Does Culinary School Matter?

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There's no better way to become a chef than to enroll in culinary school, or at least so say some of the celebrity chefs who shill for them. "It's like being at Oxford to study English," declares Mario Batali, hands aflutter with passion, in the French Culinary Institute's video brochure.

Similar hyperbole can be found on the Web site of the Culinary Institute of America, though it's true that these two schools in the state of New York -- to name arguably the most prestigious of the nation's more than 700 culinary programs -- have turned out some of the country's most celebrated chefs. David Chang of New York's Momofuku empire, celebrity chef Bobby Flay, and Blue Hill's Dan Barber graduated from FCI, while CIA graduates include Food Channel contributor Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea, Todd English of Boston's Olives, and culinary television and literary bad boy Anthony Bourdain.

But for every great (or famous) chef that graduated from a culinary school, there's another one who didn't. Take Batali, for example. The orange-maned pasta savant did attend culinary school -- not FCI, but London's Cordon Bleu. But he quickly dropped out to apprentice under great chefs in working restaurants. And Ferran Adria of Spain's El Bulli, arguably the world's top chef, never went to school to learn how to make his ethereal, modernist foams.

Suarez mentioned his CIA training. "He stopped me right there. 'Why should I care about that?' he asked me."

So it's worth considering, especially in these lean times, whether it's worth spending tens of thousands of dollars on culinary school. Unlike lawyers or doctors, chefs require no accreditation. And while an ace law, business, or medical school grad can quickly earn six-figure salaries, a culinary school graduate is lucky to make 15 bucks an hour working the line.

"Every time I write that $400 check to pay back my loans, I kick myself," says Marco Saurez, executive chef at Bon Savor in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. As a teenager he worked at a deli, and later at a catering company. One day, his boss took him for a visit to the CIA's idyllic campus in Hyde Park, which overlooks the Hudson River. "I fell in love," Suarez says. He enrolled in the 38-month Bachelor of Professional Studies Program, which includes long externships in outside restaurants. "It was really at the externships that I learned the most, and now I wonder why I didn't just take a $25,000 loan and use that to survive while working my way up in a kitchen." Today, tuition, room, and board for the full bachelor's program cost more than $100,000.

Degree in hand -- Suarez graduated in 2001 -- he left for Colorado to cook and ski, and the CIA credentials got him his first job. "But when I went back to Boston, the degree didn't mean anything," he says. At one interview, the owner asked him why he wanted the job, and Suarez mentioned his CIA training. "He stopped me right there. 'Why should I care about that?' he asked me." Recently, Suarez has been thinking about removing his CIA degree from his resume. And when he hires cooks for his own kitchen, he pays scant attention to their formal culinary schooling.

Not everyone feels the same way. Barry Joyner was at the CIA when he did an externship with Suarez. "I tried to get Barry to stay on and not go back and spend the money on school," Suarez says. But Joyner returned, graduated in 2007, and says he's glad he did. "The school is what you make of it. I felt like I came away with a lot of tools." Currently, he's working in two Boston restaurants -- Top of the Hub and Grill 63 -- and he says that after deferring payment for a year, he's now able to meet his repayment requirements and earn a modest living.

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Paul Wachter is a writer based in New York and the co-founder of AgainstDumb.com. He has written for The New York Times MagazineThe Nation, and Eight by Eight.

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