What goes around does come around. For the past forty years the restaurant industry has relinquished its responsibility for serious training to culinary schools across the country. From the days of Careme, Pointe, and Escoffier till the early 1960’s the restaurant industry took full responsibility for training and developing the next wave of professional cooks and chefs. Apprenticeship – both formal and informal – was the means to an end. Young people with the desire and aptitude were put through the ringer as they learned – step by step – the craft of cooking.
Those operations that were large and diverse enough (primarily hotels) would engage these young aspiring individuals in an extended program that saw them work their way through every department in the kitchen: vegetable prep, butchery, pastry, garde manger, banquets, line work, and saucier until they were competent enough to function effectively in every area. This was the curriculum that would eventually yield a new wave of sous chefs and chefs. The road was long and sometimes painful, the demands were great, the accolades were few, the professional rigor was an expectation, and pride and discipline was drilled in. When a person was done – he or she had the confidence and the ability to wear the tallest hat in the kitchen. This is how it was done. If you had the stamina, the patience and the commitment the kitchen would mold you into a highly competent, life-dedicated chef who was able to run an operation effectively.
Sometime in the mid-20th century – restaurants and hotels determined that this process was cumbersome and costly and gladly passed on their responsibility to a growing number of schools with the time and single-focus of teaching and training. Surely, this was the best move for all involved. A handful of schools in the late 1960’s grew to somewhere around 1,000 by the change of centuries. With an industry growing at an exponential rate and American dependence on restaurants for their sustenance, this education industry flourished – churning out thousands of eager graduates every year.
Fast forward to 2017 and the restaurant industry is faced with one of the most significant challenges since Prohibition: growth is slowing not because of a drop in demand, but because the industry cannot seem to find enough qualified people to fill positions within their restaurants. The math doesn’t add up – what happened?
Let’s take a look at some probable reasons for this dilemma and at the same time begin to look towards apprenticeship as the answer once again:
 TOO MANY SCHOOLS IS A PROBLEM
The exponential growth of culinary schools has created a competitive environment for enrolled students that may erode many of the core requirements for success: commitment, fit, discipline, desire, intensity, and core ability. When a school’s survival is dependent on achieving substantial enrollment goals then there is room for those schools to set aside some of the core requirements for success. The end result is dwindling completion numbers, and far too many graduates without the foundations to be successful in real operations. This in turn creates an environment where many restaurants feel that they can no longer depend on graduates to meet their expectations. Finally, many of these graduates, once immersed in the day-to-day requirements of kitchen work find that it is not their cup of tea and depart for greener pastures.
Is the problem in the industry that there are not enough people available for the work to be done or is it a case of a lack of competent, committed people for that same work?
 THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS IS NOT FOR EVERYONE
Entering a culinary arts program without a reasonable amount of time in a kitchen beforehand is a recipe for failure. Before becoming a student, the best will spend time working in a kitchen environment to see if this is what floats their boat. Schools intent on filling slots in their program make a mistake in convincing young people to enroll – it should be the other way around. The best schools should find lines of eager culinarians flocking to their doors trying to convince the school that they are right for the challenge.
 EXPERIENCE MAY STILL BE THE BEST FORM OF EDUCATION
The culinary “degree” comes with many requirements that are dictated by accrediting organizations. These organizations are essential to a college because they allow for the awarding of degrees and provide student access to financial aid. Without these stamps of approval a college could not exist. In an effort to ensure a broad, well-balanced education that accompanies a “degree”, these organizations require schools to offer courses that are not directly associated with a student major and they place limits on how much time students can spend in classes each day and week. This is designed to allow students the time to prepare and study while enjoying a balanced educational experience. This is, of course, an ideal situation – but at the same time it limits how much a student can invest in building culinary skills and proficiency.
A typical two-year culinary program falls quite short in the amount of kitchen time that an apprenticeship would provide. This is why culinary programs add in-house restaurants and externship experiences to try and build skill through repetition. So, which is better in the long run? Education without experience is shallow at best and experience without the understanding behind it is likely just as shallow.
 THE INDUSTRY IS NOT KIND TO KITCHEN WORKERS
The elephant in the room is always the lack of reward associated with kitchen work. In the days of Escoffier and Pointe, young cooks accepted their fate and the price of skill development – but they also didn’t have that looming college tuition debt hanging over their heads. Once again, “If you point your finger at someone who you believe is the cause – note that there are still three more fingers pointing back at you”. Pay and benefits are not the sole solution, but the industry must solve this problem – skilled workers should be paid skilled wages.
 REALITY DOES DIFFER FROM THE TEXTBOOK
Schools rely heavily on scenario planning in the classroom and review of case studies to try and build an understanding of what happens and can happen in kitchens every day. Crisis and chaos are always just around the corner in every kitchen. All of this model building pales in comparison to actually living the challenges and disasters that occur in operational kitchens. This reality check – either through school externships or apprenticeship is what builds competence and confidence.
 TIME AND REPETITION = SKILL
A cook cannot learn how to bone a chicken by doing so a few times in a guided kitchen lab setting. A cook becomes competent at this by boning hundreds of chickens over time. A cook will never learn how to economically fillet an expensive salmon side by watching a chef demonstrate the process in front of a class – the cook learns by filleting dozens of salmon while a chef looks on with concern over the high cost of mistakes. A student doesn’t learn how to sauté by following a recipe for preparation of an item under the control setting of a kitchen lab – the cook learns how to be effective at sauté when he or she works an insanely busy sauté station in a restaurant for weeks on end. If they cut and burn themselves a few dozen times then that only adds to the learning process. Time and repetition is the real builder of skill.
 PAYBACK FOR A FORMAL EDUCATION IS BECOMING UNTENABLE
Young cooks might be able to survive on meager wages for a period of time as they build their skills and resumes, but not if they have $40,000 or more in debt from school loans. The cost of a culinary education has eclipsed a person’s ability to manage on the typical wages paid to cooks and even chefs.
 THE TITLE OF CHEF MUST BE EARNED
To some (not all) culinary graduates – there is a belief that the cost of their education entitles them to short-circuit the time it would take to become a chef. “Chef” is more than a title – the person in that role has the time-tested experience to make the right decisions, hire the right people, train them to be competent contributors, plan effective menus, negotiate with vendors, communicate with other players within and outside the restaurant, and serve as a role model for others. This title must be earned every day on the job and these leadership traits and trust that define a chef take time develop.
 IT IS THE DISCIPLINE OF BEING THERE THAT BUILDS CHARACTER
When cooks gradually work their way up the kitchen ladder they learn how important discipline is to success. The disciplines of dependability, station organization, focus on technique, sanitation and safety, and teamwork is the building blocks of a future chef. We can talk about this in the classroom, emulate it in the kitchen lab, and encourage students to look for it while on externship, but it is the process of living it every day in a professional kitchen that makes it part of a cooks character.
 TO THOSE WHO CAN’T AFFORD IT – THERE IS AN ANSWER
Certainly a formal culinary education provides many incredible advantages, but with it comes a cost. The most significant advantage of an apprenticeship for those who have the passion is that apprentices are paid while they learn vs. paying while they learn. For those with the time, resources, and commitment – a culinary education is a fantastic tool, for those who share all of those traits but find the financial resources required of an education to be insurmountable – then apprenticeship is a viable alternative.
 LIVE IT TO LOVE IT
Whether you choose a culinary school or apprenticeship, it is important for any person considering a career in the kitchen to enter it because they love it. If you love it then you will understand how important it is to commit to living it – full time. Invest yourself if you want to invest in yourself. If you do select culinary school as your vehicle then do your research and identify those programs that invest heavily in experiential training.
There are many informal apprenticeships in quality restaurants and destination resorts – if you are looking for a more formal approach then take a look at the nationally recognized apprenticeships through the American Culinary Federation.
If you intent is to pursue a formal culinary education, then of the nearly 1,000 such programs from coast-to-coast, the following link points to programs accredited by the American Culinary Federation. There are other high quality programs that choose not to seek ACF accreditation – do your research.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training