Culinary Schools and the Reality of Food Service

Le Cordon Bleu to Close all US Schools

The reality of food service is that a degree is not a requirement.  But a degree from a reputable school doesn’t hurt.

About 9 years ago, I was in a situation that required I make some serious changes in my life.  After a series of medical crisis that left me with permanent nerve damage and unreliable function in my right hand as well as chronic pain, I had to make some career choice changes.  I made the decision to hit college and get a degree in culinary arts.  I have forever loved cooking, diet books are fascinating to me.  I love food science.  The plan was to get the degree, work in a field related to food, and eventually get a bachelors degree in nutrition or food science.  We had done college searches for the kids in recent years, and knew that finding the right school was extremely important. The research started.  First was the most visible, which was Le Cordon Bleu, a for-profit corporation that could send students out into the real world in as little as 6 months. And leave them with tens of thousands of student loan debt.  I opted not to attend.  There were various reasons, one of which was the money, but more importantly, the credits would not transfer to a traditional college or university.  It seemed to be a waste of time and money, especially with the desire to continue on to a bachelor’s degree.  I ended up choosing Austin Community College, and have never regretted it for a moment.  Not only did I get an education that provided a solid foundation for the future, it was inexpensive and the cost matched the truth about working in food service.   Food service is not a high paying career.

This week, Le Cordon Bleu announced it was closing all of it’s campuses in the USA.  The details in the Eater. com article revolve around a number of reasons, primarily related to the earning ability of the graduates after graduation.  Most of those I know who attended culinary school started out making very little money, myself included.  It is possible to make a good living in food service, but it usually takes years to move into management positions.  And those years are filled with working strange hours, risk of injury, extreme hot and cold working conditions, and working with some very interesting people, (she said politely).

Here’s the point.  Going to culinary school is not necessary to work in the food industry, and many people are able to make a good living with on the job training.  But if you want to move beyond the restaurant or commissary kitchens, then the key is to get the degree, and don’t go broke doing it.

Here’s my list of favorite options for the culinary and hospitality education:

  1.  Look into community colleges.  This is an inexpensive way to get started.  The requirements for an associates degree include the standards of other programs, such as language and writing skills, history, math, sociology or humanities, and art.  All of these classes have a place in a culinary education.  Think about determining the cost of food, plate presentation, writing a menu, the history of food and agriculture, communication with co-workers and customers.  Science is very important as well, because of the need to understand biology and chemistry.
  2. Universities with hospitality programs.  The gold standard in culinary education is the four-year degree.  This can be costly depending on the school, including for-profit schools like the Art Institute.  On the private, for-profit side I like, the Art Institute, Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and the New England Culinary Institute.  There is a good list on the American Culinary Federation’s website.
  3. Public and private universities are everywhere.  And the ACF has a very long list, including international options.  When I was attending Austin Community College, the culinary arts program went through an audit and was awarded an exemplary status.  It’s not an easy process to attain the status, or to keep it!
  4. With many changes in the educational opportunities, many high schools nationwide now include culinary arts programs, which give students a head start when they get into college, and make them more employable right out of high school. This is not the same as a home economics class, and the students graduate with certificates in ServSafe training, basic knife skills, and food production and planning for restaurants and other food service operations.

Going to any college is challenging.  Going to culinary school adds some extra challenges.  The classes are long, they place students in kitchens designed to simulate professional kitchens.  It challenges on physical, mental, and emotional levels.  There is homework, and it’s not easy.  Not all the classes are in the kitchen; in fact most are not in the kitchen.  You have to know how to use a computer.  Learning new skills is a life long requirement.  Culinary school is a preparation to get an often low paying,rosie-the-robot-is-real-eugene-huge-clipart dirty job.  Many people don’t even go to work in the food industry after college, and most don’t stay with it to their retirement because of the abuse the body takes over years working in a kitchen.   The most successful people in the industry I know have worked hard to get where they are, and continue to do so by staying ahead of food trends, constant reading, and being open to growth and changes.

One thought keeps coming to mind with regard to food service in general.  There have been a few stories about the future of automation in the fast food industry.  Much, if not most of what we buy now at the grocery store is processed on an assembly line. It’s a matter of time when more automation creeps into restaurants at all levels.  Maybe a better education for food service is in robotics design and repair.