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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. 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.