I'm considering going to a culinary school for baking and pastry (south Florida) but they seem to be really expensive! I was wondering if i settled for a not so distinguished school, one that give diplomas or certificates (i.e. Le cordon bleu) rather than a Bachelor's, if that mattered or played a big role in the hiring process. For example would an employer hire someone that graduated from Johnson and Whales over me? Or would employers even consider hiring me? Is it worth it to go to an inexpensive school?
A few important things that you should think about is do you have an idea what you want to do in the field, do you want to own your own business, etc. . Baking and pastry is a very large field, where you can go into breads, work in a restaurant, make wedding cakes, work in a bakery etc. Those are all very different fields and have different requirements (expect late nights in restaurants, early mornings in bread, stress in cakes etc)
It might be a good idea to work in a few different places to see how they work and if they are what you really want to do.
You will gain much more in general knowledge if you do go to school, but you can pick up a lot of it from experience, depending on your enthusiasm. (where will you learn how to make a bouche de noel is or how to make pate fruit?) A school will open more doors in the beginning, especially in high-end restaurants and hotels, but the experience on your resume will come to play more later on.
Places I know in New York have you trail (work for free for a few hours) before they'd make you an offer regardless of what you have on your resume or where you went to school.
Cooking schools in general will not be cheap (ingredients, especially now is expensive), but can provide a broad knowledge that you can be hard from just working in the field. You might find you enjoy working with chocolates, candies or petite-fours.
Also look at the school. I know that an inexpensive school that use to exist in New York had more group projects rather than individual ones to save cost (they were 1/2 to 2/3rds cheaper than the other ones) so you won't always get to make your own doughs or cakes, etc.
I would not go to a school unless you had anidea where you want to go in the food industry with realistic expectations. It will take a long time to pay off that loan working in the field and would suck if you decide that it is not for you at the end of it.
When I graduated from the CIA, there were not nearly as many culinary programs as there are now (this was 20 years ago). Having a CIA degree, got me in the door HOWEVER it did not give me the experience and skills needed to be a good chef. Now as a business owner, I do put more weight on kids who have graduated from a full blown culinary program over a shorter less concentrated program. At the same time, I really look at thier resume, because school will give you the knowledge, but it is the practice you get working in a kitchen that will prove what you cand do.
If going to a place like the CIA or Johnson and Wales scares you because of the cost, then go to the CUlinary School of Hard Knocks and start creating an awesome resume by trying to work and great places!
You might consider doing some informational interviews (i.e. talking to some people who work in places you'd like to work). Lots of people like talking about their experiences and giving advice. I'd go and see if I could set up some meetings or take people for coffee or something like that - to ask them all the questions about 1. how did they get where they are, 2. what they wish they'd done differently, if anything, 3. what the most useful/helpful things they've done are, and 4. what advice they have for you. My guess is that if you approach people and tell them that you are interested in a career as a pastry chef, love their work and wonder if they have a few minutes to speak with you about their experiences as a pastry chef, many will make time for you. Be gracious and do your homework (if you can figure out a person's background, do so, so you can ask good questions). If you're stuck, you might contact some of the schools you're looking at and ask if they have alumni who might be willing to speak with you about their experiences at that school and in the real world post-school, etc.
Graduating from some culinary schools that are the top of the top, such as the CIA or Johnson & Wales, open the eyes and doors of certain chefs and owners, much as a degree from Harvard or Yale would. And yes, such an education is quite expensive. Even then, where and who you train with and stage for will be crucial, though of course such schools give a leg up on grabbing those opportunities as well. Some community colleges and tech schools have very good culinary training and reputations -- be sure to actually visit and see the kitchens, talk to students about resources and costs (some culinary courses require substantial surcharges), check out their success in placing grads, and see if they run their own restaurant, bakery and/or caterers. For a fun, informative, and well-written account of training at the CIA, pick up Michael Ruhlman's "Making of a Chef." Finally, before investing years and money into your education, get some practical experience in a kitchen or bakery -- you will soon learn whether the work, long hours, and initial low pay turn you on and inspire you or turn you off and reveal that the actual job isn't as glamorous as you envisioned.
The last bit of advice is critical. I have one friend who finished her culinary degree at one of those higher end schools only to decide she did not want to be a chef.
In terms of placement, do not take the school's word for it. First of all, the stats they have for previous classes in a good economy may not be the same as the placement in an abysmal economy. Even in a good economy, schools may puff up their stats a bit. Instead, talk to students near the end of the programs you're interested and see what luck they've had and whether they attribute it to their own grit and determination or from the school itself. They can also give you a good idea of what starting pay you can hope to make, which will help you determine whether the higher prices for an expensive private school will really be worth it.
Do not let your dreams fade away and take every aspect of advice from others with a grain of salt. There have been many successful restaurant owners, caterers, chefs and etc. who overcame obstacles and the negative thoughts of others......all without formal training in a school, but instead on the job training. Your best advice is to listen and pay attention. Are some routes better than others? Absolutely, but you have to start somewhere. I would hire a genuine sincere person with no skills and would be willing to train them.....than hiring a pompous blowhard that was a Prima Donna
Read this thread and ask some questions from the posters who were in the same position as you. I am sure their experiences in the past year will help you greatly.