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Should You Go
To Cooking School?
career centercooking school
March 2003
Every month I receive a bunch of emails from readers who want to go to cooking school. Some are high school students, others food loving career changers and some are experienced cooks who feel the need for formal training. Their question? Which cooking school do I think is best for them and in some cases should they even go?

The problem is that good schools go bad and bad schools get worse! What I can offer is some points of consideration that will enable you in making a more educated choice.

When selecting a school or college there are several things that you need to consider; do you need to go to school in the first place, what do you need to learn, what type of school do you want to go to, how much money do you want to spend (or borrow), do you want to relocate, what are your expectations, and the question that many professionals would regard as the most important - is this really the business for you?

Is this really the business for you?
To be contraire let's examine the last question first. Cooking is a tough, thankless business. Do not get involved in it if you need lots of sleep, have bad nerves, need to be off on weekends and holidays (bank holidays for Canadian & British readers) or if you are afraid of burns, cuts and bruises - to your body and your ego. Do not think of becoming a chef unless you like working really hard both physically and mentally, working shifts and being shouted at upon occasion. Don't think of becoming a chef if you think you are going to earn big money, get a TV contract or become a celebrity. Sounds pretty negative right? Well it can be -unless you are the kind of person who always sees the silver lining, in other words… Become a chef if you like being challenged and like having your weekend on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Become a chef if you enjoy busting your balls, proving yourself every day, become a chef if you dream of being the best and are never satisfied with whatever you achieve… Don't do it for a paycheck or because you think it looks glamorous - because the paychecks suck and there is no glamour in taking the bus home stinking of fish.

Do you need to go to school?
OK so you are past the first question - congratulations you are as crazy as the rest of us - you really want to be a chef. But do you need to go school to achieve your goal? If you want to simply learn the basics of cooking and work in a diner or pub you could probably learn enough on the job. Knock on the doors' of a few restaurants, start as a kitchen helper and take a few short classes at a local school - this may well be enough. An apprenticeship is a good option too. Working four or five days a week in the kitchen and going to school one day a week. This is very common in Europe and Australia - it can be found in the US too. This works out well as you get paid while you are learning. However if you are totally committed to full time education read on, but if you have never spent a day in a professional kitchen, go and work in a one for a couple of weeks for free, before you sign up for classes. See what it is really like; this could be a life changing experience one way or another!

What do you need to learn?
Ask yourself, "What is it I want to learn?" If you have already been working in a kitchen for a number of years then your going to need to have an open mind and be ready to break some old habits. I also think you need to join a good school with experienced educators - if you are going to do it, do it right. If you are totally new to the business then you will need to consider what is important to you; a well-rounded education - kitchen mixed with some front of house training, purely kitchen or even more specific - just pastry and baking? Make your decision and this will narrow down your educational options. If you are not sure most will recommend that you choose the broader option as you can always specialize once you've had a taste of what's available.

What type of school do you want to go to?
Some like the idea of going to a large happening school while others are attracted to a more intimate environment - you decide what suits you. Do you feel the need to go to a really well known school like the Culinary Institute of America (USA), Westminster Kingsley College (UK) or will your local community college fit your needs? Sometimes this question is answered by your bank balance - or lack of. How much money do you want to spend (or borrow)?
Depending on the country you live in educational costs wildly differ. For example when I went to cooking school (or catering college as we call it in the UK) there was no real cost for me. Education in Great Britain is covered by the government (actually by tax payers money) up to a certain age, after that, the costs are pretty nominal when compared to say the US where the Culinary Institute can set you back nearly forty thousand bucks for two years worth of classes, books, room and board. Community Colleges in the US do offer inexpensive cooking programs that will cover the basics. My suggestion is that you need to decide what you want to do once you have completed your education, if you wanted to work for a catering company like Aramark then good educational credentials would probably lead to a better salary than a community college education. However if you plan on working in a high quality hotel you are going to start at the bottom of the ladder, so the amount of energy you put into getting an interview and how you come across on the day is going to be what gets you the job.

Do you want to relocate?
If you do not want to move away from home then you obviously have to find a cooking school close to home. Call a few local chefs and ask them which of the local schools are putting out good students.

What are your expectations?
We all have different needs and expectations. Sure the better-known schools offer good training - they have to justify their fees. But at the end of the day no matter how high your expectations may be, the person who controls how much you learn - is you. When you are at school ask questions, read cookbooks, foodie mag's, newspaper food sections and cooking web sites, ask questions and then ask more. When your educators know that you are interested in the business it will inspire them to teach you.

A Final Tip
When you are at school have fun! Life gets too busy once you're out of there - so live life a little while you have the chance!

Written By: Jeremy Emmerson

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