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How old is too old to be admitted to cooking school?

And for those Chowhounds who've attended, how much experience would you say is prerequisite for top (full-time) culinary degree programs?

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  1. Honestly, I just spent time looking at hospitality management programs which all have associations with cooking schools and from what I saw, if you can pay the tuition you're never too old for them.

    As far as experience, I think CIA is the only one to be hard and fast about it, though even they are getting soft on the single year of experience requirement.

    4 Replies
    1. re: jpschust

      I had 25 years cooking experience when i went to school at age 50 and got my 1st.degree in culinary arts .I was 54 when i received my 2nd. degree in food service management. I did this as I wanted to teach culinary arts.today I am a culinary arts instructor at a community college and love it

      1. re: big john

        Wow, that's wonderful and very encouraging. I basically don't want to die without having devoted at least one stage of my life entirely to food -- but can't foresee pursuing the necessary path until at least 15 years from now.

        1. re: sequins

          If you walk upright, breath oxygen., and your knuckles do not scrape the ground to often.....show up with the finances in place and go for it....any place will accept you......if this is for your own sense of fullfilment and edification , bravo....go for it...however if this is a change of career path at an advanced age ...say 50 +- and you want to do this professionally in an active venue....do not do it....particularly if you have some sort of glorified image of the culinary profession. Can not begin to describe the rigors, stress, duress, extreme highs...and crashing lows that are inherent in the profession of cooking for a living.
          We/they are are rare breed.....you may be unique in that you will step up and thrive in this environ....., but most people have utterly no concept as to what is involved in cooking professionally....there is a reason why doctors and professional cooks are at the top of the list for substance abuse.......all lthe culinary instructors I have ever met always asked "why do you want to do it" and to a man/women they were instructors because it got them out of the kitchen....this is not to say that I would trade my life in the back of the house......however I would, as suggested, get my feet wet before jumping into the pool..... Good luck to you in whatever you decide to do.....if you decide to take the plunge, I have one pearl to throw your way....regardless of how busy it becomes......how much prep there is ....how deep in the weeds you are.......the day will always end.....Do not ever start doing 360's in the kitchen when the sh** hits the fan.

          1. re: Saddleoflamb

            Amen to that advice. I see the ads on tv for culinary school and I laugh. "Make big money and live your dream of being a chef". Most newly-hired culinary graduates do not begin as chefs and they earn between 11 and 13 bucks an hour. I know a chef who has been working at the same place for 13 years and her annual earnings are about $42,000 dollars. She works her ass off..and rarely has time to actually cook. Her sous chef does that while she takes care of inventory, books, employees, schedules, etc. The sous chef washes the floors at night...after closing.

            I decided to try my hand at back of the house work before going to culinary
            school. Glad I did. I changed my mind. :) I did that for two years and it is back-breaking, hot and sweaty work. My hands hurt from all of the constant chopping and I've never lifted so many huge heavy pans filled with boiling hot stuff in my entire life...and cleaning the walk-in is not fun. Oh, and putting the food away when the produce guy, chicken guy, fish guy, and sysco comes is another dream come true.

            That being said, I did enjoy "the dance" that goes on when we got slammed. Loved that rush and it was amazing to be a part of. You just best be young and/or in very good shape physically....and you must be very fast and accurate.

            Now, teaching would be fabulous...but usually schools require experience along with a degree.

    2. What's your question? How old in terms of age? Or how much experience as prerequisite. You seem to have asked a different question from your subject line.

      Most culinary schools will take you if you can pay the tuition, or qualify for financial aid.

      7 Replies
      1. re: PeterL

        I guess I meant experience as prerequisite -- but was really asking about the prospect of wanting to attend a program when I'm, say, 50 (like big_john above), but without any professional experience whatsoever.

        1. re: sequins

          Again, to be admitted to a school? Or how successful a person of 50 yr of age would be at a culinary school?

          To be admitted, at long as you can pay the tuition, no age limits. To be successful, it's a tough physical job. It all depends on the mental and physical attributes of the student.

          1. re: PeterL

            As some one who spent the better part of 20 years in the kitchen - and is approaching 50 - the thing that would scare me about a culinary program would be whether or not I could stand on a hard tile, wet floor for the 10-12 hours a day.

            Few realize how physically demanding it is to work in a hot kitchen for a long shift.

            1. re: jlawrence01

              I can attest to that.
              I'm regularly told that I have some cooking talent and that I should've become a chef. The problem is, I have a bad back. If I'm in the kitchen for more than half a day, my back is a mess. I couldn't do it full time. I'm just not physically cut out for it now.


              1. re: jlawrence01

                yeah, the physical demands are huge. in addition to the standing, which can be brutal, there's the hauling of trash cans, boxes of product, etc. there's also the speed involved. I've worked with a number of servers who just weren't as good at the job as they got older because they couldn't move quickly enough to handle a busy night. I imagine the need for speed is similar BOH.

            2. re: sequins

              Hey Sequins
              its never to late and i am living proof of that. of the 3 classes i teach at the community college the average class size is 26 students.I will tell you that 35-45% of these students are 40 plus years of age and have no prior food experience at all.They are like you are just following there dream.most chefs out there want culinary school training and would prefer that the student had no prior experience the reason is they don't have to break bad habits these people with foos service experience have developed.go for your dream

              1. re: big john

                Hey, big john -

                This is very encouraging to read. I returned to college (my local community college) late in life, and I finally got the courage to switch my major to culinary arts. I'm 54, and have no intention of killing myself in a kitchen - hey, been there... done that.. most holidays here over the years : D. I realize there are many, many other routes to take, but I admit - I'm frightened!

                My oldest daughter (who graduated college & is pursuing her own difficult path in video editing) made a good comment - she said that just the fact that I'm scared (mixed with lots of excitement) is a good sign. She also thinks I'd be great at teaching, too.

                I figure the community college route is a good decision - at least I won't be in debt up to my eyeballs.. and so far, I've encountered some absolutely fantastic instructors, so I have confidence in this school.

          2. Culinary programs/schools arren't med school, nor wildly competitive in terms of entrance requirements - I don't think they care at all as long as you can pay the tuition and otherwise meet their requirements, like most vocational training that I've had any familiarity with...

            1. When I went to culinary school, the youngest in our class was 19 and the oldest was 70.

              1. I started at 31 with the intention of switching careers. Before I could finish I was promoted several times in my laboratory tech job (which I give credit to the supervisory/management courses I took in culinary school BTW) that taking an entry level food service job just didn't seem so appealing. Oh well, my friends and family are still glad I did it!

                1 Reply
                1. re: LabRat

                  Glad that worked out for you, LabRat. When I start the program at my comm. college, I'm hoping to work on areas & skills in which I'm lacking - and I know management skills are crucial. So many food businesses fail - because of lack of skills in that area.

                2. I taught in a culinary institute for 6 years. My student age ran from emancipated minors to 70+. Many "career change" adults enrolled -- retired cops, lawyers who hated lawyering, pharmacists, electrical engineers, AC repairmen, postal employees, military retirees - the whole gamut of careers. The common thread was their love of food and delight to finally be on the track they'd wanted to pursue for a long time. Last I heard, the former head of a SWAT unit was cooking in Hawaii. A 70+ year old woman, recently widowed, had finally begun the food-based business she could not start while her husband was alive because he thought it was a bad idea. A former jeweler made exquisite pastry. An anthropologist is a caterer..... this list is endless.

                  Good Luck.

                  1. What do you think of the reverse... how much is too much experience... I have never taken a cooking class, cook professionally (own a food business), would love to take a cooking class, but am hesitant to enroll in a class that is not advanced enough... (also, I don't want to get in over my head and find out that I have no idea what I'm doing!)

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: harryharry

                      Hey harryharry
                      check out your local Community college.the one i teach at has beginner classes and advanced classes.talk to the instructors and let them know what you are looking for and they will guide you.

                    2. My suggestion, based on the fact that you won't be doing this for a while, would be to volunteer in the kithcens of a few great restaurants in the meantime. This will give you insight into whether you really want to pursue this professionally, and give you some real world experience. Since you will be volunteering, you can work around your schedule. I have worked in many kitchens that the chefs have accepted folks under these conditions.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: mattrapp

                        That's a great suggestion -- thank you -- and I look forward to trying it out.

                        I take to heart, too, what posters above have emphasized about the sheer physical duress of working in a kitchen, and having to commit to that if one wants to go the distance. All the responses so far have been both bracing and encouraging. Thanks so much to everyone for addressing my question.

                        1. re: sequins

                          I attend my first formal cooking class after I retire from my first job. The range of ages was 19 to late 60's. So it is never too late. Now I have been know to assist in develop class with the department head of a local JC.

                          Before my local hounds jump on my case, I work in kitchen when I was in school and my Uncle trained in Cantonese cooking.

                          By going to classes is a lot of fun if you do not plan going into the trade. I can tell you it not an easy job.

                          If you really want to do it at a profession you can fine senior lunch programs which you see if you really want to do it.

                          But once you have done it for a while it just another job. One that I turn down in my youth. But my son is studying to go into the trade. Being a big kid he fighting to get off the big kettles.

                          1. re: sequins

                            i'd go so far as to suggest fitness training involving heavy lifting. be prepared to lift 50 lbs to shoulder height and carry it up stairs. most of the injuries of older chefs i've seen are back blow-outs, which suck because they can't work as chefs anymore, and they also can't sit at a desk job for long periods anymore. heartbreaking for them. make sure you are in good shape going in--chix need to schlep just as much as the dudes (more than them, actually, to prove ourselves).

                            1. re: soupkitten

                              You have a good point. I would like to add one more, your arm length and height is another point. Longer arms will help greatly in being a line cook.

                              After saying all this one of the best chef I have met is under 5 feet tall. She has a fine touch and I really liked her food.

                              So being short is not a major factor is you have the desire.

                              Also the two chefs that have hurt their backs are both big and tall and short and small. So there is no telling what will happen.

                              1. re: yimster

                                Arm length....that is so important. Being short is tough in a busy kitchen...nobody likes to stop to get something off the top shelf of the walk-in for you.

                        2. One of my close friends owns and operates a restaurant. I occasionally fantasize about pursuing a career in the culinary arts, but one time wondered alound whether I was too old to do it. His reply was priceless: "you're too old to be a chef on the day you're old enough to know better than to want to be a chef." And he suggested that I would be better off if that day came sooner rather than later...

                          2 Replies
                            1. re: alanbarnes

                              well said. i've achieved all i want to and i'm happy flipping burgers : )

                            2. I went back to school for culinary at age 36, (Johnson & Wales, not the CIA, but not bad :) For me, it has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. Most of the people in my program are in their late 20s, but I'm hardly the oldest. There are quite a few in their 40s and 50s.

                              1. Hearty thanks again to everyone who participated in this thread.

                                I heard a segment yesterday on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show (a great NPR program) that might interest those interested in this general topic. Lopate discusses -- with Tom Colicchio and Dorothy Hamilton -- the recent surge in cooking-school applicants and food-industry jobs. You can listen to it here:


                                1. You're never too old so long as you can lift a chef's knife, and pull your weight during clean-up. I went to culinary school when I was 29. I already had a BA, but really wanted to go to culinary school. Older students tend to do better because you know what you want to do, and you're out of the partying phase.

                                  1. I went in my mid 40's and wasn't the oldest in my class, but unless you need the degreee for a paricular job, as I and bigj ohn did there are other ways to get into the food world, and certainly many other jobs besides being a line cook. So many people spend all the money to go to school and then decide that it's not for them or they can't live on the money. One of the wonderful thing about restaurant kitchens is that they are one place that the old apprentice system still exsists. Go to the best restauarant near you that has a cuisine that you identify with and ask the chef if you can trail. Work for free, getexperience and a good idea of what it's like to be in a kitchen. You don' t have to give up your job for a few hours once a week and if you love it......

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Stuffed Monkey

                                      Has anyone ever trailed a chef like Stuffed Monkey suggested?

                                      When would a chef allow someone to trail them? I would think they would be too busy during a service and I would have to go to work until the evening on weekdays. Please understand that I am very interested in the idea and I'm not trying to shoot it down.

                                      I'm 28 and I worked in restaurants throughout high school. I dreamed of going to J & W but it wasn't in the cards. I now work in an office and make pretty good money, benefits, etc. I have found personal interest classes at Viking Culinary, Central Market, and Sur la Table. The community college offers a program but 90% of it is taught during the day.

                                      I would like to enroll but I need my job. I do like the chef trailing suggestion and I wanted to know if anyone has done it or knows someone who did? If so, could they share their experience?