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Considering culinary school...any advice?

I am in Orange County, and food has always been my hobby and my passion, so lately I've been considering taking it to the next level. I have taken recreational classes at the Laguna Culinary Arts school, and I know they have a professional chef program as well. Does anyone have any experience or advice to offer about taking this route? There is also the Le Cordon Bleu California School of Culinary Arts that I have heard great things about, however would require a much more significant immediate life change to attend, as I could do night classes at the Laguna school and still finish in a year and keep my current job, that way even if nothing panned out professionally, at least I didn't lose my current career for a pipe dream. But I do have concerns whether having the "big name" behind you helps get you started, much like going to a well known college vs a small private institution no one has ever heard of.

Anyone have any helpful words of advice or warning for me?

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  1. Go for the best you can afford, and make a strong commitment in time and effort. That serious, professional approach is more likely to lead to important first jobs. If you're very worried about losing your current career "for a pipe dream," then you might want to consider just taking night classes with the idea of becoming a better amateur. A lot of restaurant work is hard and unglamorous, and the pressure can be intense, especially if your ultimate goal is ownership. Without a deep commitment -- and you can't manufacture that -- you'd probably be disappointed in this kind of career.

    On the other hand, there is nothing more enjoyable than inventing new dishes and preparing and presenting delicious food (except eating it, of course!). This Chowhound board is a good resource for keeping up on what people say they want and what they're willing to accept. I'll summarize by noting that there are a large number of unexploited opportunities in the Los Angeles restaurant field.

    Whatever you decide, good luck!

    1. Work in a restaurant in the kitchen full or part time and see what its like. Talk to people who have gone to culinary schools and and ask them if its worth it and if when they got out - if it fulfilled their passion for food.

      Its not as glamorous as you might think. You're going to be "paying dues" a lot of years to make it to the top. But if you like working weekend nights in a hot sweaty kitchen watching waiters and waitresses making at least twice as much as you then it could be for you.

      Good friend of mine graduated from CSCA in Pasadena 5 years ago and worked at a few well known places in LA. I tried to warn him (I'd been a general manager of restaurants for 8 years...got out...hours were horrible), but he admits its not as glamourous as he thought it was going to be and the pay isn't making him rich or helping to put a dent in his student loans. But he still enjoys cooking at home.

      1 Reply
      1. re: monku

        That is precisely what I was going to suggest.

      2. Working in a professional kitchen it the best advice. Not to sound corny but there are many routes you can take and it's really about the journey anyway. If you go to a name school like the CIA, you can land an exec chef position straight out of school. But most will warn you that if you do so, you won't grow. It's about working with people you admire and want to learn from. Not that you'd every regret having cul. school under your beIt, it is a big financial decision. I'd try landing a position with someone's cooking you admire in the OC. On top of that, have you read Michael Ruhlman's books: Making of a Chef, Soul of a Chef, etc. and Martha Shulman's book: Culinary Boot Camp? Great places to start. Good Luck!

        10 Replies
        1. re: michaelyee

          Couple other enjoyable and eye opening books to see if you have what it takes and what to look forward to:

          Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (every public library has it)
          The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain

          1. re: monku

            Haha, the funny part is I am actually reading Kitchen Confidential right now, and as much as it is NOT glamorous, it sounds great. I worked as a server and expediter through college, so I've been around kitchens and loved it, although I must admit that working the line seems pretty intimidating. I like the ideas of talking to local chefs and seeing if I can get some experience part time in kitchens before fully committing. Thanks guys!

            1. re: OCElizabeth

              At least you know how a restaurant works and what its like to be in the kitchen and it won't be an eye opener. Its definitely a lifestyle choice.

              People hooked on Food TV like my friend went that route because they think its glamourous and everyone becomes an Emerill Lagasse. He had an offer to work at a new Las Vegas strip casino/resort but his wife didn't want to relocate, but definitely would have been more money and better conditions.

              1. re: monku

                Oh yeah, it's dirty, sweaty, greasy, and misogynistic...but it was awesome, I loved the nights on expo but hated that I had to take serving shifts more often to keep the bills paid. That's a big concern for me at this point too...I can't go back to making $8-$10/hour at this point.

                1. re: OCElizabeth

                  You've been in the biz and you know what its really like-the good and the bad.

                  Another guy I knew was a waiter for many years and decided it was time to grow up and I trained him to be a manager. He caught on quick but he liked cooking. His years of restaurant experience enabled him to latch on with a top restaurant in Beverly Hills where he learned everything in the kitchen from the ground up. Long story short he made a name for himself in the LA restaurant scene many years ago and now owns a couple of his own restaurants.

          2. re: michaelyee

            no recent graduate of ANY culinary school will land an exec chef position right out of school. there is way too much on the line for the owner to gamble on somebody with unknown chops.

            i know many successful chef/owners, about half of whom attended culinary school. many who come to work straight from school have attitude and no real experience to back it up. more than once i have seen them break down in tears in the middle of service.

            if you're already worried that it might be a "pipe dream," i suggest seeking out a local place that might take you on (for free or minimum wage) before you write a fat check. see if you truly want to be more than an enthusiastic amateur.

            cooking is hot and hard and the pay is terrible.

            good luck.

            1. re: hotoynoodle

              Graduates from the CIA have and do land exec chef positions right out of school. Doing stages (internships) is part of the program so they do have practical experience upon graduation. That said, not all go on to restaurants. Many go work for institutional places—country clubs, Marriot, etc. Remember, most chefs do not work in restaurants.

              1. re: michaelyee

                as a graduate of culinary school, and having spent 17 years in the business, i have never seen this. do you realize the dollar volume of a marriott or decent-sized country club?

                internships are invaluable learning experiences, but you're still the equivalent of a private in the army. sorry.

                1. re: hotoynoodle

                  I completely agree with you. I am a CIA graduate ('97) and would never have supposed I'd get a lead position anywhere upon graduation.
                  I did land my dream job, in a very entry level position (as it should be) and based largely upon qualities that had nothing to do with where I went to school.
                  Anyplace that accepts new graduates to run their kitchens is insane, and probably putting out some pretty mediocre food to boot.
                  Additionally, I got out of the standard pro-kitchen about three years ago. No evenings/weekends off, topping off at $18/hour, often no benefits, long days...no thank you.

            2. re: michaelyee

              I'm a CIA grad, January 2000. For me it was a very valuable learning experience.
              If I would have known that my life was going to go the way that it has & I'd still be paying it off almost 8 years later, I may have reconsidered...

              I've been working in restaurants in varied positions for over 13 years. I no longer work as a chef, but I am working my way towards a front of the house management position. This is a necessary step as I intend on opening my own establishment in the coming years. I most often have heaps more knowledge than my co-workers (fellow servers) which has alllowed me to move ahead quickly. Not all has been lost.

              In any case, work, work & work some more in a kitchen that you admire from the dining room. Please make sure before spending such a significant amount of money that you are truly into it. You must have a passion for the industry & realize that not one bit of it is glamourous at all. Not for most anyway. In the kitchen exisits many odd characters & you can't be easily offended, flustered or lax. I don't feel you can be a restaurant professional without being a little nuts, as we have to be to do what we do.

              Good luck & happy cooking!

            3. There was a recent article in the LA Times singing the praises of the Orange Coast College culinary arts program. Apparently, they are competitive with all the big name schools at a fraction of the tuition.


              6 Replies
              1. re: sku

                I worked at Orange Coast College at one time - and yes, the culinary arts program there is excellent! Not sure if evening classes are offered in that particular program at this time. Worth checking out!

                1. re: OCEllen

                  Oh that's awesome news! Thank you! I will check out their program.

                  1. re: OCElizabeth

                    Orange Coast College seems like a better choice (and much less expensive) then a Le Cordon Bleu affiliated school. Le Cordon Bleu owns a few schools. Here's an article that doesn't shed a good light on Le Cordon Bleu and California Culinary Academy (once a pretty good place).

                    It's worth a read before you pop for a lot of $$$.


                    1. re: ML8000

                      Maybe 18 years ago (pre-Food TV, celebrity chefs and CEC) I went to the CCA for one of their monthly dinners ($25/person) when the students prepared all sorts of foods like pates, desserts and entrees which were graded by their professors.

                      1. re: monku

                        18 years ago the CCA (now Cordon Bleu in SF) was a good school, and I was in attendance.

                        Now, it's a terrible school. A terrible shame. What the SF Weekly article says is true.

                    2. re: OCElizabeth

                      OCC's program is good. Watch out with the "Arts" school program. I've heard not so great things from people who have gone there.

                2. Coincidentally, I just read a blog post this morning that pointed out some other blog and a book to help answer that very question. Some of it may be relevant to your situation. Here's the post:

                  1. I went to Culinary School a couple years ago (a "big name" school in Pasadena). I went with no restaurant experience, but had a passion for food like yourself. I thought it was something I would be good at-- creative, good taste in food, working with my hands etc. I wish I would have researched it more like you before I made the leap. If I had to do it over again, I would either go to a low cost school, ie a community college, or go all the way and go to NY to the CIA.

                    I have found that chefs don't really care what school you have gone to, as long as you are fast and know your way around a kitchen (I’m assuming a comm. college could give you that). I have learned that this work is 90% physical labor... at least until you are the executive chef maybe and get to write the menus and do the creative aspect (“They” say it takes 8-15 years to work your way up). Culinary school seems so romantic and glamorous—trust me I know the feeling!

                    After you know your way around a professional kitchen, one recommendation I have is to call a well known, high end restaurant in your area and ask if you can “stage” (pronounced “staj”). It’s basically volunteering at a restaurant. They will give you some mundane and some interesting tasks but it’s a ticket into the back of the house to see the action. This helps if you don’t want to get a job in a restaurant. Another book recommendation is “Letters to a young chef” by Daniel Boulud.

                    In my opinion, it's not worth taking out $40,000 loans that you will have to pay back over many many years. (I.E. you start making $8.50 at most restaurants-- if that.) I guess my main point is that going to culinary school is just the very beginning, most of your learning comes from the jobs you will have after that. It's definitely what YOU make of it, and where on the spectrum of food you envision yourself, but culinary school won't automatically give you the credentials to make you a "chef".

                    I am very early in my career, but this is what I have learned this far. Like one of the posts said, there are many paths you can take in this field. But learning from chefs in restaurants is where you grow as a cook the most.

                    1. My plan is to just become rich enough through other venues to open my own restaurant and hire talented people to take care of everything, but I get to design all the dishes and do the fun stuff.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: nick_r

                        Sounds familiar...I had a friend who went through $500,000 in a little over a year....closed the restaurant and lost his wife in that dream.

                        1. re: monku

                          Yeah... well, that's why I'd only do it if that kind of money were disposable cash. So it's definitely a pipe dream, but a fond one.

                          1. re: monku

                            They say to make a million dollars in the resto biz all you have to do is start with 2 mill ;)

                          2. re: nick_r

                            I dont know if the name matters as much, except to get a job rite out of school. i tihnk there are some things I see out of "culinary kids" that disturb me, and often those people do not last in our kitchen.

                            Mainly: can you butcher? alot of schools do not teach this. how to cut a fish from the beginning, how to butcher meat, how to make sausage, etc.
                            speed, and consistency's are important in a busy kitchen. also temperature.

                            So i would advise when researching schools that you ask about such things.
                            Also ask about job placement and internships. ask if they are a school that encourages you to work while there or no.

                            I am on the east coast: the mantra here, is go to culinary, graduate, get a job, then go to italy, france, etc then move to NYC and work for a great chef who will teach you.

                            people are not going to look at where you went to school, but where you worked and what you can do(butcher, etc)

                          3. Le Cordon Bleu licenses out their name to schools here in the states, the quality of the programs can vary widely from financial aid mills to schools with decent programs. You should ask people in the industry in your area about the reputation of the schools you are lookng in to. I went to a Le Cordon Bleu school and IMHO it was the management courses that were the most valuable thing. Getting a job in the kitchen of a good restaurant and taking some business/management courses at your local community college would probably better prepare you for the industry and be a hell of a lot cheaper.

                            1. You would probably eat up Michael Ruhlman's book about his first-year experience at the CIA. It is the first of his series, and is titled "Making of a Chef." Very well-written, with fun anecdotes about his trials and tribulations and some philosophical wonderings about cooking as art or craft.

                              1. Agree with the sentiments - first start as a server or hostess. Get used to the pace of a professional kitchen. If you prefer back of the house, show up to any restaurant one night, have your knife bag, apron and whites and say you'll stage. You'll be peeling carrots in no time.

                                As far as a small program versus a big program, all that matters is how well it can place you afterwards (this assumes you've got the chops). The school's "connections" are key. One example of that is the Westlake Village school. Tiny spot, smaller than a 7-11, but you go inside and see pictures on the walls from all the famous chefs that have visited through. They do an excellent job of placement.

                                After all, your cat doesn't care if you can concassé a tomato or brunoise a pepper. You want to get paid.

                                And then, once you're in a kitchen, all that matters is that you learn from your boss. The most important thing you can learn from a culinary program is how to say, "Yes, Chef" or "Right away, Chef". In fact, many restaurants shy away from Cordon Bleu graduates altogether because of their built-in attitude and arrogance. They prefer that cooks learn "their way" and in fact many of the larger restaurants promote from within.

                                This is especially the case where there's a restaurant group - they might not have room for you to grow here at the Newport Beach location, but there's a spot opening up at the Laguna location, and so on.

                                But really, the school is what gets you in the door. Your ability to handle a working restaurant without getting in the sh&# is what makes them keep you. Everything else you'll learn on the job.

                                (Disclaimer: I am a graduate of the Westlake Village school, and we often get preference in job placement over "the other" schools here in Los Angeles.)

                                  1. re: Shayna Madel

                                    “I put my degree on applications, and they make fun of me for it.”

                                    Sadly true.

                                    Daniel Boulud's _Letters to a Young Chef_ provides the romanticism
                                    Michael Ruhlman's _Soul of a Chef_ provides the heartbreak
                                    Anthony Bourdain's _Nasty Bits_ provides the reality

                                    You can't be willing to work in a professional kitchen if you're not also willing to wash the dishes or unclog a sink. That's not to say that you should put your dreams on hold. What it means is that it's a crucible, and it will test you emotionally, physically and mentally. Which is why I suggest working in a real kitchen first. As they say, nothing quite prepares you for that first volley of "live ammo".

                                    1. re: SauceSupreme

                                      Also, if you are to enter a truly demanding culinary school rather than a profit-oriented provider of cooking classes for hobbyists, some real time in a professional kitchen will help you hone your chops and develop your endurance so you can get the most out of the $$$ and time you are investing.

                                  2. A few years back, I told one of my friends NOT to attend law school (at a cost of $75-100k) if the only job he would get is a public defender's position at $40k. You cannot afford to take on the debt load and get so little return.

                                    Ditto for my niece who was looking thinking about paying $35k/year to major is art.

                                    Attending a culinary program has to be considered in the same light. Is it worth investing $50k to make $15 an hour or less? I do not think so. Now if you find a position at a community college that will cost you under $5k, that sounds like a good investment

                                    I worked 10 years running a kitchen prior to heading back to graduate school 15 years ago to become a CPA. Recently, one of my friends (another CPA) asked me to come "out of retirement" to run the F&B at a couple of country clubs. Let me say that the position paid less than the average accounting graduate would be paid out of college.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: jlawrence01

                                      After spending time doing the ACF apprenticeship program the chef I was working for suggested I got to the CIA, so that I could shoot straight to the top. I graduated in 92 and got a great job upon graduation. I have slowly worked my way up and have finally 15 years out obtained a position of responsibility and great pay. I think my education was great and I dont think I would be where I am now if I had not worked my butt off the years before school and after school. The real question is, I wonder where I would be had I not gone to school.

                                      Now that the Food Network is in our face all the time, it is great when people ask me where I went to school and I say the Culinary Institiute, thier eyes light up...that does make me feel that the debt and sweat equity was worth it