Culinary School vs. Working Your Way Up

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Italian culture and Italian families appreciate great food. It seems like every family has a favorite recipe (or a favorite argument over a recipe) that’s been handed down from prior generations. Food symbolizes love, togetherness, and nourishment. Time spent in your grandmother’s kitchen is an invaluable learning experience. Those who want to take their love of food and cooking forward into a career should consider the benefits of culinary school vs. working your way up.

Not Your Grandma’s Kitchen

Grandma loves you. She wants the best for you. She sometimes shoos you out of her kitchen. When the meal is ready, she just wants everybody to eat. Then eat some more. And she does it all for free.

Restaurant kitchens are completely different. Anyone considering a career in foodservice should test their mettle by working in a restaurant for a few years. The differences between a family kitchen and a restaurant kitchen are stark—the hours are intense, social life is non-existent, and, unlike Grandma’s kitchen, it’s paid work, but the wages are low. The pace can be grueling, turnover is high, and so is burnout.

The restaurant lifestyle requires exceptional stamina and commitment, a willingness to work weekends and holidays, and the ability to hold your tongue when someone is yelling at you. Finding out what it is really like in a professional kitchen before making it a career, and especially before spending thousands on culinary education, is critical.

Not a Television Show

Culinary school enrollment has been climbing since the Food Network came to television. What those cooking competition shows don’t tell you is that culinary school is expensive, and cooking is hard work.

Cooks are under constant pressure to prepare and plate food and get it out the door in a timely manner. Many graduates saddled with six figures in student loan debt didn’t seem to realize that they’ll still have to put in years at $11 – 15 an hour to add experience to their culinary degree.

It’s true that a culinary degree can apply to careers other than being a chef; culinary graduates can become food and beverage directors for hotels or food service managers if their curriculum included courses in management. But experience is still highly rated in the job search.

Many highly successful chefs learned their craft by working in kitchens run by predecessor famous chefs. In a few years, an eager, hardworking kitchen staff member can learn all the stations in the kitchen and assist chefs directly, learning side by side. Chefs can be mentors and often recommend books for aspiring chefs to study to learn more about cuisines, food pairings, and cooking techniques.

Observing others in the kitchen is a great way to pick up knowledge on everything from different cuts of meat to how to keep vegetables from getting mushy or make superior sauces (though no sauce will ever be as good as Grandma’s, of course).

For those who are enthralled with the history of food and want the legitimacy of a culinary degree, there is a compromise in the culinary school vs. working your way up debate: work in a restaurant while attending culinary school. Those who already have restaurant experience may discover that they already know much of what’s being taught in their culinary curriculum.

Those without experience can gain it while simultaneously earning their degree. Letting passion be your guide and being realistic about career paths, finances, and the incredible work ethic required in the restaurant industry will help aspiring chefs decide whether the work is really for them.