Culinary degrees and culinary careers are hot right now. They’re on TV with things like Master Chef, Top Chef,and The American Baking Competition. Celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse are the old guard by now, and hip new guys like David Chang and Eddie Huang serve up foul-mouthed, back-of-the-house street cred.
But culinary school is incredibly expensive, especially for a career with notoriously low pay, terrible hours, and incredibly long odds of becoming a superstar. What are culinary school and a real cook’s job actually like?
Aaron Weber interviewed a recent culinary grad to talk money, knife skills, and career trajectory.
What Made You Decide To Attend Culinary School?
For the better part of a decade, I’d been working in restaurants and food-service places around Boston. I was a barista for a while, but the overwhelming majority of these jobs were prep-cook jobs: I would be given a very specific task or set of tasks, and be told how to perform them.
I didn’t get to pick tasks, or pick recipes, or decide how or when or how much of something to do. Sometimes the chefs would ask my opinion, or I’d figure out a better way of doing something on my own through trial and error instead of a solid background in the basics. I was doing culinary things, but I didn’t really understand what I was doing or why.
The best job I had was as a kitchen manager, which set me up pretty well for school. That job involved the bulk of basic kitchen skills that later education would vamp.
At that point, I decided that it would be not only useful, but just plain enjoyable to hone my skills further. If I knew what I was doing, I’d be able to work more for myself and move up higher in the ranks. Plus, I’m a musician, and food seemed like a compatible and realistic way to actually make a living. Playing a gig late one night wouldn’t interfere with my schedule the next day.
Also, cooks are in high demand and there’s no shortage of jobs, so if I wanted to go on tour for a few months I wouldn’t have to worry so much about finding work when I got back. All of these things combined made the choice to attend school pretty clear.
How Did You Choose Your School?
I toured Le Cordon Bleu, and I think I looked very briefly at the Culinary Institute of America, but eventually decided to attend Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
LCB required a regular academic program as part of its curriculum, but I’ve already been to college and I didn’t need to do it again. Both LCB and the CIA are also very long programs, while CSCA is a more fast-paced, intensive program. So the schedule was definitely in favor of CSCA.
I also spoke with a few chefs around town, and they said it was a good school and they respected it, as well, so I knew it wasn’t some fly-by-night operation.
How’d You Pay For It?
It was not cheap or convenient, I’ll tell you that.
CSCA is accredited, but it is not part of federal student aid programs and it doesn’t have much financial aid. There’s an essay-based scholarship sponsored by alumni and the Wusthof knife company, and that paid for my knife kit. That saved me around a thousand dollars.
Half of the tuition I borrowed as a private loan from Sallie Mae. I didn’t want a co-signer or guarantor. I’ve done that in the past and felt like it was a nightmare, so I went back and forth with them on the amount until they had a number they’d loan me without anyone else co-signing.
The rest, I put on a credit card. I don’t recommend it to everyone, but it worked for me. The school let me pay quarterly, and by the time I’d hit two payments, my credit limit on one of my credit cards was high enough that I could charge the rest. It was basically all money I didn’t have, but luckily I stayed on track, consolidated bills when the rates were low enough, kept up with payments, and managed to finish paying off the whole thing in a year.
After Graduation, How Hard Was It To Find Work?
It was shockingly easy. CSCA’s staff pool and class sizes are so small that everybody knows everybody. The career placement counselor and I became friends, and she was fantastic about being available to help me with ideas, résumé advice, and even making personalized phone calls to vouch for me. As long as I was working hard in school and keeping realistic expectations about steps on my journey, she was right there to extend her services.
As things were winding down and graduation was on the horizon, I decided I would apply for my “reach” job and see what happened. The woman in career services went out of her way to call human resources at the hotel where I was applying and tell them about me. One of the instructors at our school had worked there, and he also spoke on my behalf. I staged (that’s French for an internship or working interview) and was hired a week later.
My title was line cook II, and that was a pretty big step. Usually, at least at this place, you’d work prep, then be promoted to the cold station (garde manger or salad). After that, you’d be eligible to be promoted to the hot line, and after about a year on the hot line, you can be considered for a promotion to line cook II. I hadn’t worked a hot line or cooked things to order that much before, so having the degree definitely helped me move up the ranks more quickly.
How Did It Pay?
The pay was much better than I’d grown accustomed to. Most kitchen work I’d done had paid $10 per hour with no benefits. This new position paid $14.25 an hour and included health insurance and paid time off. You don’t see those kinds of things in most food jobs, but as part of a large hotel, my employer was big enough to offer them.
The work itself was very, very intense. You ever shuck an oyster? You ever shuck 800 oysters in one evening and make sure they’re all exactly right, no chips of shell, no grit, no imperfections? You’re working shift after shift, no social life, 12 hours a pop. Conveniently, I had no opportunity to spend any of the money I was making, which helped pay those loans off faster.
And I can’t lie to you: This job is painful. For the first 6 months, I looked like I’d lost a knife fight every day. There were horrible burns and cuts all over my arms. You slice a knuckle, superglue it shut, bandage it, and go back to the line. Then you reach into the oven and get a pan of duck too quickly and hot duck fat sloshes across your hands, frying the spot you just cut. Then you have to finish your shift.
I worked there for about 18 months. It wasn’t easy, but it was exhilarating.
What Are You Doing Career-Wise Now?
The next step for me was to find a groove more in tune with my original path before culinary school. Sometimes people forget where they’re really going once they start down the road.
Right now, I’m working at a school in the culinary arts program’s kitchen for the summer. We cook for the teachers, admins, and kids using much of what I learned working in catering. After this summer, I’ll be looking to move on to the next chapter, whatever that may be.
That’s the beauty of being a cook: there’s always something out there waiting for you.