The Realities of Culinary School
Tips and Hints for Those Who Are Considering a Culinary School Career
I am about a year out from culinary school now, and I find myself missing it often. It was one of the best and hardest experiences of my life. If you’re here, you’re probably considering culinary school, or at least curious about it. Before I started I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. A lot of my thoughts, along with those of my classmates, were misconceptions. There is so much they don’t tell you before you get there that you have to figure out on your own. This list is the one I wish I had before I started.
There are a lot of things people don’t really think about.
You don’t walk out of school with your shiny degree in hand as a chef. 'Chef' is a job title that only comes from experience. It doesn't require a culinary school degree, but culinary school will get you to that point a lot faster.
You and your classmates will be doing all the dishes you create, as well as thoroughly cleaning the kitchen after every class. One of my classmates had never scrubbed a pot before in his life and I can tell you he was in for a rude awakening.
It’s not a career path you choose for the money. Even if you become a famous chef with your own cooking show and chain of restaurants, it will take years. You choose this career because you are passionate about food. If that’s not what you’re in it for, get out before you start.
Nine times out of ten you can find your uniform at a much more affordable price if you shop around on the internet instead of buying it from your school bookstore. A simple long sleeved chef coat ran around $30 in the bookstore. I found several on Amazon for $15 that were of an even better quality. If you buy at the bookstore, shoes aside, you can easily spend over $100 on a single uniform, and you need at least two sets, preferably three.
If you rent your textbooks, you will almost undoubtedly ruin them. Order them online or make friends with an upperclassman who is willing to share. Save money wherever you can because you’re not going to make lots of money straight out of school.
You are expected to bring your own knives. Most people carry theirs in a bag or a roll, but I have seen them carried in toolboxes as well. These are usually available at the bookstore for a reasonable price. If you decide to order online and piece a kit together yourself, be sure of the quality before you order. You are looking for knives that are forged versus knives that are stamped. You want something that will hold up for hours of cutting potatoes.
Speaking of cutting potatoes, thats how you will spend most of your semester. Before you get to so much as look at nice slab of meat, you must become adequate in knife cuts. Your instructors will have you slicing vegetables until you think you can never look at a carrot again.
When you first start out you will be allowed very little deviation from the standard recipe. So many aspiring young cooks go in expecting to have the creative freedom of being on a competition cooking show. Early on in your culinary school career, that extra dash of pepper could cost you points on your practical exam. You are not able to show your creative flair as a cook until a couple semesters in.
Not all of your time will be spent in the kitchen. In fact, you may be in the classroom weeks before you are allowed the opportunity to wield your own knife. Before you can cook, you must be instructed how.
Cooks and bakers have their own version of math, along with specialized classes to go with them. By the time you’re done you will know how to calculate the exact cost and selling price of a recipe within minutes.
A lot of the classes take place in the evening. I had classes my final semester that would start at three and not get out until ten or eleven in the evening. This mirrors the typical restaurant experience most students will end up at straight out of school.
In addition to your generals, math, and cooking classes, you will have to take at least one class dedicated to the front of the house. You’ll learn proper serving techniques and etiquette. About half of the people who dropped while I was in school dropped during this class.
It’s an awful lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Based off my experiences, there are disproportionately high levels of people who love musicals at culinary school in comparison the normal population. The rest of the class had very mixed reviews of our taste in music.
You get fed a lot of food, whether you want it or not. You have to taste everything you make. As you advance in your classes, you will want more than a taste of the gourmet meal you just prepared. The freshman fifteen is more like thirty in culinary school. Its easy to get carried away when so much is laid out in front of you.
In every class I attended, there was at least one student who was ridiculously slow paced on dish. Everyone hates that person. Don’t be that person. No one is allowed to leave class until all of the dishes are done.
On the hardest days of class, I would frequently remind myself that I was paying to do this. Paying to scrub the floors, paying to pry burnt carrots out of the pan no one would claim ownership of, paying to go to class with an eight hour turn around and an hour drive. It was infuriating, but worth it in the end.
You get remarkably close with many of your classmates. They will become your therapists, your best friends, your life coach, and more. You’ll shed blood, sweat, and tears together. With how prone to knife accidents new cooks are, I mean that literally.
If you’ve never worked in a kitchen, they’re weird, for lack of better phrasing. You will almost undoubtedly hear someone singing a kids' song and end up letting out an explicative in the middle of it when they dump a little too much salt into their pot. (Mise en place, kids, mise en place.)
Some of these tips may make culinary school seem a bit unappealing, or even daunting, but if you’re passionate I promise it is worth it. For all I paid and all the work I put in, I would still do it again if I could do it over.