Alternatives to formal culinary schools


In addition to the nationally known schools, there are culinary training programs and schools, many of them quite good, in nearly every city of America.  Some states like Arizona and a few  in the MidWest offer Vocational Tech high schools. These are are the closest thing we have to the European training system, which begins at about age 14. If you son or daughter wants to be a chef, you should look into these opportunities. There will surely be more in the future, as the current Administration’s focus on education also includes trade training.  Do not, however, confuse trade training with R,O.P. and similar programs, which offer an hour or so a day.  R.O.P. courses are a great start, but are a kind of “vocational light”. True vocational training programs engage high school students for at least three hours a day.

Staying on the subject of public education, many community colleges offer exceptional culinary training.  The New York City College systems have produced excellent and successful chefs and food and beverage professionals. In Chicago the Chicago Community Colleges, which, by the way are in partnership with the French pastry Institute, provide training in a region where students are exposed to some of the best restaurants in the country.

California boasts a network of  public training opportunities: San Francisco City College offers both an AS degree and a certificate for those who do not want to have to take the college courses. Diablo Community College, founded by legendary Kenneth Wolf, is considered one of the top training institutions of the state, and Contra Costa College, once a training field for the least employable clients of the Department of  Employment,  is now under the firm hand of Nader Sharkes.  Sharkes has not only turned the school into a highly demanding professional training program – unlike many other culinary schools, Contra Costa offers a certificate rather than an AA degree.  Contra Costa has developed a scholarship program which sends the top students in the class to a culinary school abroad – last year with Chef Martin Yan and the Year before to the Marco Polo Institute in Florence, Italy  – for two weeks. A number of these schools including Contra Costa, Columbia College in the California Foothills – perhaps the only one with dormitories  – have professional restaurants distinct from the school kitchens, where all students work shifts as trainee cooks.  A few across the country like Napa Community College charge higher tuition, which goes to defray the higher costs of equipment and product. The full course at one of these schools may run anywhere from a few hundred to $12,000 at the self funded properties. Several of the community colleges in California have recently received grants of a few million dollars to upgrade their facilities and add high end, student run restaurants.

One of the reasons state culinary programs can offer quality training is that they pay quite well and state laws set high standards for instructors.  There are community college culinary training programs in most states.

The American educational system used to offer many European style apprenticeship programs. The few remaining are under the supervision and certification of the ACF, the American Culinary Federation.  At last look both Utah and Hawaii still had  programs, but a call to the ACF should give you more information. There are also a few companies, mostly hotel groups,  which offer enough training within their employment programs to count as educational opportunities.  Disney has offered full and impressive apprenticeship training for many years.

For the past few years we have seen more and more American candidates with formal European training. The first was a smart young man who figured out that he had the same access to European, in this case British, schools as he did to those in the US, and the bill would be about 1/3 that of learning here.  While everyone is locking up their pocket books, adventurous young culinarians have found ways to get their education in exciting places. The more recent crop of foreign trained Americans are the sons and daughters of immigrants, who, being dual citizens, were able to spend a few years in France, Italy  or another country, where the state still pays most of the cost of tuition and subsidizes salaries for learners. The hook here is the necessity that the trainee be relatively young.  Career changers would not be accepted.

There are, of course, private schools abroad, but they tend to be pricey. Lausanne, which once produced the best managers in the world, and may still, for all I know, for many years,  can run up to $200,000 I have been told. Some of the culinary schools, furthermore, are for  recreational cooks rather than pros.  We have not seen many graduates of the old Cordon Bleu who were reasonably prepared for an American kitchen. I am sure there are some. (the name has since been franchised to a group of American culinary schools in a trade school empire).

For those who have been working as chefs for some time and have decided to upgrade their skills, most of the major schools offer some form of continuing education, and they will be delighted to provide you with their coursebooks. The ACF also offers certification and certification through short courses.

There is also such a thing as a mentorship. These are few and far between, but they exist.  Although some chefs call them apprenticeships, they are not. Apprenticeships last a specific period of time, are certified after a standardized exam, both written and hands on, and provide a certificate. Mentorships mean you are working under a successful chef,  who guides and teaches you for three or four years. These are almost always jobs that begin as high school jobs.

Working your way up through kitchen stations has also provided a successful path to chef positions for quite a few professionals.  Some say that this is the only way to learn the industry, and that classroom time is wasted time. My vicarious experience does not bear this out, but it definitely works for some. Once a chef has managed to work his way up in good, professional kitchens, he will find that a lack of a professional certificate is not a great handicap. The challenge to taking this route is finding and keeping positions under very good chefs in very good restaurants and making your job your training program.

Even those who decide to enroll in culinary school should try very hard to first get some hands-on experience, both to see if they like it and to provide some meaning for the material they will later be taught in class.

Finally, there are additional ways to enhance training. Stages with recognized overseas chefs allow those who have already gained some experience to add technique and skills to their portfolios. Some of the formal schools like Greystone offer continuing education or week long symposiums. Some community colleges offer courses in the management of restaurants and specific areas of food service such as wine studies.