Culinary degrees and culinary careers are hot right now. They’re on TV with things like Master Chef, Top Chef, and The American Baking Competition. Celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse are the old guard by now, and hip new guys like David Chang and Eddie Huang serve up foul-mouthed, back-of-the-house street cred.
But culinary school is incredibly expensive, especially for a career with notoriously low pay, terrible hours, and incredibly long odds of becoming a superstar. What are culinary school and a real cook’s job actually like?
Aaron Weber interviewed a recent culinary grad to talk money, knife skills, and career trajectory. Here’s part one of his interview.
What Made You Decide To Attend Culinary School?
For the better part of a decade, I’d been working in restaurants and food-service places around Boston. I was a barista for a while, but the overwhelming majority of these jobs were prep-cook jobs: I would be given a very specific task or set of tasks, and be told how to perform them.
I didn’t get to pick tasks, or pick recipes, or decide how or when or how much of something to do. Sometimes the chefs would ask my opinion, or I’d figure out a better way of doing something on my own through trial and error instead of a solid background in the basics. I was doing culinary things, but I didn’t really understand what I was doing or why.
The best job I had was as a kitchen manager, which set me up pretty well for school. That job involved the bulk of basic kitchen skills that later education would vamp.
At that point, I decided that it would be not only useful, but just plain enjoyable to hone my skills further. If I knew what I was doing, I’d be able to work more for myself and move up higher in the ranks. Plus, I’m a musician, and food seemed like a compatible and realistic way to actually make a living. Playing a gig late one night wouldn’t interfere with my schedule the next day.
Also, cooks are in high demand and there’s no shortage of jobs, so if I wanted to go on tour for a few months I wouldn’t have to worry so much about finding work when I got back. All of these things combined made the choice to attend school pretty clear.
How Did You Choose Your School?
I toured Le Cordon Bleu, and I think I looked very briefly at the Culinary Institute of America, but eventually decided to attend Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
LCB required a regular academic program as part of its curriculum, but I’ve already been to college and I didn’t need to do it again. Both LCB and the CIA are also very long programs, while CSCA is a more fast-paced, intensive program. So the schedule was definitely in favor of CSCA.
I also spoke with a few chefs around town, and they said it was a good school and they respected it, as well, so I knew it wasn’t some fly-by-night operation.
How’d You Pay For It?
It was not cheap or convenient, I’ll tell you that.
CSCA is accredited, but it is not part of federal student aid programs and it doesn’t have much financial aid. There’s an essay-based scholarship sponsored by alumni and the Wusthof knife company, and that paid for my knife kit. That saved me around a thousand dollars.
Half of the tuition I borrowed as a private loan from Sallie Mae. I didn’t want a co-signer or guarantor. I’ve done that in the past and felt like it was a nightmare, so I went back and forth with them on the amount until they had a number they’d loan me without anyone else co-signing.
The rest, I put on a credit card. I don’t recommend it to everyone, but it worked for me. The school let me pay quarterly, and by the time I’d hit two payments, my credit limit on one of my credit cards was high enough that I could charge the rest. It was basically all money I didn’t have, but luckily I stayed on track, consolidated bills when the rates were low enough, kept up with payments, and managed to finish paying off the whole thing in a year.
Be sure to check back for part two, in which our culinary grad talks about finding work after graduation and what he’s up to now.
Are you a culinary school grad? (Good for you for having time to read this blog!) Share your experiences paying for it in the comments.
(Photo: Rogier Noort)