What to Know Before Going to Culinary School

by Nancy

There are many professions where you are required to take multiple supplementary classes, learning skills that are not especially relevant towards your career path. Culinary school is much different than traditional education because it focuses solely on what you need to succeed as a chef. The majority of culinary school focuses on cooking and preparing meals, but there are also other skills taught as well. This includes menu development, proper safety inspections and staff supervision.

You do not need a college degree to become a professional chef, but you must get certification from the American Culinary Federation (ACF). As of writing, there are 14 different certification levels. These are divided into categories based on your chosen career field. After finishing culinary school, you can take the first test to become a certified culinarian (CC). More information about completing culinary school and becoming a chef is detailed below.

Basic Culinary School Education

A common mistake aspiring chefs make is thinking they do not need culinary school because they are already competent cooks. Culinary school is different from most other educational courses. You do not spend a great deal of time in a traditional classroom setting, taking notes or reading from a book. Preparing meals in your home kitchen is significantly different than cooking in a professional kitchen alongside restaurant staff.

During culinary school, you spend a great deal of time learning how to prepare multiple meals while working with a team. You learn all the necessary shorthand used in the kitchen, as well as how to prepare meals while also addressing new orders coming in from the restaurant. You also learn how to properly take care of your equipment, including many tools you do not normally use in an at-home kitchen.

Other skills taught in culinary school focus on safety. This covers both using culinary equipment as well as maintaining proper safety standards in your kitchen. Both of these skills are necessary to pass health inspections in a restaurant.

While many of the lessons involve hands on training, there are still some traditional educational lessons. Culinary school teaches you nutritional science. This focuses on both the nutritional value of meals and covers how to create healthy or specialized meal plans. These lessons also cover various food allergies and how to adjust your meals based on the dietary needs of your clients.

Advanced Culinary School Education

Some culinary schools offer additional training. How long it takes to complete the classes varies based on the profession, with some programs lasting up to four years, though most are between one and two years. If you are interested in a management position, there are courses focusing on math and accounting. These classes teach you how to manage a payroll and set a budget for your ingredients, as well as the differences between short- and long-term budgeting.

Other managerial skills include a greater focus on time management and group leadership. Many chefs agree these are the hardest lessons to learn. If you want to hold a position like head chef, you must be able to quickly adapt to any situation in the kitchen, assigning orders in real time while conveying what you need in short, but precise instructions.

There are also programs available based on specific careers. Sous chefs, also known as executive chefs, focus more on managing the kitchen staff and restaurant as opposed to preparing meals. Pastry chefs learn how to prepare different desserts and breads, as well as the differences between working in a bakery versus a restaurant. There are additional specialties, such as meat, fish or vegetable cook.

Applying for Culinary School

Applying to culinary school is similar to applying for any other class, but there are a few differences. The exact requirements vary based on the school. In some cases, you must already have experience working in a kitchen to apply. Other schools accept any chefs, but you must go through multiple assessment tests before starting classes. Some of the tests you are required to pass, while others are focused on placing you in the right program. For example, one of the largest chef programs, the Culinary Institute of American (CIA) uses assessment tests to determine your overall skill. These focus on following standard safety procedures, familiarity with equipment and how quickly you prepare meals.

The costs greatly vary depending on what school you attend. In most cases, you are required to pay a nonrefundable application fee. This normally costs between $100 to $200, though some schools waive the cost if you demonstrate financial hardship. Tuition at many culinary schools costs between $30,000 to $50,000, with some of the top schools costing as much as $100,000.

If you are on a tight budget, you can look for local programs. The best place to find these programs is through community colleges. These courses often have additional discounts as well, such as offering reduced tuition costs if you are a resident of the state. If you are looking for a third-party culinary school, make sure the school is accredited with the ACF.