Friday, July 24, 2009

Things Every Culinary Student Should Know

In my infinite wisdom, I have decided to provide you, my adoring fans, with a number of things I believe culinary school either doesn't tell you, or misleads you (whether intentionally or otherwise).

Ignore, for a moment, my pomposity, and consider these points, which I consider to be rather serious. Some students, or prospective students, may already know this if they have had any experience in a restaurant, but to those that don't, I hope I can provide a service. I would never discourage anyone from going to culinary school if that is where their passions lead them, but make sure you know what you're getting in to.

-- Find some grants, scholarships, or anything you can to help finance your education. I was dumb (and impulsive - I made the decision to go to c-school a week before classes started) and took out the whole balance in education loans. Culinary school is freakishly expensive, and if I hadn't been lucky enough to land the job before I had to start repaying the loans, I'd be completely screwed.

-- Cooking in home kitchens is NOTHING like cooking in a professional kitchen. Being a good home cook and big foodie is perfectly respectable, but the comfort and leisurely pace of your kitchen, Food Network shows, or culinary schools for that matter, does not exist in restaurants. It's a hot, brutal, juvenile, chauvinistic, alpha-male (or female), dead serious environment most of the time, especially on busy service nights.

-- Work harder AND smarter. For some reason, nearly every instructor I had during school liked to tell us "work smart, not hard!" when we'd be caught doing something contrary to logic and common sense. While I appreciate that mantra, and it definitely helped me think about multi-tasking and working as efficiently as possible, I think my version is better. Working hard is great, your chefs and other people above and around you will appreciate it. Working smart is better, you will be noticed, seen as a potential leader, and will be more likely to get the promotion when the time comes. Working harder and smarter is best - if you can get more prep done faster and more efficiently than those around you, you will be noticed.

-- Be assertive or die. This all ties in to working smarter and harder. Communicate clearly and concisely. Move quickly (but safely) and decicively, don't ramble around the kitchen when you're rounding up your mise en place, you'll only piss people off. Always be willing to ask questions if you don't completely understand something. Always offer help (if you have time) to someone who needs it, but be willing to run people over and do it yourself if that's what it comes down to.

-- Graduating from culinary school does not make you a chef. I repeat, graduating from culinary school does NOT make you a chef. It makes you a (hopefully) well-trained cook who is (also hopefully) on the fast-track to becoming a chef. Only your place of employment can bestow upon you this title. Some will require you to be certified by professional organizations like the American Culinary Federation (ACF). "Chef" really has nothing specifically to do with cooking, it's the French term for "Chief" and indicates that you have more responsibilities than just banging out prep, cooking through service, cleaning up, and going home. Eric Ripert put it rather eloquently when he said - "A cook and a Chef are different entities. "Chef" is a title... But when you are a cook, it is who you are. It is your spine and your soul." Strive to become and excellent cook, and the promotions will come to you in due time, then you will get your recognition.

-- The pay sucks (usually). The people who last in this industry are the people who love it down to the core of their being. It can take quite a while to get to the point where you are taking home a good chunk of change. As a salaried sous chef, I have the luxury of knowing exactly what I'm going to be paid every payday, but if I was still hourly and working the same number of hours I'd be making at least twice what I am making right now...and the restaurant would be bankrupt...
Illustrating this point perfectly is food writer extraordinaire Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl in her blog - "Do you know how much restaurant cooks in Minneapolis earn? Between $8 and $15, with most fine-dining cooks earning a mere $10 or $12 an hour. Do you know how much itinerant grape-pickers in California, those symbols of contemporary repression, earn? I read an article last week that jogged my memory: Grape-pickers in Napa Valley earn $11–$13 an hour for the lowest status positions, and in the $20 an hour range for supervisors." Here's a link to the full article, which also mentions the chef I work for (Don Saunders), and the project that we're starting this fall (The Commodore).

This will probably be an ever expanding list, but after a number of my friends have asked me for advice on considering culinary school, I thought I'd put it all down, accessible at a moments notice on this modern marvel we call the interwebs (a series of tubes that sometimes get clogged, just like your plumbing.)


  1. Hi i just wanted to ask you a question about classes at Le cordon Bleu. I'm a culinary noob and i don't know what the classes are like so i was hoping you could give me a few pointers on what to expect.

  2. Le Cordon Bleu is great with very passionate chefs. Some people say it's horrible and they only learn work ethics and techniques but there is so much the school offers that you just need to take advantage of if you are passionate about cooking that will make it worth it. My best advice is to take the first foundations class and see if you like it and don't worry about others opinions.

  3. i very much enjoyed this post. so different from the others i've encountered. I'm going to be starting at Le Cordon Bleu in a little over a week if everything works out. (i havent enrolled yet because they need their damn $50 fee lol but i've been told i should start the 9th and thats what i'm going to do. As far as I'm concerned I'm already a Cook i just need a bit more training to become a GOOD cook, and hopefully someday a chef. :) you can bet your ass I'm going to take advantage of everything they offer because I'm paying 17k to do the damn thing may as well get my moneys worth eh? Anywho ... just wanted to say i really liked this post. thank you for sharing :)