The path for a young cook isn’t what it once was. France had a long tradition of young teens serving as beguiled porters hauling trash, washing dishes, and eventually prepping and cooking. Then came the spread of culinary schools, where young cooks paid tuition to learn the basics, along with some indispensable information about the business.
But like higher education in general, tuition for culinary school is skyrocketing, again reshaping the way new blood flows into the system. Celebrated chefs from around the world are eschewing the pricey courses, advising aspiring young cooks to beg their way into kitchens they admire and work their way up.
Last week, the Miami Herald published a Business Monday feature offering an overview of culinary academia across Miami. Yet the article missed one key point: whether it's the best move for culinary students to go into debt for tens of thousands of dollars ($26,500 at Miami Culinary Institute and more than $40,000 at Johnson & Wales, the story noted) in hopes of landing a job that pays maybe $12 or so dollars per hour.
That’s precisely the amount Michael Pirolo of Macchialina and BaZi pays his cooks — except he expects them to have at least three years of experience before they can step onto the line.
“If you’re straight out of culinary school, I’ll give you a shot, I’ll let you do a stage, but most don’t make it,” he says. Instead, he advises the popular yet often difficult route of backpacking and training in Europe.
At 21, Pirolo cobbled together $9,000 for a two-month course at the International Culinary Institute for Foreigners that promised placement as a stagiaire in a Michelin-starred restaurant. That led to a four-year odyssey through Piedmont, Lombardy, Bologna, and Campagna, giving him the chops to catch Scott Conant’s eye when he returned to the States. It's important to note than in America, the long-heralded stage system is illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that employers pay workers at least the federal minimum wage.
Similarly, the Vagabond Restaurant & Bar’s Alex Chang went from running a restaurant out of his apartment at the University of Southern California to a worldwide tour that included Los Angeles’ Animal, Belgium’s In de Wulf, and Les Creations de Narisawa in Tokyo. Now, running a kitchen, he’s not that keen on people who went to culinary school.
“At this point, you just look for someone who’s willing to work hard and do what it takes,” he says.
Still, he’s careful to note it’s not a waste of time, just perhaps an unreasonable move for an aspiring older cook or someone who may not be sure whether he's committed enough to see a return on his investment.
“The Culinary Institute of America people I’ve worked with were very talented,” Chang says. “Whereas me, I was never taught how to make a hollandaise.” He recalls one time working in Los Angeles when he had to ask how to make rice pilaf.
Perhaps the answer lies in an experience similar to Taquiza’s Steve Santana. The former programmer fed his culinary curiosity early on by working for free for Jeremiah Bullfrog and at Cobaya events. Then he took two semesters' worth of classes at Miami Dade College’s Miami Culinary Institute for about $7,000. That got him into Giorgio Rapicavoli’s Eating House, the Broken Shaker, and eventually his current digs at Taquiza, which since opening in late 2014 has cemented its place among the city’s best taquerias. He's also planning a beer garden, slated to open in the coming weeks.
“They focused on the business part of the program on how you run a restaurant, how to write a menu, how to manage costs,” Santana says. Much of his culinary learning came from free, on-the-job experience and spare-time self-education.
“I wouldn’t do a full program and go $40,000 or $50,000 into debt,” he says.
Academic institutions are beginning to take note of the sentiment. Florida International University's Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management in 2012 launched a basic, ten-week culinary program for $1,950. So far, 75 graduates have passed through it, but the school isn't looking to bolster it. Instead, FIU hopes to take students with basic education or interest in cooking and propel them to higher levels.
"Our focus is: How do we create foods that are more healthy? How do we create foods that can be sustainable?" Dean Mike Hampton says.
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And many people are clearly making the same choice. As the Herald pointed out, Le Cordon Bleu is shuttering its 16 culinary campuses nationwide after posting more than $110 million in losses. The Art Institutes, which runs about 50 campuses across the United States and Canada teaching creative and culinary programs, late last year agreed to a $95.5 million settlement to forgive student loans after an investigation revealed recruiters pursued and pressured low-income students.
But a few greedy schools doesn’t mean the whole lot is spoiled, and many people who opted not to attend cooking school acknowledge its utility. After all, where else these days can you learn to turn carrots and other root vegetables to Escoffier’s exacting standards? Yet when it comes to writing about these options, one should make a best effort to paint as complete a picture as possible with potential risks, rewards, and everything in between.