Is Culinary School a Rip-Off? Well, Kind of.

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Yesterday, Time dared to ask the question that many debt-ridden graduates already know the answer to: Is culinary school a rip-off?

This certainly isn't the first time the media has posed the question. Last fall, it arose following news that the California School of Culinary Arts, which is a branch of Le Cordon Bleu, was (and still is) involved in a class-action lawsuit with some 800 current and former students who claim the school misled them to believe they'd somehow be able to immediately find nice, well-paid chef jobs right after graduation and pay off their loans before they hit retirement age.

Time quotes one hapless CSCA student who's $80,000 in debt and isn't sure he'll "ever be able to pay it off" while working jobs that pay $10 to $12 an hour -- which is what the vast majority of restaurant workers earn.

While the story doesn't really add anything new to the conversation -- we've already been told, for example, that TV is to blame for the delusions of many a would-be Top Chef -- it does point to the great similarity that culinary school shares with many other forms of higher education: the practice of paying for connections, and of gaining access to a club that promises to take care of its members.

So is cooking school worth the money? It depends why you're going, and what you expect to gain from the experience. Based upon our own time at the French Culinary Institute, we don't really think so. For $38,000 -- which we will be paying off for several more years -- we got a nice-looking piece of paper and access to the school's job listings. Most of these, of course, are for minimum-wage positions we could have found by applying directly to the restaurants themselves -- or looking on Craigslist. Most of those restaurants, incidentally, are far more interested in your work ethic and ability to not lose your shit under extreme pressure and temperatures than whether or not you have a diploma.

Because as just about any sullen, stoned teenager who's worked a summer kitchen job knows, you do not need to go to school to peel potatoes or run bucket after bucket of tomatoes through a slicer. You will not learn anything at cooking school that you won't learn in a kitchen, aside from, perhaps, the arcane French ritual of shaping potatoes into perfect 2-inch-long footballs. Your money will, however, get you the one thing that almost no restaurant job, however well-paid, will afford you: the luxury of making mistake after mistake without much in the way of consequence. Except, of course, those many thousands of dollars of debt you accrue.


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4 comments
Marian Johnston
Marian Johnston

I think it depends on the culinary school,  if you specialize and your goals of employment.  A vast majority of restaurant work is romanticized through the food network, travel channel and the cooking schools themselves.  I think if your goal is to become a patissier (pastry chef), then do research and find a school that has good statistics.  Speak with employers and ask questions of people who do this job professionally and seek recommendations from people who are not affiliated with the schools. People who also attend these schools also need to start working within the industry, in any capacity and try it out to see if that is really what they want to do.  I think it is unfortunate that people sign up for schools like Le Cordon Bleu, as they are the profiteering schools that bank on lazy, under educated people calling them after seeing their ads on television during the "Are you Unemployed?" hours of the day and night.  Honestly, I don't think all culinary schools are bad.  It's like saying all graphic design programs are horrible, because someone lost $95,000  to Collins College or AIBT or one of those other  heavily advertise for-profit schools.  The bigger aspect of your article should motivate people to do research before they pursue a degree.  College is a bigger investment than most students think, it's bigger than buying a car, and ranks up there with buying a house.  Unlike most other creditors, where one can change their number or tell them to take a hike and go away, the Department of Education is going to garnish your wages, keep your tax returns and place a lien against personal property if you do not pay your loans back.  I do not believe it is culinary schools causing issues, I think it is fly-by-night schools that advertise and make huge promises, and the people who follow like they are they are a new religion who will save anyone.   

Job
Job

not all cooking-culinary schools or students are created equal....  some see the vocational path as the answer to their career prayers but with physical ( and psychological)  demands that a culinary careers requires , burnout and other less invisible injury and insult is likely. If seen a stepping stone to further  academic study ( university , etc.) it could pay off well as long as one doesn't see the "cooking" aspect of the culinary arts /work as the end all and be all.The cooking schools- generally-/deeply enough  don't really explore the adjacent careers  enough to the detriment of students.like so many supposedly 'fast -track' career schools - accredited ( by some important so-and -so important sounding gov't institution , etc. ...OR not) unless one continues studies beyond it one is really left hold the bucket of carrots.while some of the 'Top chefs' are known and celebrated ....  there are others who commit suicide , go bankrupt, get injured ...whose stories are not as well known that culinary schools( and others)  need to be teaching and talking about and learning from...

Mike Gracen
Mike Gracen

As I've mentioned elsewhere, you get out what you put in. Sit back and cruise while your in culinary schools, and you will find yourself with a ton of student loans and mediocre job opps. But if you step up, learn everything possible, network, intern, and God forbid, work a job while you re in school, you may do ok. Just my $0.02

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