If you're interested in pursuing a career in the culinary arts, at some point you'll no doubt be faced with the decision of whether or not to go to culinary school.
A lot of old-school chefs will claim that real-life restaurant experience is more valuable than anything you can learn in a classroom. And industry experience is important. But with so many of today's most successful chefs holding culinary degrees, a pattern of success begins to emerge.
The bottom line is, more and more of the top chefs in the top kitchens are culinary school graduates — and they're the ones doing the hiring! So there's a good chance they'll be looking at that "education" line on your resume to see if you've got a culinary arts degree.
Once you've decided that culinary school is the right choice for you, the question becomes which culinary school? Here are five things to look for when choosing a culinary school:
1. ACF Accreditation
The American Culinary Federation (ACF) is the top professional chefs' organization in North America and is the organization responsible for regulatory oversight of culinary schools.
Schools seeking ACF accreditation must undergo a thorough evaluation of their curriculum, facilities, student-teacher ratios, certification of instructors and more. ACF accreditation is like a seal of approval from the culinary industry, so you can be confident that an ACF-accredited culinary arts program is going to adhere to a uniform standard of instruction and provide a top-quality culinary arts education.
While you're working toward your dream of success in the culinary industry, the reality is that entry-level foodservice jobs aren't exactly high-paying. And since it's not uncommon for some culinary schools to charge $40,000 or more, that often means incurring a large amount of student-loan debt.
Fortunately, many local community colleges offer ACF-accredited culinary programs at prices that are incredibly affordable. For instance, the culinary program at any of the community colleges in California will cost state residents around $1,300. When you consider that ACF accrediting ensures a standard level of quality (not to mention the fact that many programs that charge upwards of $40,000 have no accreditation whatsoever), an excellent culinary education does not need to be an expensive one.
3. Age of School
The popularity of cooking reality shows such as "Top Chef" has led to increased interest in culinary schools. To meet this increased demand, more privately operated culinary schools come into existence. But newer schools aren't necessarily better. For one thing, ACF accreditation doesn't come overnight. It takes a consistent track record of excellence to receive the ACF's seal of approval, and many newer schools just aren't there yet.
Something else to remember is that the longer a school has existed, the broader its network of alumni will be. And that translates into jobs. If a school has been around for 50 years or more, chances are that hundreds of its graduates are working in kitchens throughout the area and beyond — many of whom may be the executive chefs or sous chefs who do the hiring.
4. Modern Facilities
The flip side of the age of the school is the state of its facilities. Community colleges may have been around longer, but their budgets may also be relatively small. That makes it tougher for them to purchase new equipment or outfit modern classrooms and kitchens. On the other hand, the newer schools with the higher tuitions often boast newly constructed, state-of-the-art facilities.
Then again, not every restaurant out there is going to have state-of-the-art facilities, so taking classes in the comfort of a shiny new high-tech kitchen may not adequately prepare students for the gritty realities of the culinary industry.
5. Hands-On Instruction
A good culinary program should have some sort of student-operated restaurant that allows them to get a sense of real-world restaurant service — and in fact, most of them do.
The question is, how realistic is the experience it offers? If students are only serving 20 or 30 guests per day, it's probably not enough to approximate the pressures and demands of a real restaurant. At the other end of the spectrum, culinary arts students at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College serve more than 800 guests daily in three separate dining facilities.
Of course, there's no substitute for the real restaurant experience. Some programs encourage or even require some sort of internship or "externship" whereby students earn course credit through work in a local restaurant.