Does Culinary School Matter?

Ferran Adria and Mario Batali didn't graduate. So why blow tens of thousands of dollars on cooking programs?


Photo by Rex Roof/Flickr CC

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.

But what about the big dogs, the superstar chefs? I spoke with Wylie Dufresne, a FCI graduate who has brought modern gastronomy to new highs at WD-50 in lower Manhattan. He'd finished Colby College and was working at Gotham Bar & Grill. "But I was still thinking about culinary school, to get the hands-on training in different techniques," he says. After 16 years of formal education, he wasn't interested in the longer, CIA program. Instead he opted for the 6-month program at the French Culinary Institute.

Today, that program costs $42,500, which doesn't include living expenses. "Fortunately, my family was in a position to help me with the cost, which was an important factor," Dufresne says. "There are other ways to get the ball rolling as a cook, but it was a good fit for me. It's a great way to learn the vocabulary of the kitchen." Nonetheless, many of his employees in the kitchen don't have culinary degrees. "It's certainly not a prerequisite," he says.

For a non-American perspective, I called Daniel Humm, the executive chef of Eleven Madison Park, which received a glowing four-star review from the New York Times last year. Humm is Swiss, and he received four years of culinary education in Switzerland, which combined a restaurant understudy and classroom instruction. But it was a public education, which he said in many ways is more rigorous than its private, U.S. equivalent. "I've taught at the French Culinary Institute, and I have nothing against it. But some of the kids were asleep, and no one says anything because the school needs the money to survive," Humm says. "In Switzerland, if you're asleep you're kicked out."

Humm also questions the financial burden private schooling puts on graduates. "Maybe you come out of culinary school $50,000 in debt. But then you come out and make $10 an hour in the kitchen -- it doesn't make financial sense for a lot of people." Like Suarez, he believes it would better for aspiring chefs to skip culinary school and start out at the bottom of the best restaurant they can get into.

But in the age of the celebrity chef, with anyone who has ever fried an egg thinking they could soon be winking at Padma Lakshmi, I wondered just how easy it would be to follow Humm's suggestion. Surely, someone doesn't just show up at Eleven Madison Park , ask for a job, and get hired?

"That happens here and, I'm pretty sure, at every restaurant in New York," Humm says. "It's really about the passion someone has for the kitchen, which comes through in an interview."

"The applicant pool is not as deep as you'd think" given the explosion of TV shows and culinary programs, Dufresne adds. "There's a lot more restaurants, ambitious restaurants, than there were even a decade ago. In 1995, you could pick ten restaurants, and if you hadn't worked in one of them, then no one was interested in you." Today, if you're talented and dedicated, there's likely to be a spot for you in a good kitchen, he says.

With Dufresne's words in mind, I recently took a tour of the CIA, home to 127 chef instructors, six on-premise restaurants, and 2,800 students, separated not into classes but "streams," with new arrivals coming every three weeks. My guide, Ruby, a second-year student, took our group past the Anheuser-Busch Theater and Hilton Library down to the corridors of classes. From the windows, we saw students engaged in all manners of culinary arts, kneading bread, melting chocolate, and tweaking sauces. Samples were passed around and devoured. "It's not uncommon to gain about 20 pounds your first year," according to Ruby.

I thought about my own college education, at a small school whose single dining hall could barely muster a passable cheesesteak. At least these kids eat well. But for $50,000 a year, is that enough?