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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.