I have a vivid memory of standing in the kitchen of an esteemed Los Angeles restaurant at the tender young age of 14. I was quartering crate-fulls of cherry tomatoes when the executive chef approached me. “You’re faster than those kids I hire straight out of culinary school,” she said.
The chef’s statement stuck with me, ultimately influencing my decision not to enroll in Culinary School, and to enroll in a four-year business program instead. I don’t regret not going to culinary school—I always thought my experience working in an actual restaurant kitchen taught me more than what I could have learned in a school environment, and it made me tough enough to work in the high-paced, stressful, chaotic world that is an operating restaurant kitchen. If anything, I thought I would attend a cooking school after spending a few years getting an old fashioned kitchen education, with the purpose of refining my technique.
I was reminded of this thought process today as I read LA Weekly’s piece about culinary school graduate Annie Berkowitz, who was very let down by her culinary education. In a brash and ballsy move, Berkowitz sued Le Cordon Bleu for making her believe she would make “$75,000 per year to start” as a pastry chef immediately after graduation. Berkowitz sought reimbursement for having been led to believe she would “easily pay off the loans [the students] were encouraged to take out,” Eater reports. Berkowitz didn’t land the dream chef job straight out of school, filed the suit, and was awarded $217, 000 in the settlement. It seems to us that Berkowitz found an easy way to make a buck by playing the roll of an idiot.
When I reached out to Dale Talde (Pork Slope, Talde) about the case, he had a lot to say about Annie Berkowitz’s expectations and the fact that she filed the suit is the first place:
If you think you’re going to be a pastry chef right after culinary school, you’re stupid. You have to be a real moron if you think that that’s the reality of it, and you’re not going to have to put your dues in and possibly work shitty $8 an hour jobs when you graduate. Berkowitz obviously didn’t do her due diligence when she decided to enroll.
Plus, culinary school is what you put into it. [She] was probably a half-ass cook. What I would really like to see is if she worked in a restaurant before going to culinary school. There are very few people that don’t do that and are successful.
Cooking schools should start selling this more as a trade. There’s very little difference to me between what we do and what someone who is a woodworker or carpenter does. Cooking only becomes an art when you fully understand the basis of what youre doing.
Obviously, Berkowitz was one of the many who watched too many episodes of Top Chef and was lured by culinary school’s promise of turning novice cooks into superstars. But Dale Talde, who graduated culinary school 15 years ago, worked long and hard to get to where he is today.
And although Talde does hire culinary school graduates, he says his best cook right now is a Spanish kid from Harlem who “worked his way up from dish washer to prep cook to garde manger, and now he’s two steps away from learning every station.” He hired the guy because he had the right attitude, he gave a shit, and was willing to learn. And a good attitude and a willingness to learn is not something you necessarily learn at school.
I called up a friend who also attended culinary school to see if Berkowitz’s feeling of being let down post-graduation was common. Here’s what Ilana Blumberg, graduate of the French Culinary Institute, had to say about her education:
I don’t think FCI was worth it. They inflate your expectations while making a huge profit and proliferating the job pool with in-debt, semi-qualified candidates. That being said, I love knowing how to cook, but it’s really a trade and not a post-college career path. Currently, I’m working as a restaurant consultant, but I got that job through my Food Studies Master’s Program at NYU. A lot of culinary school refugees just love food, but aren’t blue collar enough to work in restaurants.
Loving food and loving to cook—a sentiment which leads many down the path of getting a $40,000 per year culinary education—just isn’t enough to be able to handle the pressures of restaurant life. Cooking is a difficult trade, one in which you stand on your feet for upwards of 15 hours a day and do repetitive tasks that don’t actually use the “creative” part of your brain. When you choose cooking as a career, you have to realize you are going to work that menial prep cook job for a bit, and hopefully you’ll work your way up to one day being a chef and owning your own restaurant.
Talk to any chef, and he or she will tell you this is a slow process that requires tons of hard work and determination. When Berkowitz thought she would graduate and immediately land a high-paid chef job, she was essentially delusional. Maybe culinary schools do need to be more realistic when they market to prospective students, but the general populace needs to be aware that going to cooking school doesn’t make you Thomas Keller.