Is Culinary School Going the Way of the Dinosaur?

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Is a culinary school education becoming a thing of the past?

It's always been my contention that culinary school is mostly unnecessary. Though I can understand the urge -- how can one possibly understand all that equipment, all that jargon, all that technique, without going? -- the answer is simply, you don't need it. You never understand it all, you never learn it all, you never master it all. And that is the beauty of food. The moment one chapter has closed, another begins. You never learn it all, not in 10 lifetimes.

The culinary industry can be an intimidating one to enter. The first time I read Kitchen Confidential I was convinced I would never work in a restaurant, though I desperately wanted to. Tales of miscreant cooks bagging chicks on flour sacks, screaming younger cooks out of the kitchen for minor infractions, and chopping lines of coke on the prep table terrified me.

But most of those tales are made for TV (even though some of it happens, sometimes) and any serious restaurant has zero tolerance for the above behaviors (except maybe the shouting part).

So rather than knocking on the back door of a half dozen of the best restaurants in town, and telling them you'll do anything, including (especially) dishes in order to learn, culinary school can perhaps seem like a more painless way to get your foot in the door.

See also: Nick O'Leary of Coup d'Etat: "These Kids Come Out of Culinary School Worthless"

Talk to almost any group of seasoned chefs and the discussion regarding culinary school tends to go this way:

"Back in my day, we weren't afraid to work for it! We didn't go to some fancy school, graduate with some fancy degree, and then expect to be Gordon Ramsay!"

There's a lot of "back in my days" in this discussion, with the consensus being millennial cooks clutching a fresh degree tend to be entitled, sniveling little shits who don't know their ass from a grease trap.

And thanks to the Food Network (we blame everything on the Food Network), "kids these days" have got the cockamamie notion that cooking is glamorous, when professional cooking is about as glamorous as digging giant ditches with a tiny shovel.

So if culinary school recruitment offices are doing anything to insinuate that the industry is anything other than a lot of hard work for not a lot of money (albeit a satisfying life for the right person), then shame on them.

Last fall, Minneapolis Community and Technical College shut down its Culinary Arts program, citing low average salaries at graduation, resulting in a 42 percent loan default rate. And then last week, Le Cordon Bleu announced that it was going up for sale, to "maximize shareholder value, maximize the student experience, and maximize professional opportunities."

So what is happening with culinary schools? Is a culinary degree becoming a thing of the past?

The restaurant industry is one of the few final vestiges where the master-apprentice relationship is still alive and well. You would be hard pressed to find a single good chef in the Twin Cities who, if you were to knock on his kitchen door with an earnest expression and hat in hand, would turn you away, culinary degree or no.

You say these simple, yet magical words: "Chef, I am willing to do anything in this kitchen, including work for as long as you want me to in the dish pit, so that I can learn from you. You don't have to pay me. But if you want to, I'll take it. Any amount."

Be willing to do this for five years, working your way up only when ready, for the best chefs locally, nationally, and internationally if you can swing it, and I'll eat my own hat if you're not a chef worth your salt at the end of it.

So if this is true, what gives? Why drop thousands (students can pay locally between $10,000 to $43,920 for a two-year associate degree) when one can get an ostensibly better education for free, or even get paid a little to learn?

Some graduates will say that their parents wanted them to go to school for something -- anything -- so they chose a culinary program because they could get out in two years and go do something. And thanks to the Food Network (there we go again), culinary school has an air of shiny respectability to it. It ain't Bourdain's industry anymore.

Or is it?

These days, parents can bust buttons over telling the in-laws that little Johnny is going to school to be "a chef." But a culinary degree does not a chef make. What it makes is a graduate with a ton of debt who will enter the work force to earn $12 hourly. I once sat on a panel at a local culinary school and said this very phrase to the assembled students:

"I don't know a single person in this industry who is getting rich."

There was an audible gasp.

Even in our flush food and beverage job market, $12 is the going rate for entry level, perhaps a little more, perhaps even a little less. Restaurants operate on about a 5 percent profit margin, and owners say they just cannot loosen the purse strings any more than that. Enter the enormous market for immigrant labor: Restaurant kitchens are filled with Latino workers, some legal, some not, but in any case they are viewed as an essential pool of cheap labor.

You want little Johnny going into debt to do the same job that a new immigrant barely speaking English can do, and probably do faster, harder, and better for less money?

I would beg any person, child or parent, young or old, who wants to get into the industry to just try it first. At last report, there were around 10,000 of these jobs open in the state of Minnesota, so it's a buyer's market.

Bust a few suds, peel a few (hundred) carrots, listen to the language, and get a feel for 12 hours on your feet. Tell your ma you won't be there for Mother's Day because you'll be working brunch. Tell your dad, too. Write off Christmas, weekends, New Year's, and Valentine's Day. You'll be working. Then sweep and mop the floor.

If, at the end of it all, when you're sipping a shift drink with your comrades, you want to come back again and again, then congrats. Just tell the chef and see if he doesn't work you into the schedule.

The wheat will naturally separate from the chaff in this profession. It's only dedicated hard work and true passion that keep most people at it for any length of time. By comparison, a degree is hardly worth the paper it's written on. And if it's paper you're after, go buy an ass load of cookbooks and read every one.

After you're done hauling out the garbage, of course.

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