We’re only a small team (at the moment) but 80% of us went to culinary school in the UK. Collectively, the time spent learning to be a chef was greatly enjoyed, but after spending time working in commercial kitchens its fair to say there’s plenty these schools don’t tell you!
Lets leave the get a qualification vs learn on the job debate for now as we think you need both, but the fact remains that it’s important if you’ve made the decision to go to culinary school and undertake a career as a chef that you make sure you know what you’re getting in to.
Funding your learning
Culinary school is very expensive, on average we paid about £15k for a full time six month course, excluding accommodation for those that couldn’t commute. Many schools now offer loans to fund the course, but if you’re not able to land a job before you have to start repaying the loan, you could be in real trouble. You need a plan in place (that you’ve thought about before you start your course) sodepending on what happens post graduation you’ve got your bases covered.
The truth about commercial kitchens
Being a good home cook and big foodie is perfectly respectable, but the comfort and leisurely pace of your kitchen, TV cooking shows, or culinary schools for that matter, does not exist in the real world. Commercial kitchens wherever they are, are largely speaking a hot, hard working, juvenile, alpha-male (or female) environment especially on busy service nights.
Work harder AND smarter
As a team recounting our time at culinary school, its fair to say that nearly every instructor we had during school liked to tell us ‘work smart, not hard!’ when we’d be caught doing something contrary to logic and common sense. While this helped us think about multi-tasking and working as efficiently as possible, the truth is commercial kitchens are not Google. You need to work harder to show your worth in the kitchen to your peers, and smarter to show others and the Head Chef that you’ve got what they need to help them make their kitchen more successful. Harder and smarter need to be key goals that you’re always aiming to achieve.
Be very assertive or find a new career
This all ties in to working smarter and harder. Communicate clearly and concisely. Move quickly (but safely) and decisively, don’t ramble around the kitchen when you’re rounding up your mise en place, you’ll only aggravate people. Always be willing to ask questions if you don’t completely understand something. Always offer help (if you have time) to someone who needs it, but be willing to take over and do it yourself if that’s what it comes down to.
A culinary degree will not (on its own) make you a chef
What it hopefully does do is make you a well-trained cook who is able to add value to a commercial kitchen team. It also (hopefully) helps you get noticed when looking for that all important first job. Getting a culinary degree will absolutely not (whatever anyone tells you) mean you can go into a kitchen as the head chef (sous chef or even chef de partie!) This profession, like so many other vocational based industries has a well defined hierarchy that takes time and effort to move up through, so be prepared to put in a lot of both if you want to reap the real benefits.
Let’s face it, the pay isn’t great
The people who last in this industry are the people who love it down to the core of their being. It can take quite a while to get to the point where you are taking home a good salary. As a salaried chef you have the luxury of knowing what you’re going to be paid every payday, and although the thought of being paid hourly for the same number of hours worked might, on a calculator make you feel much richer – its not going to happen as in many cases the restaurant you work for would go bust! Be realistic in your expectations and plan accordingly – knowing what you salary at different career stages is likely to be when you start out will help you have a clearer picture of what’s install.
As a team we are pro culinary school, but there is also no substitute in this profession for on the job training and learning. It is however, very important as professional within the industry that we make sure that those wanting to enter are armed with the real life facts about being a chef – not to scare them away, but to ensure that they enter the profession for all the right reasons and stay, rather than think they’ve made a mistake and leave!