Culinary school: To go, or not to go? On why I chose the former

More than any other educational institution, culinary school seems to create the biggest divide between its advocates and its critics. Depending on whom you ask, it's either the biggest waste of time and money or the best way to get a head start in the food industry. The reason? No matter how much time and tuition you spend, you will always start at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak, when you graduate. Having recently gone through the exercise myself and landed a couple of gigs on the other end, here's my take on it…

First, a little background. I grew up in Cancun — a hospitality-driven town, if there ever was one — where my stepdad was a restaurant owner. Though he always complained about the ups and downs of the business, food costs and customer's constantly shifting preferences (among other things), I was always intrigued by what went on in and around the kitchen. Naturally, my first job at 15 was as a host at his Italian pizzeria. While my stepdad was cool with me working at the restaurant as a side job to earn a little extra cash through high school, he practically forbade me to persue a career in restaurants after college, warning that the hours are too long, the risk is too high and the payoff — unless you're really lucky — is less than desirable. Heeding his advice, I opted for a degree in journalism instead, taking up only part-time gigs as a waitress to help pay my way through college. I figured that if I couldn't work in food, at least I could make a career writing about it. 

It wasn't until I moved to San Francisco three years ago that I finally got the opportunity to realize that goal when I landed a job at the San Francisco Business Times as the restaurant, retail and hospitality beats reporter. There I finally got to write about all the fun and fabulous restaurant happenings around the city. It was thrilling — and exhausting. But after only a short time of being immersed in this world did I realize that I still had an itch to be part of it. I found that the more I wrote about food entrepreneurs, the more I realized that writing about food wasn't enough. I too wanted to be on my feet doing something creative with my hands. But how could I make the leap? I felt like it was too late to start working my way up from a prep cook at a restaurant, and any other appealing position in the industry, like recipe testing or teaching, seemed out of reach without any valuable experience. Culinary school, I decided, was the best way to hit the reset button and gain a little more confidence — and connections — in the kitchen.

And so my search began. A two-year hiatus from the job market and $50,000 in debt, as many established culinary schools require, didn't seem entirely feasible, so I opted for an intensive six-month program at the newly minted San Francisco Cooking School. I wasn't entirely convinced that I could learn much of anything in six months, but the school's stellar track record of placing students in great restaurants and sweet food-related gigs was enough to convince me to sign a check. 

So off I went, in checkered drawstring pants and a white chef's coat to make it feel reaaaally official. The program included four months of class held five days a week, a rotation of speakers and some pretty awesome field trips to places like Jacobsen Orchards and Point Reyes for a course in foraging. I'll admit that I learned a lot in those few months and gained some of the confidence I was seeking in the kitchen. I also had a lot of fun and ate some fabulous lunches. Most importantly, my ego was checked on numerous occasions, as I was constantly reminded that I didn't know shit about shit, so I had better work harder. I won't say, however, that I was really prepared to do anything on my own. The two months of internship at a restaurant following class were supposed to help hone some of my newly found skills. And while, again, it helped a little, I felt that I needed at least a year in the kitchen before anything learned on the job would begin to sink in. 

Some of my classmates chose to stick it out and stay at their restaurant internships where they had been offered jobs. They're still there now, trying to figure out if it's really what they want to do. But the ones who are convinced that restaurant life is their chosen path are pissed that they wasted time and money on culinary school, since you really learn everything you need to know on the job anyway through repetition and hard work. I, on the other hand, am one of those people that most restaurant people hate. I couldn't stand the long, sweaty hours getting yelled at for little to no pay or recognition. Plus, I found out that I was pregnant and, with waining energy, wouldn't be able to keep up the pace for very long. (Also, restaurant work can be really lonely and not as rewarding, in my opinion, if you can't hang back and go drink your face off with colleagues after your shift is done). 

So, I had to figure out what else was out there. Recipe testing, recipe development, private cheffing and teaching are all great gigs — if you can find them. But these jobs are few and far between and a lot of people who can't cut it in restaurants like me are vying for them. Also, you need to have some good experience on your resume before you can expect to land something decent. After all, who wants to hire a no-name cook? If you want those jobs, it seems to me that you have to hustle. 

I used the internet to get started, searching on Good Food Jobs, LinkedIn and Craigslist for anything that might be slightly relevant to what I had been doing in the past while leveraging the name of my school and the restaurants where I had recently completed my internship. I also talked to a number of chefs that I had met through my former job as a reporter and reached out to all the new contacts I had made at school. While none of my networking came through this time, I did come across a low-level, part-time job at Sur La Table as a kitchen assistant for their culinary classes. While the job entailed little more than washing dishes and helping out the chef instructor, I figured it would be a good way to get my foot in the door for an eventual teaching position. I got the job and I took it. Meanwhile, my school forwarded me a job listing at a food startup seeking an assistant for their test kitchen to help write recipes, test recipes, take photos and assist the chef in whatever she needed. It sounded perfect. I took that job, too. 

For a couple of months, I managed to string together both these part-time positions into a (somewhat) livable salary while gaining the experience I was seeking — all the while keeping my eyes and ears open for even more opportunities. Eventually, the part-time position at the startup turned into a full-time position, and I can now happily say that I'm the kitchen coordinator at a yet-to-be-named company launching next month. (I'll keep you updated on the deets). It has been a short journey, albeit and interesting one so far and I'm just getting started. It seems to me that a culinary education, whether you get it in a classroom or not, is never done.