Culinary Schools: The Best Known

The  “Top Tier”, that is the well established and nationally known schools, are probably also the best connected and certainly reliable.

The original big three, The Culinary Institute of America, Johnson and Wales and New England Culinary Institute, known as NECI, continue to attract the most students.  Their size, funding and recognition makes them well worth considering. Their price tags may not.

These schools are all well regarded by employers, because they set and maintain high standards. I have heard few of their alumni complain about the education they received there. With well funded facilities and reasonably paid instructors, they offer reliable and I am told engaging education. They are expensive, but there are a lot of scholarships available. At least two of them, Johnson and Wales and the CIA offer a full BA degree. Johnson and Wales is fully accredited, meaning that a student who feels after the first courses that this may not be the correct degree can transfer into another field.  NECI, located in Vermont hills,  has been a bit less prominent recently, but has long been a favorite staff drawing point for many chefs.

Being large and well established, these institutions are  the best connected with the largest rosters of alumni with whom to network. CIA, with a second campus in California, is the longest established and most widely recognized of all the culinary schools.  Their second campus,  Greystone, initially intended to offer post degree training and courses in particular fields,  now offers the standard AS (Associate of Science) degree.

A number of smaller and perhaps less well known independent schools offer commendable  professional training, among them the French Culinary Institute, where Jacques Pepin guides the curriculum, New York’s Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), founded by Peter Kump, and Kendall College in Chicago, which provides business and culinary tracks for it’s students.  ICE  has always been an excellent school, but has only recently switched it’s focus from recreational cooks and small entrepreneur training such as caterers to professional students.

One thing all of these schools share in their favor is location. Having training where you have a selection of top kitchens for your intern/externships and after school and post degree jobs, which are at least as important as the school you choose, provides students with a valuable advantage. The career departments of these schools maintain close ties to the local industry and have the best job listings from them.

FCI and ICE are somewhat less expensive, because their courses are shorter. The philosophy seems to be to solidify the basics and let the students practice and expand them  in the real world, which my experience with their graduates shows to have been successful. Unlike the CIA, furthermore, their tuition does not include housing expenses. I have had few disappointments from any of their students, although every school graduates a dud or two now and then.

California’s better schools at the moment include PCI, which is located south of San Francisco and  enjoys an increasingly positive reputation .  It was recently purchased by the French Culinary Institute, which pledges to run it with the same level of quality as the New York campus. The school was founded by a group of the top teachers from the California Culinary Academy when they were dissatisfied with the school’s changing owners and policies.  Many of the original staff are still there.  Accounts from the street indicate they are doing a very good job.

The San Francisco Pastry and Baking Institute is one of very few schools specialized in baking  , although  the CIA, the French Culinary Institute,  the CIA Greystone and others have spectacularly equipped bakery and pastry labs taught by excellent instructors.  It is, in fact, located well south of the City itself, but then, most of the bakeries are not in the City, either.

The other notable Pastry school with bakery courses is Chicago’s French Pastry School, among which counts top pastry chefs among its founders and directors. These schools are both less costly than a full degree course offered by one of the all inclusive schools, since their courses are shorter. They maintain excellent relationships not only with the local market but, possibly because there are so few of them, internationally.  Most of the general schools offer pastry and bread certification. The FCI, in particular, has a strong bread baking department.

Somewhat beyond San Francisco is the CIA’s second campus, Greystone in a sumptuous old stone winery building in Napa, another school with access to openings in plenty of impressive restaurants. That location, furthermore, offers unique opportunities for those who wish to combine their food knowledge with wine skills, located within an hour of the majority of the countries best vintners. Housing is a bit complex, though.

Then there are long established  schools like Tante Marie’s in San Francisco. Founded by Mary Risley in her own kitchen many years ago to offer courses for her friends, eventually expanding it to an intimate campus  with one large classroom.  Tante Marie’s is a small, technique based private school which counts on local professionals and a large pool of exceptional local talent for its courses. While some of their students, especially their pastry graduates, go on to work in large, professional restaurants, their popularity is greatest among those who wish to be entrepreneurial or work as private chefs. Tante Marie’s gained early and has maintained a stellar reputation for more over twenty-five years.

The prices for these private schools have risen over the years from about $12,000 to a current average of about $45,000. Remembering again that beginning cooks usually make low wages, and that the beginning jobs offering the best training and promising the best career path pay less, the cost of the programs should be taken into account before making a decision. Eater.com  collected the costs for most of the schools above here.

Next: More schools and alternative paths to becoming a chef




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