Chefs Talk Culinary School and Accurate Expectations
On one hand there’s the culinary industry, which is facing a widespread employee shortage with quality cooks and kitchen managers in scarce supply. Then there are the culinary schools, which in Minnesota are seeing continued low enrollment and in response are scaling back or shutting down.
Minneapolis Community and Technical College cut its culinary program in 2014; Hennepin Technical College merged its culinary program in Eden Prairie with its sister campus in Brooklyn Park because of low demand. Then late last year Le Cordon Bleu announced the closure of its 16 U.S. campuses, including the Twin Cities location, albeit its reasoning had more to do with limited federal funding for for-profit schools.
If the need for trained cooks is so high, why is demand for culinary education so low? We asked chefs (all of whom are culinary school grads) and educators for their take on an apparent disconnect among culinary schools, their students’ expectations and the realities of the restaurant industry.
“It’s about an accurate set of expectations and we’re good at that. We don’t sugarcoat anything,” said Nathan Sartain, program director of Saint Paul College’s Culinary Arts program. Students there must articulate short-term, mid-range and long-term goals, which Sartain said ensures expectations are in line with the realities of the industry. The college also brings in professionals to illustrate other opportunities outside of the conventional restaurant.
“We can all agree the restaurant industry is ruthless and can have long hours, but there’s so many diverse opportunities beyond that,” said Sartain, listing school foodservice, corporate dining and healthcare among other career options.
The culinary program teaches fundamentals and basics, said Sartain. “We’re not teaching the artisanal side of it. I don’t think you can teach someone to be a gifted artist—you either have that or you don’t. We put the externship piece in so students can develop that outside these walls. And we’re upfront about that; we give them an accurate set of expectations.”
Chef Perspectives: Is culinary school worth the time and cost?
Mike Rakun, executive chef, Marin and Mill Valley Kitchen
“It was invaluable for me. I learned a lot of the basics that sort of leap-frogged me over other guys from the school of hard knocks. With culinary school, you get out what you put into it, like anything else.
"The biggest disconnect between the industry and culinary school is price. $50,000 in debt is tough to swallow when you’re coming out of school making $12 an hour. Schools need to be really upfront about that. Institute a better screening process and really let students know what they’re getting into.”
Steve Hesse, executive chef, Libertine
“If students really have the drive and passion for food, I don’t think [culinary school] is a bad idea. But I do feel that some schools aren’t really realistic on what a real chef does on a day-to-day basis. I think school teaches you basic knife/cooking skills, but not the pressure it takes to be a chef.
"I think schools should make it mandatory that students start to work in the field. They need to be in the real kitchen from start to finish to show what being a chef is really like. One student I interviewed for a job was on the honor roll, had perfect grades but had zero experience in a real kitchen. The comment they made was, “I didn’t work while I was going to school because I was already going to school 40 hours a week.” I told them if they wanted to be a chef, 40 hours a week doesn’t happen in a kitchen. Maybe three days you will get that [40 hours]. So they need to teach the students that being a chef isn’t what you see on the Food Network. It takes a certain type of person to work in the kitchen, someone that is a glutton for punishment …”
Jim Kyndberg, executive chef, Radisson Blu/FireLake
“It really depends on the student. If they have done their homework and understand what our industry is about—the hard work, long hours, low entry-level pay, lack of benefits, etc.—but still can justify the high cost of tuition. Those are the students who will benefit from a formal culinary education. If they watched too many 'Top Chef' episodes and thought it would be fun to go to culinary school and become a chef … well, we all know how that turns out. Culinary schools should screen applicants better. Make sure they understand what they are signing up for before accepting those tuition dollars.”
[Editor’s note: Chefs’ comments edited for length and clarity.]