Culinary School Advice

| February 26, 2007 | 6 Comments
  • 6 Comments

There appears to be no end to the amount of emails through Eggbeater I get on this subject. The irony is not lost on me. I am a self-taught chef. Trained on-the-job, my resume is my only certificate. It’s rare I meet other people like me in my age range. More rare still that I work in a kitchen with anyone who has not gone through a culinary program at all.

And yet, I have been training culinary students for almost 15 years. Whether it’s side-by-side training to get them familiar with my station and the kitchen at large, or as their supervisor through an extern/internship (culinary schools use either nomenclature for the same thing: sending students out into the field for work experience before they graduate) or as their direct boss after they’ve graduated.

The specific, name-brand culinary school students I’ve worked with and trained have depended on the geographical location of the businesses or their respective fame. Because of this, I have strong opinions on specific schools. I’ve come to learn their strengths as well as their gross weaknesses. I have become opinionated about a form of education I myself could not afford, time or money-wise. I have been working since I was 14, and have not since had the luxury of learning without pay.

For these reasons, when I receive email missives all over the world on the subject of culinary school advice, I dole out well thought out and experiential words. I have lost count of the people who wish they’d listened to me when I attempted to talk them out of culinary school.

It is not that I think all culinary education outside of the workplace is a waste of time. But I think one should know all their options before signing a check for upwards of $60,000 for two years of education, or less.

I know for a fact that few, if any, culinary schools, lay out all the facts and possibilities for prospective students making bright eyed inquiries on their shiny doorsteps. It used to be that culinary schools required their future students to have at least some experience in the field before even being able to apply. Now the only skill a future cook needs to possess is the ability to sign a check.

When I receive an email the first thing I do is ask the person a number of questions. I realize each person coming to me has a different agenda, various hopes, specific goals and has bravely put forth an inquiry to a complete stranger. It’s vulnerable to ask for help, but an amazing resource the www offers anyone trusting enough to think there’s someone out there who can answer seemingly impossible or overwhelming questions.

I began my career from a similar place. A friend of a friend of a friend was a chef in New York City. Soon after she graduated from CCAC I took a trip there and contacted her. She did not hesitate to say yes and within hours of arriving I was sitting across from an accomplished chef taking notes on what she was saying. After thanking her profusely for making the time to see me she said something I hope to never forget. I have said it myself more than once and always credit her.

“I always say yes to helping other women in the field because professional cooking is a Men’s Club. What we are doing here is the only network for female cooks. If I don’t pass it on to other women, no one else will.”

Almost a year later, the late Barbara Tropp spoke strikingly similar words at a fundraising dinner announcing what would be the first women’s culinary professional organization, Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.

I’ve written a fair amount on the subject of culinary school advice. My most “Googled” piece is “What is a Chef’s Responsibility?” Recently I wrote a piece, so transparent I’m practically naked, about the pastry chef glass ceiling I’ve hit, especially in the Bay Area since both the Dot Com Bust and September 11th.

It’s not easy these days to be excited about my profession, my specific field and the industry I love. But I believe deeply “we keep what we have by giving it away,” and I honor those who apprenticed, mentored and educated before me when I answer these missives. As well, I’ve recently fallen in love with teaching culinary classes myself.

Here are some excerpts of emails I’ve sent to various people who have asked me for culinary school advice:

“Know why it is you want to go to culinary school, what specific needs and desires you have, and then the education you go after will fill these. The other option is to go after a specific restaurant for on-the-job training.

Some important attitude hints: Be humble. Start at The Bottom– peeling apples, doing prep, learning to butcher, tempering chocolate by hand, etc. Do not take a job where you’re considered “the pastry chef” for at least 5 years. Employers love to give titles to people to entice them, but it only works out for the business in the end– because you’re a lot cheaper than me and it’s easier to stroke your ego with a title than the learning that you need to do along the way. Bad habits are formed in those cooks with little or no direction.

It takes more time to unlearn than it does to start off training under the best people you can find. Not every chef is a great teacher. Most chefs do not have the time to teach. A lot of the learning is on you. Supplement your hours in the kitchen with articles, books, library visits, magazines, and eating out whenever you can afford to. Develop your taste memory by using all of your senses when you eat and go to farmers’ markets.

You’re not going to make very much money in this field, but most especially at the beginning. So it’s of utmost importance you work with the (pastry) chef you want to. In the kitchen/restaurant you want to. Whose desserts/food do you love? Do you love the classical or modern stuff? Do you like big kitchens or the small ones? Asian food, French, North African… think about this.

Do a little research: collect (dessert) menus from a bunch of local restaurants. When you go in and ask for the menu, have a pen and write down the (pastry) chef’s full name. Then take your resume into each place whose (dessert) menu calls out to you and (make sure to find out when is the best time to go to the restaurant: if they serve lunch visit betw 3-4:30, if they only serve dinner, visit @ noon) go to each place asking for the (pastry) chef by name and ask if they have any positions open. They don’t? Would they be willing to have you come in one or two days a week for free? Tell them how much their (dessert) menu interested you and say you are coming there to work for them specifically.

INTENTIONALLY CHOOSE YOUR EDUCATION, YOUR TEACHERS, YOUR MENTORS.

If you are going to make $10 hour working anywhere, work at the place you want to learn the most. Just like school, just like life: your education is up to you! You will learn a lot from someone who knows a lot. From someone who has a lot of suggestions, can brainstorm, knows the history of food and food science. Is able to teach, to mentor, and to be patient enough to grow a person from seed to sprout, at least.

Don’t stay at a job unless you’re learning. But don’t put any job that you haven’t been at for at least 6 months on your resume. Buy and read the SF Chronicle (or your local paper) and the NY Times Every Wednesday. This is the cheapest way to start your regional restaurant education.”

But patience on your side is necessary. Chefs who think you’re in a hurry will most likely view that attitude as disrespectful. Not a single craft is learned overnight. Few chefs I’ve worked for have taught me by saying, “Here let me show you a better way.” Or, “Take all the time you need to get this right.”

Learning on the job has often meant that I learned under fire. It meant I had to pay close attention when chefs and sous chefs didn’t teach in an empathetic way.

Learning how to cook professionally is about doing it. It’s repetition, teaching all five senses memory. It’s about deference and humility, respecting those who have been cooking/baking longer. It’s stamina, and a passion so deep and strong it can feel delusional. Professional cooks are best when they are a precarious mix of humble and cocky, and knowing the balance is important. Something besides external validators like money, the public’s gratitude or a normal life must drive you.

And lastly:

“There should be thousands of things YOU should look for in a professional cooking job! Is the kitchen clean? How are the Spanish-speaking workers treated? Are the sous chefs helpful? Is the chef absent? The food delicious? Is there a staff meal and is it edible? Are the appliances clean and working properly? Are people caring for themselves and their surroundings? The cooks tasting their food? How many cooks have been there longer than 6 months, a year? Is the sous chef a person who has been promoted, and if so, from what position? Are the cooks happy to be there? Are they learning? Is the pastry chef experienced? How long has the kitchen management been baking/cooking professionally? What’s the style of the management team?

School gives you a foot in the door. But that’s all. Now the real work is ahead of you.”

I am currently mentoring a few people, some of whom have chosen culinary school, some who are going alternate routes. It’s thoroughly inspiring and rewarding. No matter what a person chooses, my hope is that my industry will continue to thrive and expand the envelopes and glass ceilings I’ve been straining against for the last 15 years.

And if more people begin learning a craft that takes a lifetime plus to master, the more wonderful food there will be to appreciate.

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About the Author ()

Shuna fish Lydon was whisked and baked in San Francisco but served and eaten in New York City. She's had a 16 year tumultuous love affair with professional cooking and has BFA in photography from CCAC. Working with and for some of the best chefs in NYC and California, Shuna's resume reads like the who's who of cooking today. She identifies as a fruit-inspired pastry chef and calls the many local farmers' markets her muse. Currently "at large," Shuna spends her time teaching baking and knife skills classes, consulting at local restaurants and writing for a number of outlets about deliciousness.
  • wendygee

    The way I got involved in the culinary industry was through an apprentice program through the American Culinary Federation. I could not afford Culinary school at the time and I could not afford to work for free either. I also was not familiar with the field and just wanted to experience what it was really like to cook commercially. I am a believer in experiential education and have always pursued school programs that provide both hands-on training as well as classroom learning. The advantage of the apprenticeship program was that I went into a culinary environment (a hotel kitchen) that catered to my learning an overview of a commerical cooking environment plus provided the patience for someone who is just beginning in the field. The chefs were committed to teaching techniques as well as providing a structured system for my learning all the stations throughout the kitchen. I didn’t get stuck doing one thing for any extended period of time and got a chance to see what I enjoyed, what I did best and what I need to learn the most. I also had to earn my place and was not given special treatment.
    So, this is just another option for getting into the culinary field without getting yourself into serious debt.

  • Anita

    I completed a boulangerie certificate at Le Cordon Bleu Paris nearly 10 years ago, which I loved. But the specific knowledge I was after (authentic French breads and bakery-style patisserie) would have been hard to get elsewhere at the time.

    When I decided to get out of technology journalism soon thereafter, I followed my heart into food. I knew I didn’t want to work in a kitchen again — I’d done the restaurant and bakery thing during high school and college — but I wanted to have some formal culinary cred to augment my editorial background.

    I started out in the weekend program at CCA, with the intention of transferring to the full-time diploma course when I exhausted the weekend material. I was shocked to find a disorganized, undisciplined environment where my peers were more interested in slacking their way to a cushy chef job than in actually learning anything, and chef-instructors who were willing to give a passing mark to any old slop (a classmate’s mayonnaise made with egg whites comes to mind). Needless to say, the experience didn’t impress me sufficiently to make me want to continue.

    But I’m glad I did it, if only because the structure of what I learned there was something I don’t think I could have picked up while working full time in a different profession. And because my end desire wasn’t to land in a restaurant, but to make a switch to cookbook editing or food journalism, my needs were different.

    I look back on some of the crap I did at school — memorizing brown-sauce variations, turning potatoes into seven-sided foodballs — and realize they’re the equivalent of junior high geometry: Utterly useless in the real world, but a thought-provoking exercise for someone fascinated by the subject at hand.

    Did a formal culinary education help my career? Nope. Was it fun and exhausting and interesting? You bet. And every now and then, I pull some little bit of culinary-school trivia out of the back of my mind, and smile.

  • Aaron

    Anita,
    You say that the knowledge wasn’t available any other way. Did you think of apprenticing in a French boulangerie or patisserie? Wouldn’t that have given you the same knowledge?
    I’m not being sarcastic. I would simply like to know why you chose culinary school in place of an on-th-job learning environment, and what you think the merits of your approach were in comparison.

  • Anonymous

    I am looking for advice regarding a pastry program. I am interested in an intense six month or so apprenticeship type program taught by master chefs. The French Culinary Institute’s program is attractive to me, but too expensive. The French Pastry School also looks attractive. Can anyone comment on its program? I live in the DC metro area, so if anyone has heard of a similar program closer to my area, I would appreciate hearing about that too.

    Thank you!

  • Sonia

    Do you have any specific advice for baking and pastry and not necessarily cooking a particular cuisine? I agree with your notion of learning on the job and that’s what I am currently doing in addition to my full-time job. My question would be what all is there to learn in baking and Pastry? How do I know what I need to know next? Have I learned enough? Is there more? It keeps me inspired when I know that I am learning and enjoying something.

    From your blog, another thing came to mind. What are the various options one has after having learnt the art of baking and Pastry? Work in a bakery, a restaurant kitchen, food journalism etc….

    Thanks.

  • shuna fish lydon

    Hello Sonia,

    Thanks for stopping by with your questions.

    In terms of paving a way for your educational path with B&P, follow your heart is what I say. There are thousands of branches of this field and I’ll be lucky if I truly understand a couple dozen of them before I die.

    What do you love to bake/ make? What are the ingredients of those items? Do you understand absolutely everything about how the egg works? Flour? Sugar? Yeast? Chocolate?

    Because I trained in restaurants for most of my career (until Citizen Cake which was a Bakery and a restaurant), I learned primarily about how to make plated dessert components and their design. I loved working seasonally and restaurants tend to do this more than hotels or bakeries, so my path became defined when I saw what I wanted to work with most: fruit.

    If you have more of a question that I have given you an answer for, please feel free to email me directly– there is a link on Eggbeater.

    Best of luck to you,
    Shuna Lydon