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We chatted with chefs about whether culinary school opened doors that would have otherwise been closed

Gowri Chandra
November 14, 2017

Everyone knows culinary schools are expensive—especially if you want to go to top private ones like Culinary Institute of America or Johnson and Wales, which ring in at $35,215 and $39,732 per year, respectively. (And that’s not including additional fees.) Those tuitions are on par with the average cost of private colleges in the U.S., the differentiator with culinary schools being that your starting salary as a line cook tops out at $15—if you’re lucky.

“And you’re looking at doing that for ten to fifteen years before you can even run your own restaurant,” says Joshua Massin. He’s chef-owner of Nobo Wine & Grill, a half hour outside Manhattan. He’s one of four chefs we interviewed about whether culinary school was worth their investments.

We asked everyone the same few questions. First, money aside, will culinary school open doors that would otherwise be closed? That is, if a talented, hardworking person were to spend X years in culinary school instead of working that same amount of time in a restaurant, would s/he be able to achieve more advanced positions during the course of his/her lifetime because of it?

Most people said yes. If you’re a career-changer, culinary school is a must; even if you’re not, however, most of the chefs we spoke to agreed that culinary school gave you a certain mobility that you’d lack otherwise. This depends on your goals, of course: What’s your endgame? If you want to be the chef-owner of a haute cuisine restaurant, culinary school is pivotal in a way that it isn’t if your goal is to be the food and beverage director at a hospitality brand, or working as a sous chef.

As far as financial ROI goes, three out of four people said that culinary school was absolutely worth it—and two of them graduated completely debt-free, as a result of scholarships and personal savings. Only one person felt it wasn’t.

At the end of the day, if this decision is in front of you, follow your heart. And good luck.

Yael Friedman, 32, Pastry Chef: "They Never Would Have Looked at Me If I Didn't Go to Cooking School"

Friedman has worked in pastry at L.A.’s Lukshon (#4 this year on Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants list) and most recently, as chef de partie at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Beverly Hills. Currently, she’s taking time away to raise her three kids.

“They never would have looked at me if I didn’t go to cooking school,” she says. “I could have never even gotten my foot in the door.”

At 24, Friedman already had a bachelor’s degree in applied math and had been working in a lucrative tech role for two years before deciding she needed a shift. She ended up enrolling in a nine month, part-time pastry program at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.

“I chose that program because I didn’t want to go back to a four-year program,” she says. “I just needed the fastest way to transition.”

Having accrued loans from her undergraduate degree, she was also adamant about not taking out any more for culinary school. She saved up money from her tech job to pay for the program, and believes it was well worth it. “Financially did it pay off? No, but that was already known,” she says. “I knew how much I was expecting to make going in. Given all that, I still think it was the right decision for me. I love working in restaurants.”

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She had worked at a bakery in Boston before her husband got a job in L.A., necessitating a move. She didn’t have connections in the city, and wasn’t really excited about the first job she landed. “I was like, ugh, I don’t want to work here. But you do it,” she says. And she eventually moved on to more fulfilling, prestigious roles.

Without a doubt, Friedman doesn’t believe she could have gotten where she has without culinary school. “I have met a few people who’ve maybe worked their way up, but generally speaking, I don’t know too many people who have gone that route. It’s all about who you know, and if you haven’t gone to school, you don’t know anyone in the industry to land that prep cook job. Even if you’ve gone to cooking school, it’s really hard to get a job. You have to put yourself on there. You can start out washing dishes, but most of the guys washing dishes—they’re willing to do the work for the pay, and that’s that. I’ve met people who’ve worked their way up from dishwasher to prep cook, but it does take a long time.”

She recommends anyone considering culinary school go and actually works in a restaurant or bakery for a month. “You either love it and get addicted to it, or hate it,” she says. “Now I’ve been in the field for five years, and I love it. There’s just something about it you can’t find in other industries.”

Anthony Marsh, 33, former line cook at Gordon Ramsay Steak: "They Overcharge for Skills That Are Readily Accessible Elsewhere"

Anthony Marsh is now pursuing an engineering degree in Los Angeles, but at one time, he worked in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and four star restaurants across the country.

He attended Le Cordon Bleu for the briefest of moments before deciding it wasn’t for him. “I dropped out almost immediately because I was being taught things that I was learning in the first two weeks of working in a two-star restaurant,” he says.

For him, his time was better spent learning in competitive kitchens—and getting paid to do it. “I literally walked into one of the premier four-star restaurants in South Carolina and got a job,” he says.

“I’ve met so many people who were chefs at restaurants run by Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsay,” he says. “They didn’t have degrees, but they worked for these places that that gave them prestige.”

“Culinary schools might be worth $2,000 a semester,” he says. “They overcharge for skills that are readily accessible elsewhere. Restaurants have such a high turnover rate, they’re constantly recycling employees, so there’s always room to grow and learn.”

At the same time, he points out that the culinary industry is one of the most underpaid for the amount of hours you work—so shelling out hundreds of g’s on a degree and then making $15 an hour (if you’re lucky) is just rubbing salt in the wound.

At the end of the day, even though he chose not to stay in the industry, he wouldn’t discourage someone else from pursuing it or going to culinary school. “I’d say, if you’re passionate about it, go for it. I’ll never be the one to say you shouldn’t go for your dreams. But just know: everything you’ll learn in culinary school, you can learn elsewhere, and get paid to do it.”

Joshua Massin, 37, Chef of Nobo Wine & Grill: "It Became Really Valuable"

Massin graduated in 2004 from Johnson and Wales with a degree in food service management, and an associates degree in culinary arts.

“I thought about staging,” he says, “but I wasn’t getting any support from my parents. I was 21 when I started as opposed to 18, and that does make a little bit of a difference.”

He had worked in restaurants before then—which is how he knew he wanted to be a chef in the first place—but getting a degree was of inherent importance. “My personal values were to have a college degree, I didn’t want to go through life saying that I never achieved that,” he says.

He also recognizes that it’s not the only way to become successful. “It used to be, if you didn’t go to CIA, you were nobody.” But he doesn’t think that’s the case anymore.

For him, the ROI of his degree really paid off later on in his career. “When I was offered the opportunity to have an ownership stake in a restaurant, that’s when things I learned in culinary school became really valuable,” he says. He cites skills of menu planning, facilities design, cost control, legal education and general management techniques.

Today, he’s paid off all his debt. In many ways, he’s “made it” having his own restaurant. “It might be 10 to 15 years until you get to that point though,” he says. “And you might have 100 hour weeks working at $10 an hour. It’s a long wait.”

Courtesy of Matthew Francis Johnson

Matthew Francis Johnson, 22, junior producer at BuzzFeed Tasty: "It Was My Way to Go to New York"

Johnson’s professional trajectory might be the most unique—and at the risk of it not being widely representative, it’s definitely interesting. (And inspirational.)

He graduated from CIA in New York in 2016 with a bachelor’s in business administration and culinary arts management. Amazingly, he did it without spending a single penny of his own money. “I left Duluth with $90 in my pocket,” he says. “My parents had no money. I just kept applying for scholarships.”

Among the $170,000 he amassed in scholarships was an award from the James Beard Foundation—he’s now a JBF National Scholar. "Winning that gave me the confidence to apply for even more scholarships,” he said.

“What’s great about going to culinary school is it’s the way out of a small town for most people,” he says. “It was my way to go to New York, it was my way to meet people that I’d never meet if I was in my small town, to compete in culinary competitions and travel.”

While he was staging at a restaurant in Seattle as part of his degree, he started making cooking videos and uploading them to YouTube. After doing that for two and a half years, he came across a producer job posting online at BuzzFeed.

“The head of culinary at Tasty also went to culinary school. She’d heard of CIA, and she wanted to talk to me about it. CIA has a lot of clout in the food world, and it opens a lot of doors,” he says.

Practically speaking, a degree also offers training that’s more condensed and structured than you’ll probably be able to get organically working at restaurants. “For example, you’ll study cuisines of Asia for three weeks, cuisines of the Mediterranean for three weeks, for example,” he says. “By the time you finish your associates or bachelor’s at CIA, you have a great background in all different types of all different types of food, vs. working for three to five years in one restaurant with one type of cuisine.”

Johnson obviously got a great financial deal at CIA—through his hard work applying for scholarships—but even otherwise, he thinks there’s value in the school. “CIA may cost more than other colleges, but you don’t go to CIA if you want to be a line cook your whole life,” he says. “You go to CIA if you want to be a captain of industry. In 10 or 20 years, the people you go to school with will be leaders in the industry.”

“When I hear someone complain about culinary school, the first thing I do is ask them about their experience. What activities did they do, what grades did they get? Usually, if they had a very negative experience, they didn’t try that hard.”

At the same time, he says, “There are a lot of people who do come from poor families. They do have debt, but they’re working their butts off to be there. I have friends that, I can just tell, they’re already rising up the ranks. They’re going to pay it all off, and they’re going to go far.”