Do Cooks Need to Go to Culinary School?
One of the questions most often asked of chefs lately is, “Did you go to culinary school?” This is usually followed by, “Should cooks go to culinary school?”
Over the past few months, I have been talking about this issue with chefs and brewers at several events and dinners. Both the restaurant industry and craft beer industry are growing at a pace never seen before. It’s a great time to be cooking and a great time to be brewing, but it seems we all share a common concern: finding qualified, driven and committed employees to fill our kitchens and brewhouses. Passionate and loyal candidates are a rarity among the legions of maybes, no-shows and short-timers.
So what role should formal culinary training play in our desperation to find a few good cooks? There has been a lot of debate and controversy over this topic. Hypotheses offered. Studies done. Graphs, charts and pictures compiled. Yet no one has the right answer, and there is a very good reason for that: Everyone learns differently.
Luckily, there’s no shortage of options for getting your foot in the door of a kitchen or craft brewery. Universities are beginning to announce brewing degrees, culinary schools are adding craft beer to their curriculum, and established chefs and brewers are actively looking for new employees. In fact, right now due to the growth of the culinary brewing industries, there is a shortage of staff in almost every state…so deciding what kind of training is right for you is all about figuring out how you learn best.
Find Your Passion
If you’re reading this thinking “I might like cooking,” or “Gee, it could be fun to be a brewer”—stop reading right now. Don’t quit your day job. In fact, make your day job your career.
If you’re going to make it as a cook or a brewer, you need to know beyond a doubt and without hesitation that this is your passion—the only thing you can see yourself doing for the rest of your life.
I cannot emphasize this enough. In the last five years, the food and craft beer industries have been glorified by the media. If you’re doing this on a lark, or because you want to be on TV and become rich and famous, you’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons.
So: On to the learning part. How do you learn best?
Three Ways to Learn to Cook and Brew
Right now, due to the rate of new establishments opening, the most common hiring method seems to be grabbing whoever has the most enthusiasm—even if they have zero experience. If you can demonstrate passion beyond belief and your work ethic is second to none, this direction would probably work for you. You’ll work your way up the ladder—and it all starts with the worst hours and the worst duties.
But remember this as you work your way up: You can never successfully manage what you yourself cannot do. So get in there and learn how to do everything from the ground up. Open your mind, become a sponge and absorb everything around you. Trust me, you’ll need it all later.
Note that his method of learning only works if you land yourself in an establishment that believes in teaching, training and growth. If you’re just used for basic labor and are not learning or being offered the chance to learn, move on until you find your true learning home.
1. Hit the Books
The merits of academic culinary and brewing programs have long been debated. If you respond well to structured learning and want to have a thorough understanding of the history of cuisine and why cooking works the way it does, then school may be for you. Look for a well-thought-out program with trackable measurements and goals. A well-rounded and respected program will give you the foundation to begin a great career.
One of the biggest misconceptions about graduating from one of these programs is the idea that on graduation day you magically become an expert professional. Let’s be clear on this: All a school or program can give you is a degree. The titles of “chef” and “brewer” are not bestowed from on high; only your colleagues can elect you to those roles. There is nothing worse in our industry than throwing around a title or achievement and expecting automatic respect. Anyone can call themselves a chef or a brewer, but to truly understand what it means to be one and have that tile mean something only happens when those you work with call you chef or brewer.
2. Become a Stage
French for trainee, apprentice or intern, “stage” is the culinary term for someone undergoing a trial period of learning in a kitchen. As a stage, you will be guided and observed by a member of the team. Staging can take place over a single shift or last several months.
For those wanting to travel and study under chefs in many regions, staging around the world has long been a great way to learn the industry. You’ll need to be flexible and willing to do whatever comes up during the time that you stage, but over time you’ll learn from more experts and meet more contacts than any LinkedIn database could ever give you.
3. Follow Your Palate
So, those are three ways to learn this world of cooking or brewing. Which way is the right way? Only you can know for sure.
One thing that’s certain in both the culinary and brewing worlds is to trust your palate. If it works for you, whether on the palate or the plate, learn from it and grow. Then try something new, because no matter how long you’ve been cooking or brewing, you’ll never be done learning and growing. Remember: Each of us is only as good as our last service, our last plate out of the kitchen, or our last beer out of the tank.