Chefs Talk About What Culinary Schools SHOULD Be Teaching StudentsAdviser | Monday, January 10th, 2011 | 5 Comments »
Congratulations! You have just graduated, or even dropped out, of culinary school and are ready to establish your career in the food industry. Are you ready?
You might believe so but many of the chefs and restaurant owners I have talked to feel that many are unprepared for the industry. While there are hundreds of culinary schools based in the United States, with just fewer than 200 of them being certified by the American Culinary Federation, some chefs feel that the graduates, as well as dropouts, are leaving school unprepared for the realities of working in the food industry.
“A real fundamental of the basics of cooking has been neglected,” said Rob Levitt of The Butcher and Larder. “For me, when I went to school, I didn’t want to learn just how to braise, I wanted to know 5 to 10 different ways to get short ribs from raw to delicious.”
“Teach the kids the absolute basics they need to function in a kitchen. Most of all, keep your head down, shut up, and work faster and harder than the guy or girl next to you. If you can’t keep up, you should do something else,” said Chris Pandel, Executive Chef of The Bristol.
“Organizing is so important,” said consultant and Culinary Institute of America graduate Heather Turner. “For example, you don’t start the stew that takes two hours to make a half an hour before service starts. Prioritizing is lacking…Cooks also need to improve on mise-en-place gathering, better at estimating the amount of covers, and getting the most time consuming prep done first.”
The basics aren’t “sexy” though. Some students I have met and talked to want to skip knife cuts and learn about flavor profiles and combinations. Some want to learn about molecular gastronomy but do not understand basic chemistry. While these skills may be useful (although the molecular gastronomy is more of a luxury than a needed skill), the basics should have more of a focus as it is the foundation for this, or any, craft.
Although prep skills and cooking techniques are taught in school, are programs and educators teaching these students how this will work in a real-time environment? Are they preparing students to improvise and think on their feet when the situation calls for it?
“If you are in a kitchen that has a lousy oven or in a small restaurant that has one little oven but you have to braise short ribs for 100 people, what are you going to do? You can’t take up the oven all day. Or are you going to figure out a different way to do it and that’s what’s important,” said Levitt.
While technical skills and kitchen savvy are needed, it’s the mental preparation and lifestyle that some chefs feel that new cooks are not ready to handle.
Pandel found that the culinary school he attended lacked ambition with apathetic instructors and a poor curriculum. However, that did not deter him from the industry, but it did help with his decision in dropping out of culinary school.
“My fellow classmates that really cared found each other in the same situation of constantly trying to be better than mediocre. We referred to ourselves as the 2% club,” wrote Pandel in Soapbox. “The 2% that were actually going to try to make a mark in the industry through hard work, and paying attention to what is going on in the world. Ten years later, the 2% club has done well for themselves for the most part. Everyone else? Not so much.”
“Some of these reality shows blind the youngsters to what it’s REALLY like in the industry. There are long hours, alcoholism, broken marriages, high burn out and heart attack rate,” said Turner.
“Being in a kitchen is very physical, the hours are long and are 7 days a week sometimes. I’m not saying it’s a young person’s game but when you are younger, you have more energy,” said personal chef Valerie Bolon.
Weeding out who should and shouldn’t be heading into the culinary profession is in everyone’s best interest. For the student, it could save them thousands of dollars in unnecessary debt. For the chefs, it will make their lives easier as they will have a smaller, yet more focused pool of talent to hire and train. In order for someone to know that the industry is right for them, there are steps one can take to make a well-informed decision such as working in the industry before enrolling. However, the Culinary Institute of America is one of the few, if only programs out there that have requirements that Levitt advocates.
“I would really like for schools to require that you must have experience before they can accept you. Make somebody work in a kitchen 6-12 months before they even get into school if for no other reason to see if they want to pursue this as a career.”
Before worrying about whether you can master Grant Achatz’s “Truffle Explosion,” understand that he reached this point in his career by working hard every day and mastered the fundamentals first.
Culinary students: Are you ready for the industry? Industry professionals: Did your school help prepare you for the profession?