FAQ: Should I Go To Culinary School? (With Pros and Cons)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated September 1, 2022 | Published April 20, 2021

Updated September 1, 2022

Published April 20, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

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A chef and three others gathered around a pot and cooking surface in a professional kitchen.

While becoming a chef can be challenging, it can also be rewarding for people passionate about food. Culinary school teaches novice cooks the basic skills to work in professional kitchens and provides a helpful start to their careers in restaurants. If you're considering attending culinary school, you might benefit from learning about common culinary school formats and the reasons people value formal culinary education. 

In this article, we review what culinary school is and explain the benefits and drawbacks to consider if you ask yourself, "Should I go to culinary school?"

What is culinary school?

Culinary school refers to formal higher education that prepares people to work as professional cooks and in the hospitality industry. However, it can describe different academic experiences and training programs. Most culinary schools offer either culinary arts or baking and pastry arts tracks, of which students commit to one. Here are common courses of study, all referred to as culinary school:

  • Culinary arts certificate programs: Many culinary schools last between six months and a year and focus only on cooking skills and practices. Attendees finish with a certificate or diploma in culinary or baking in pastry arts.

  • Associate degree programs: Some culinary schools offer associate degree programs in culinary or baking and pastry arts, allowing students to further develop their cooking skills while studying basic business subjects. These programs usually last less than two years.

  • Bachelor's degree programs: Bachelor's degree programs normally take four years to complete and allow students to major in areas of study such as food business management, hospitality management or food science. Additional academic requirements might involve foreign languages or science and math courses.

Most programs, regardless of the degree awarded or length, introduce students to the professional kitchen environment by having them work in restaurants operated by the culinary school. Students usually also work in the dining room, serving guests to further their understanding of restaurant operations. Some culinary schools have dedicated campuses where students study and live. Certificate programs typically don't offer housing but might help students find places to live in the area.

Related: How To Earn a Pastry Chef Apprenticeship

Why should you go to culinary school?

Culinary schools expose students to various techniques and cuisines and provide a valuable learning environment with instructors who can give close instruction. Here are several advantages of going to culinary school:

Thorough nature of training

Culinary schools excel at teaching you the fundamental cooking techniques and terminology a chef would expect you to know. People often attend culinary school to learn a wider variety of skills than they would by working a paid cooking job. At culinary school, you learn:

  • Knife skills: Cooks spend an enormous amount of time working with knives. As a culinary school student, you learn the functions of different knives, the types of cuts used in professional kitchens and how to take care of your knives.

  • Types of cookery: Culinary schools prepare cooks for the different roles they might fill in a professional kitchen. Common types of cookery students learn include butchery, sauce making, cold foods, hot appetizers, fish and meat.

  • Safety skills: Culinary schools teach students how to responsibly use equipment such as knives, ovens and stoves. They also teach guidelines for proper food handling to prevent foodborne illness and unsanitary conditions.

  • Kitchen etiquette and culture: Many professional kitchens follow strict hierarchies and have workplace cultures that are foreign to new cooks. Culinary school instructors teach students what to expect and how to behave when working.

  • Task and time management: Cooking professionally requires the ability to complete several projects simultaneously and prioritize tasks independently. Students practice multitasking to become quicker and more efficient.

  • Plating: Culinary school students learn how to make food appear exciting and appetizing on the plate.

Related: Interview Questions for Cooks

Positive learning environment

Professional kitchens are fast-paced environments. Often, ingredients are expensive or in limited supply, so cooks must avoid mistakes as much as possible. In culinary schools, instructors expect students to make mistakes. Since guests aren't waiting to eat, there are fewer time constraints and students can take more time to practice and perfect skills.

Related: How To Become a Professional Chef in 5 Steps

Exposure to cuisines

Culinary schools introduce students to a wide range of global cuisines and their ingredients. This exposure might help students decide what kind of restaurant they want to work in and guide their future career decisions. Familiarity with diverse ingredients also helps cooks develop their own dishes more creatively.

Related: FAQ: How Long Does Culinary School Take?

Networking

Many culinary schools maintain strong relationships with alums who eventually open their own restaurants or become executive chefs. Networking skills and opportunities can help culinary school graduates find employment and establish relationships with other culinary professionals in cities across the country. Students can also make valuable connections with teachers and peers while studying that continue to serve them throughout their careers. 

Related: 5 Examples of Culinary Degrees You Can Pursue (Plus 6 Jobs)

Additional educational opportunities

Culinary school can provide useful education experiences outside of the kitchen for students who enroll in associate and bachelor's degree programs. For example, students who pursue associate and bachelor's degrees also gain managerial skills that prepare them for roles other than working in the kitchen. In this way, culinary school helps prepare students for operating restaurants with business and management curriculums. It also might offer opportunities to study wine, food cultures and foreign languages. These additional subjects are often valuable for members of the service industry who work with international clientele or might work abroad.

Related: 6 Essential Skills for Research Chefs (Plus How To Improve)

Disadvantages of culinary school

Unlike many trades that require formal training or apprenticeship, becoming a cook does not require attending culinary school. It's not a necessity for aspiring chefs and is more of a personal choice than a professional requirement. Here are drawbacks to consider before enrolling in culinary school:

Cost

The primary drawback of culinary school is its cost. Culinary schools that grant associate and bachelor's degrees are often as expensive as regular private colleges. Even shorter certificate programs can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Typically, students weigh college debt against the increased earning potential college degrees enable. However, most restaurants pay all cooks similarly, with only small wage increases for more experienced cooks. Whether you attended culinary school has little or no effect on your starting wage.

Since most innovative and well-known restaurants are in major cities, cooks often pursue opportunities in areas with a higher cost of living. Consider this price when making the right decision for you.

Related: Top 12 Careers in Food

Unrealistic expectations

Some cooks with years of restaurant experience attend culinary school to enhance their skills. However, most students enter culinary school with little or no professional background. Without working as a cook first, you might not be sure if the job is right for you. Students may develop the impression that their professional experiences would resemble culinary school. However, cooking professionally is a physically demanding job that requires long hours, irregular days off and limited schedule flexibility. Many culinary school graduates cook only for a short period before realizing that becoming a chef wasn't the right career path.

It's important to understand that completing culinary school doesn't qualify you for a chef position without substantial work experience. Cooks begin as hourly employees and often work for a few years before getting promoted to a supervisor, or chef, position. It may be useful to spend some time working as a cook before you apply to culinary school, so you can decide whether it's the best career for your needs. 

Related: How To Become a Chef Without Going to Culinary School

Limited career paths

Culinary school prepares students for a limited range of career paths. Especially if you complete a certificate program, you only receive education applicable to working as a cook. Many culinary school graduates ultimately pursue careers in the service industry besides cooking. They might work as restaurant managers, concierges, wine professionals or for a restaurant group in a corporate setting. However, most of these roles either don't require a culinary school degree or are equally accessible to traditional undergraduate degrees in hospitality or business management.

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