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There are a handful of very significant decisions that we make in life – decisions that involve tremendous commitments of time, effort, focus, and yes – money.  Starting a relationship, a decision to marry, buying a house or an expensive car, opening a business, and enrolling in college are all decisions that would be considered “monumental”.  The right decision can lead you to self-awareness, long-term gratification, rewarding careers, and the foundations of family.  The wrong decision – of course will be the opposite.  How we go about making those decisions is the real question.

Making a decision to marry another person without taking the time to understand who he or she is and what makes that person tick can lead to loads of pain and disappointment.  Buying a home without researching what is available, how that location fits your life situation, and how you will manage paying for that home can weigh heavy on your shoulders. Choosing to attend a college, especially one that is focused on a very specific career path without having a clear idea of what that career path is and how it will impact your life – will oftentimes lead to heartache and years of burdensome debt.

So – you are a young (or not so young) person who loves food, enjoys restaurants, and finds the media depiction of becoming a chef to be exciting and rewarding.  “This looks like something that I would love to do for the rest of my professional life.”  This might be true, and if you like games of chance, maybe this is a “roll of the dice” that is intriguing.  If you understand the implications of: “You can’t always judge a book by looking at the cover”, then you should understand that the sizzle may sell the steak, but the sizzle doesn’t always tell the full story.

It has been my experience that those who choose culinary school as a way to build a strong foundation for a career in the kitchen fall into one of two brackets: 

  • Those who do so from a place of experience (they have worked in a kitchen – preferably one that is run in a professional manner)
  • Those who do so by placing all of their decision making powers in the hands of the media

In other words those who understand what they are getting into vs. those who don’t.  Now, I do not have any statistical data to support my next observation, but I have found that those who have spent time in a kitchen before entering culinary school are more committed, more intent on doing everything they can to absorb all that is offered, hungrier to learn and apply new skills, and far more likely to succeed and stick with their career choice.  Again, an unscientific conclusion, but I would bet that many culinary instructors and restaurant chefs would agree.

My plea to those who are wrestling with a decision about culinary college is to get a job in a kitchen first.  If you are a high school student – find a part-time position on weekends while in school and full time in that summer period.  If you are a career changer – knock on a chef’s door and tell him or her of your plans to attend school, ask for a position in the kitchen (yes starting off as a dishwasher is a good decision), tie on an apron and give it a whirl.  You will learn what you need to know about the type of work, the physical demands, the stress of timing, how decisions are made, the organization of a kitchen that sometimes is chaotic, the dynamics of team, the demands of a customer, the heartache that comes from a rejected meal, the joy that comes from an occasional compliment, the exhilaration of serving more guests in a meal period than anyone thought was possible, the crush of defeat when things go sideways, and the effort that will be required to move from dishwasher to chef at some point in time.  Just imagine how shocking it would be to enter that culinary school classroom or kitchen without having those experiences under your belt.

Those decisions in life that are monumental are learning experiences, but proper research will help to minimize the negative impact of wrong ones.  Culinary schools understand all of this, but at the same time they are intent on making sure that enough students enroll to make a class viable.  After all – everyone should have an opportunity to succeed or fail, but when students discover mid-term that this is not for them, then everyone suffers from a realization that did not have to be.  When a student fails to complete a program or loses the energy to remain passionate then it hurts the instructor and the school as much as it does the student.

There was a time when prior experience was a pre-requisite to acceptance into a culinary program, but the feeling that this is somehow counter-intuitive to a persons right to choose what he or she wants took over the logic of requiring prior experience.  I believe, that this is a harmful change in approach. 

If a prospective student is wrestling with the college decision then there are avenues that can help.  Working in a restaurant is a natural step in the right direction, but there is also the vocational education option for high school students or if all else seems to not fit your situation – at least schedule appointments with local chefs and ask if they would talk with you about “what it takes”.  Spend a couple days as a stage’ (working or shadowing without pay) in a restaurant just to get a feel for the environment.  Dine in as many different restaurants as you can and ask for a tour of the kitchen.  Do whatever you can to paint a more accurate picture than is portrayed in the media.  You owe this to yourself!  Restaurant work is NOT FOR EVERYONE.  Once engaged in a restaurant you will find that 98% of what you do in the kitchen is just plain hard work.  You need to learn about the heat and the sweat, the physical demands, the emotional requirements, the infringements on what is considered a “normal” life/work balance, and the time that it will take to accumulate the skills, knowledge, and experience to become a chef.

Stick your toe in the water before you choose to buy the boat.  You might start by reading the 650 articles in this blog.

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