Norman Van Aken: Culinary School Will Definitely Make You a Better Chef

It is 3 p.m. on a Tuesday and world-renowned chef Norman Van Aken is in his office at the Miami Culinary Institute (MCI) with the third issue of critically-acclaimed Lucky Peach magazine, a "quarterly journal of food and writing." Inside the pages of the mag, created by Chef David Chang, an interesting question is explored, "Should you go to culinary school?"

"Can you be a doctor without school? No," said Van Aken. "Can you be a chef without school? Yes. But can you be a better chef with school? I say the odds improve in all of life to the well-educated and well-trained."

The highest rated schools in culinary education and the ones listed by Van Aken as the best include the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson & Wales and the French Culinary Institute. All three have multiple campuses all over the country, though FCI has just two. Miami Culinary Institute, which Van Aken calls home, however, gives you a big bang for your buck, providing state of the art facilities in a building that is just over a year old.

The culinary director is brilliant Chef John Richards. In addition, renowned chefs lecture to a small student body so there can be personal attention and individual growth. Just last week, a delegation from India contributed to the spread of knowledge, then a delegation from Japan did the same.

"To the hospitality students of South Florida," Van Aken continues. "If you join us at MCI you get a shot to accelerate your chances and your likelihood to excel. We vow to share all we have learned in our journey."

Van Aken, who is also on the board at the Latin food institute of the CIA in San Antonio and is an honorary graduate of J&W, helps lead the charge towards innovation in culinary education. One of the most important aspects he believes is the movement of students from the classroom to a hands-on level of education in rooms like the one pictured below.

The MCI has its own restaurant, Tuyo. "This summer, students will be going from the garden, to Tuyo, to the cafe downstairs, to the kitchen upstairs," Van Aken said. "We want them involved in every step from acquiring the food to serving it."

At CIA, tuition is higher, but students get pretty much the most highly-respected culinary education in America. Van Aken and others have pointed out the CIA's place in American culinary education. "The military has West Point, music has Julliard and culinary arts have the (CIA)," said New York Times food critic and author Craig Claiborne. Though Claiborne sadly passed a way a few years ago and his statement pre-dates some of the other schools' rise to prominence, it gives you an idea of where the CIA ranks.

The French Culinary Institute (now known as The International Culinary Center) has campuses in New York and California and was founded by Dorothy Cann Hamilton. She has been described as "one of the most influential forces shaping the American culinary landscape today." The school is consistently ranked among the top schools in the country and offers specialized training in every aspect from restaurant management to cake design.

Johnson & Wales (JWU) is a private, nonprofit school with by far the largest number of students (around 16,000) spread across four campuses, including North Miami. In contrast, FCI and CIA combined have about half that many students. JWU is well known for its Culinary Arts program, as well as Business and Hospitality programs, and is the largest food service educator in the world. Founded in 1914 at its original campus in Rhode Island, JWU boasts notable culinary alumni such as Michelle Bernstein and Chris Santos.

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