10 Things You Might Not Expect from Culinary School
It's not all about the cooking.
There's a lot of things you learn in culinary school that have nothing to do with cooking. Here's my list of some things I didn't think about or expect to learn before starting school.
I left having learned a lot, and with a slightly better understanding of what it takes to make it in the restaurant industry. That is something that can never be taught, you must experience it. Listening to horror stories will not prepare you, you must live them.
Let's start there.
1. You don't learn how to become a chef.
If you've done any research already, you already know this. There was so much more I learned just from being mentored by multiple chefs already established in the industry. In school, you're given the basics. They teach you what you need to know, but becoming a chef is more how you use the knowledge and tools in your own unique way and less following the textbook. You will not leave school as a chef. There is so much hard work that must go into it after graduating. I learned a lot from watching and talking to established chefs; it was personalized knowledge that taught me way more than a generalized text book.
2. "Mise en Place" will be drilled into your brain so hard you'll think about it everyday for the rest of your life.
Honestly though, that's the point. You should never forget it. And you need one for more than just cooking, so it's a good lesson. If you don't know what a "Mise en Place" is before starting culinary school, please take a moment before your first day to learn it. You'll thank me later.
3. Your instructors will be nicer to you than you expect.
Truthfully, they do want you to be successful. While in many cases, Chefs are portrayed as very aggressive people, this is not always the case. And it is almost always definitely not the case when they are Chef Instructors. A few of my instructors mentioned how they kept in contact with some of their students from previous years. They continued to mentor these students even after graduation and see what and how they were doing in the industry. They strive to make you feel comfortable in class, and do whatever they can to help you understand an idea or technique. There may be exceptions to this, but every instructor I had was truly dedicated to the success of his/her students and it was very obvious.
4. You don't necessarily learn how a commercial kitchen works.
Working as a line cook and attending culinary school as a student are two completely different things. I have done both and while there are similarities, there just might be more differences. Most of my instructors and all of my Chef Mentors suggesting working on the line for at least a year before making the decision to go to school, and to continue working as a line cook while in school. Pressure gets in the way, and it's important to learn how to personally manage that pressure, while multitasking and being surrounded by fire and knives in what could be a very small space. You will learn this after time and dedication on the line. You probably will not learn this in school. I remember feeling pressure sometimes in class, but you learning and understanding a topic or technique will always be the priority and that is catered too first and foremost.
5. You do not get to play with fire on your first day.
This upset a lot of students, understandably so. There is a lot of prep and even classroom time before we are allowed to get near anything hot or sharp. After all, this is probably best. A lot of us start school never having worked in a commercial kitchen.
6. A LOT of food gets thrown away.
My instructors actually encouraged us to bring food storage containers to class with us, so at the end of the day we could take home the food we made. Otherwise, it would all get thrown away.
7. Be prepared to cut a lot of potatoes.
Or something. It's probably different by the school. Where I went it was potatoes and carrots. We were always practicing knife skills on them. We did knife skills for an hour almost everyday. It will drive you insane. Don't worry, that means it's working.
8. You learn how to be a dishwasher.
Yes, I mean it. You and your classmates wash all the dishes you use. You really think your tuition is going towards the school hiring dishwashers?!
9. You have to read a lot.
We were given textbooks that we had to read three to four chapters from almost every night. We were also required to take general education classes, so like being in high school again, but everything was about food. Lots of reading and lots of bookwork may be involved.
10. You realize this job is hard, and that you might not want to do it for the rest of your life.
Culinary school is extremely difficult at times. I truly believe that if you make it through your entire program without a single breakdown, you might not be human. Something will get to you. It's normal. You will watch a lot of people give up, drop out, or change their mind about their career. As someone who went through this, I can say it is very possible you will learn so much that you will realize you don't want to work in a kitchen forever, that you don't want to be a chef forever. I watched a few other people make this decision as well, and I even watched some people just disappear. Sometimes it's just fun to cook! Being a chef is way more than that. If you just want to learn how to cook, I'd suggest diving into YouTube videos, binge watching Top Chef, or even obtaining a job in the restaurant industry (at least then, you get paid to learn).
There is so much more than this to be learned in culinary school, but this is my list of some of the things I wish I would have known before starting school. Attending culinary school, even for a short time, was a great experience and I learned a lot that still benefit me today!