutely no resemblance to home cooking. In all professional kitchens, it is grueling, backbreaking manual labor with rude nasty quick-tempered men.

                Even if you have a degree from CIA, or Le Cordon Bleu and work in a restaurant with stars, it is all a similar work environment and the hospitably and service trade! You need to find out now if that is the type of environment and pressure you will enjoy before you invest so much time and money into an education.

                Good luck!

                5 Replies
                1. re: dewdropin

                  "In all professional kitchens, it is grueling, backbreaking manual labor with rude nasty quick-tempered men."

                  It can be even tougher for women in the kitchen, you will be expected to pull your weight and more to rise above these stereotypes. If the line is too much, you may want to consider baking/pastry/confections, can be less stress.

                  1. re: Pablo

                    "If the line is too much, you may want to consider baking/pastry/confections, can be less stress."

                    HA.

                    Sir, that is very bad advice. Pastry is not easier, not less stressful, not less back-breaking, just different, and if someone is not driven to do pastry, they don't belong in that field.

                      1. re: babette feasts

                        I said "can be less stress." I've been on the pastry side and it was easier for me, not saying it was easy for everyone. The worst thing about pastry in some places is battling the line cooks for oven space during production! And you have to admit, unless the place your work in is noted for pastry more than it's food, the Chef in the kitchen treats pastry/bakers a lot different than the line cooks!

                    1. re: dewdropin

                      "BTW, have you ever worked in a restaurant in any capacity?

                      If not, get yourself a job today (host, wait staff, kitchen slave, potato peeler) so you can see if you like restaurant work and the work environment. It is not like TV and has absolutely no resemblance to home cooking. In all professional kitchens, it is grueling, backbreaking manual labor with rude nasty quick-tempered men.

                      Even if you have a degree from CIA, or Le Cordon Bleu and work in a restaurant with stars, it is all a similar work environment and the hospitably and service trade! You need to find out now if that is the type of environment and pressure you will enjoy before you invest so much time and money into an education."

                      Terrific advice, dewdropin! As a former culinary school instructor (at what is now a LCB school & where I would not return), I can attest to the legions of students who came through our doors because they were told what great cooks they were, wanted the media image "chef" job or many other reasons only to find that they were NOT cut out for the very hard work that a kitchen involves. It is a lot too late to learn this after you've incurred the debt. Work BEFORE school, then make the decision.

                      I did an apprenticeship in Paris back in the days when it was not a good idea to be an American girl in a French kitchen ............ today's school atmosphere has no connection to that real world.

                      To the OP --- you state that you attended a large undergraduate university, did you graduate? If so, what is your degree? What do you want to do in the culinary field?

                    2. Look into community colleges to get the basics under your belt a bargain prices. Some programs are very good and work with the hospitality industry to get you started. I'd hold off on LCB style expense until you have a good solid background and idea of what you want to do in the industry. Many schools are more interested in selling you a student loan package than a good education.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Scrapironchef

                        I am a culinary grad from a community college where my total program fees and all supplies for 18 months was less than $7000. Our program was no less rigorous than any big name, big buck school.

                        I am staggered at the replies that quickly jump to the conclusion that the OP is looking to be a chef simply due to the mention of attending culinary school. Being a chef is but one of a multitude of careers available to someone with a culinary degree. While I agree that if that is the goal you best be darn sure its what you want before sinking any amount of money into the education, it's just not the ONLY thing a culinary grad can do.

                        1. Not to throw further cold water on your idea, but there's article in the New York Times today that you might want to look at...

                          ‘Top Chef’ Dreams Crushed by Student Loan Debt
                          http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/08/us/...

                          If school is what you want and no other route will do, like Scrapironchef said, there are some very good community college programs that might give you what you're looking for at a much more affordable price. I've worked at both South Seattle and Seattle Central Community Colleges, and their culinary arts programs have a pretty good reputation for placing graduates in good local restaurants (plus they provide a heck of a nice benefit for us faculty and staff--great student-prepared meals at reasonable prices!)

                          1. I cannot say strongly enough how important it is that you get some restaurant experience BEFORE you commit to ANY school program. You need to find out if this type of work is for YOU!

                            You've given no indication what kind of professional kitchen experience you might have, but if you don't have any yet, you are going to be in for a shock. I hope you will investigate further, and come back here to ask any of the gazillions of questions that by now must be going through your mind.

                            1. I'm just going to ditto everyone else who has advised to get a job/apprenticeship in a pro kitchen- doing anything- before you consider investing in school.

                              As a woman who has worked in a few kitchens- the work is indeed tough and demanding- it's not just about cooking, it's about massive, heavy pots of hot liquids- reaching for things on high shelves, burning and cutting yourself with regularity, working under great pressure when the kitchen is busy, and running your a** off.

                              And the pay sucks. If you already have some basic technique, like knife handling, go into a restaurant you respect, (NOT during dinner!), and ask to speak to the chef, and explain that you would like to do an apprenticeship before considering culinary school. They might not all say yes, but getting free (or super cheap) labor in a restaurant is something that many won't pass up.

                              1. Apprenticing sounds like a great idea, but if you decide to go for the formal education I second the recommendation for the CIA in Hyde Park. I know two people who graduated from the CIA and both thought it was a quality program and worth the price. Coincidentally, aftre many years of hard work post-graduation, they are both chefs happily running their own kitchens (one here and one in Wales).

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Honey Bee

                                  The comment about Community Colleges is spot-on. That and working (even in SOME capacity) in a restaurant.

                                  I am guessing that because you already have a degree that you have thought through this and have a plan of action...so maybe we are all yelling for no reason, but many amazing chefs never even went to culinary school but worked hard for years and trained under great chefs. Other people spent THOUSANDS and are slaves to loans to work as line chefs, working their way up slowly, in chain restaurants.

                                  If you have taken at least 1-2 classes in a community college near you (like Intro to Culinary Arts or French Cooking or Intro to Professional Cooking Skills or whatever) and have worked in a restaurant in some capacity and really get the feel of the industry and at that point are comparing programs...then I would do the classic college/university test, which for me is this:

                                  1. Will this college/program expose me to the skills I'll need?

                                  2. Will the "c/p" expose me to the people I need to know?

                                  3. Is the "c/p" neccessary for my industry, or is the time better spent working?

                                  4. Is the college culture right for me? Will I like it, fit in, thrive?

                                  5. What about industry credibility? Does the c/p have it? Does that matter in my industry?

                                  6. Can I afford it/pay for it...or, will I have to take huge loans. If I take huge loans, will they be easy to pay back?

                                  Good luck!!!!

                                2. Several years ago, while my ex and I were breaking up, she expressed a long-held desire to go to culinary school. She went on to SCI (Scottsdale Culinary Institute) for a bit short of 2 years as part of our settlement agreement. It cost a bit less than a couple of years at an Ivy League school, but she felt it was worth it. I have relatives back east in the business, young people, and my sister, older than me, was in it. My ex had real talent -- even so, I knew that everything in a commercial kitchen is hot, heavy, sharp, high up, long days, nights, weekends, low pay, volatile, mercurial personalities ... she's 5'3" and she said they don't allow little stools and stuff -- they get in the way. She suffered at least one serious injury -- a hyper-extended elbow -- as a result. She also said she learned quickly that her colleagues in the kitchen lead a fast life -- late nights/mornings, drinking, hard living ... she said there often were "roaches" by the back door, not the insect kind. The ex did take a couple of professional culinary jobs after graduation but found the life to be too physically daunting for the compensation, even though they begged her to stay (she was good!). She's always been a morning person and she felt baking was her specialty, which is a morning business -- her goal was to eventually open her own B&B. She went back to her day job/profession. I'm tempted to say it's a young mans/woman's business.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: misohungrychewlow

                                    >>I'm tempted to say it's a young mans/woman's business.<<

                                    I would absolutely agree with you there. It is hard to believe that twenty years ago, I could stand and work 10-15 hours a week on my feet. I sure wouldn;t be able to do that again.

                                    There is also another factor. If you can manage a large commercial kitchen with 30-80 employees, you can pretty much go into many other non-food related businesses and manage operations. The only difference is that you will make twice as much.

                                  2. If you have not seen this: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/399391 you might want to take a look at it.

                                    1. Aside from cooking techniques & actual restaurant experience do any of you.. who have/are professionals... see any value in learning design, art history, poltics, philosphy etc., as tools for developing a unique culinary style with a strong vision to future trends?

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                        design, art history, politics, philosophy etc. definitely influence cooking styles. Cooking is not just a skill but an expression of a chef's vision (at least it should be). All of the factors you listed should play a part in how the chef thinks about his food and his customers, it did for me.

                                        1. re: Pablo

                                          Since I pretty much know very little about Culinary schools... do schools generally offer any of those elements in their cooking? Is it specific instructors? Do chefs just come with vision on their own? Is their any insights you can provide the OP on these issues?

                                          1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                            From my experience in culinary school; no, there isn't much in the way of education about any of those subjects or subject areas. Most culinary schools aren't designed to inculcate any sort of "vision" about food or about food styles. This may be different in some of the 4 years programs offered at places like CIA or Johnson and Wales.

                                            The other thing is that most people in culinary school don't come to it with their own vision about food. They come with an idea that they want to cook, or want to own a restaurant, or run an Inn or something similar.

                                            I don't mean to sound so down on culinary schools; but they're basically designed (at best) to teach basical cooking techniques, not provide a comprehensive education even in the limited arena of food.

                                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                                              I am sure some schools incorporate some of those elements, but to no real depth. Chef's usually gain a vision by working at many different establishments/cuisines and even countries. For me personally, I grew up in Africa and Europe in an Italian household where food was a big focus. I eventually gained a serious background in Classic French style, wasn't really what I was looking for, just found a great chef willing to show me everything - the hard way. Travel and working for other chefs has been the greatest influence on what I like to cook. I no longer cook professionally after fifteen years, but I am very involved perishable commodity business for a much bigger pay check with weekends and holidays off!

                                        2. I am in a program at Kendall College in Chicago that is a certificate program - 1 year, part time. I think it is a great program - and would allow time for apprenticing at the same time at one or another of the amazing restaurants we have here. It is around $12,000 for the part-time year-long program, and the full-time Associates and Bachelors programs are more than double that, if I remember correctly. I think the certificate program is great for giving you the basics, and then you go on and explore on your own from there.

                                          I am 30 - pursuing a career change, and the Bachelor's program was not an option for me because I need to earn the money to pay for school and not be in debt up to my eyeballs like in that NYT article that a couple people have referenced. I absolutely made the right decision with this program...

                                          So, that's my recommendation. And as a bonus, Chicago is a great city (at least for 6 to 8 months out of the year...)

                                          1. There are a lot of culinary school scholarships out there. Many are not well known and might even be begging for applicants. Some are listed here:

                                            http://www.sms.scholarshipamerica.org...

                                            http://www.sms.scholarshipamerica.org...

                                            1. I agree w/ apprentice and then school. Our son went to culnary school in NY, now works in Las Vegas, hates to hours, is finishing up a degree in Spanish and ESL, in is moving to Costa Rica.
                                              He wants his life back, not watching others enjoy it.