Lately I've fielded a number of questions from friends, readers of my blog (which is admittedly not that many people), and members of Chef's Blade about what to expect in culinary school classes. I realized that my earlier post - "Things Every Culinary Student Should Know" - was slightly jaded, cautionary, and not very constructive or proactive, so I decided to come up with some strategies for actually successfully making it through culinary school. I can't think of many fields of work that are more fun, dynamic, and fascinating than the culinary work, so I certainly don't want to scare anyone away.
That being said, culinary school is a meat grinder. I started school with around 45 people in my class, and graduated with about 20 of those people. Some of the others failed a class and had to retake it, but many dropped out. From what little research I've done, as well as talking to friends and peers who have gone to other schools, this is about average - somewhere between 40% and 60% dropout rate.
The tips and suggestions I've come up with are purely reflections on my experience at Le Cordon Bleu - Minneapolis/St. Paul, but I think will likely apply to just about any situation.
1. Be self-driven.
One thing I quickly noticed about my instructors was that they really didn't push their students very hard. They expected us to have an intrinsic motivation to succeed, to ask intelligent questions, to show determination, to prove that we wanted it. Those of us who demonstrated this ended up getting a lot more attention from the instructors. You'll get some great advice, learn some really useful tricks, and hear some ridiculous stories if you can get your instructor's attention.
2. Keep your "extracurricular activities" under control.
I made a lot of great friends in school, but a lot of them came into class most mornings looking like they got hit by a truck and smelling like they slept in the bottom of a bottle of tequila. I was certainly guilty of that a few times, but I always tried to bring my A-game. Industry people are notoriously hard partying people, so if that's your thing, just try to wait until after graduation before you go nuts. It's part of professionalism, there's a time and a place for partying, and if there's one time in your life that you should be stone-cold sober, it's during school. If you don't have solid skills, you may never get your foot in the door in the first place.
3. Create some friendly rivalries.
This is an extension of being self-driven. Find some classmates who are around your skill-level, and compete with each other to see who can do the best. I found three other guys who were pretty hardcore, and we managed to push and challenge each other quite a bit. Most of it was fairly friends, but sometimes it got a little ugly when the egos started to clash, but even then, that brought out a lot of creativity and some great lessons on how to work with other equally driven people. The four of us are easily the most successful out of our graduating class - one is cooking at Spago in Beverly Hills, CA; one just left Cosmos at the Graves 501 Hotel for an Executive Chef job at a super swanky retirement community; one is a cook at La Belle Vie (owned by Chef Tim McKee - this year's James Beard Award for Best Chef - Midwest); and I'm headed to my first Executive Chef gig at a historic resort in Wisconsin starting in may. Find some classmates who will challenge you, encourage you, and check your ego when you need it - it pays off huge.
4. Get a kitchen job while you're in school.
Working in an actual kitchen will teach you things that culinary school never could. Speed, accuracy, and efficiency is the key to a professional kitchen, and while your instructors in school may give you time limits, you'll rarely (if ever) have to work at full speed. Landing a job while in school can be kind of tricky unless you have some prior restaurant experience, but your school's student services can help you out there hopefully. Get an instructor to write you a letter of recommendation, or mine them for contacts and job leads. This is where being a noticeably driven student helps out. An instructor isn't going to send students to a friend's restaurant unless that instructor has faith that the student isn't going to make them look bad.
5. Work for free...seriously...
Some of the best experience outside of school that you can get is by "staging." (Soft g, it's French, so it sounds like "stazshing") A "stage" is basically an unpaid apprenticeship. It's most common in higher-end cooking, so if that's your thing, come up with a list of restaurants in your area and get in contact with the chef or sous chef. Your instructors should be able to help you out with this. A lot of restaurants are perfectly willing to let a student come in and work a shift, especially the independent ones. It's free labor for them, and valuable experience for you. They're not going to throw you on the line and let you burn, so don't worry about that (unless the staff turns out to be a little sadistic, which there is a slight possibility of that). You'll likely do some prep, and maybe help out at a station during service, or just watch at that point. If you visit a few restaurants, you'll start to figure out what kind of kitchen you want to work in, and what kind you don't want to work in. There's a lot of great contacts to be made, too. This industry is very much about who you know. You still have to have the skills to back it up, but having a strong network of peers is a huge help. No matter how big the city you live in is, the restaurant scene is a lot smaller than you'd think. If you find a restaurant you like, see if they'll let you come back once or twice a week. A friend of mine did that, and after a couple months, a spot in the kitchen opened up, and they hired him.
6. Structure your life.
A successful kitchen is a well-structured kitchen. Your instructors will beat this fact into you. You'll need to be neat, sanitary, organized, punctual, and adaptable at work - try to carry this over into your life. I'm not saying be an anal-retentive neat freak, because I sure as hell am not. Still, try to give yourself a routine and stick to it. School can be tough, and if you're working as well, it can be even harder. Setting a routine can take some of the edge off that. I was pretty much a robot during school - I had class from 7:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and worked 40+ hours a week. That's a little excessive and puts you in the danger zone of burning out (I'll admit I skipped class every once in a while to give myself a mental-health day), but I got through it. My favorite pass-time is running, so every day after class I'd go for a 6-mile run, eat a little lunch, and then head to work, go to bed, wake up, and repeat. I went out with friends on weekends, and every once in a while during the week. You certainly don't need to be that robotic about it, but make sure that you set aside time for something you enjoy that ISN'T cooking related. Being a one-track-mind kind of person can be helpful in this industry, but don't let it completely consume you, because even though you might forget sometimes, there IS life outside the kitchen.