School or Work During Hard Times?

Continuing on the recession theme (because isn't everyone in "this economy?"), I thought to address the question: culinary school or kitchen job? If you're a young cook or career changer, it's difficult to decide whether to enhance your skills and knowledge in an academic environment, or learn by doing in a professional setting. There's no single right answer, but given the economic climate, culinary school might be the better option for now. Yes, it may seem contradictory to spend thousands of dollars on a degree when the popular trend is to hoard pennies. But before resigning yourself to kitchen slave entirely, consider the other side:

Wait Out the Storm
One of the fabulous things about the culinary industry is that there will always be jobs, because people will always eat. My last positing was about cooking jobs in the non-restaurant field, and it's definitely worth seeking those venues out. But if your dream is to work your way up the line in a restaurant, now is not the easiest time. Even the top restaurants are making cuts, and those with jobs are coveting them like they were the last quart container during prep. It's always doable, but certainly more difficult, to break in and work up.

A case can certainly be made here for the abundance and value of unpaid internships. Still, a thorough culinary education is often a better option as you'll be closely mentored and given every responsibility in the kitchen over a comparatively short period of time (versus the lowlier positions donated to the kitchen slave, especially one who is inexperienced. If you go this route, you better have a sharp peeler handy). After graduation, it will be in your favor to enter the job market with a degree, which leads us to the next topic…

Kitchen Cred

Some cooks entertain the idea that a culinary degree is useless (and even detrimental!) when getting a job in a restaurant kitchen. I agree in one specific case: if the person is a recent grad with no real world experience, and he swaggers into a kitchen and considers himself too good for an entry-level position because of his diploma. Restaurants are still hierarchical fiefdoms, and dues must be paid. But if you're not this brazen type, a degree can work strongly in your favor. In a tough job market, it'll distinguish you from other applicants (again, especially for those with little restaurant experience who are vying for a garde manger position). And when you're searching for a position, most schools have career service offices that will help give you a special entryway into a job that someone off the street wouldn't have. I can definitely say from experience that The French Culinary Institute is one of the best connected culinary schools in the city, with both notable alumni willing to help out fellow FCIers and a stellar career services program whose staff has the inside scoop on the city's ever-changing restaurant scene. Remember: when it comes to grad school, you're not just paying for an education, but connections.

Take the Opportunity
When I was at The FCI, there were a significant number of career changers who had grown weary of teaching or real estate and were looking to kick off a cooking career by going to school. "It's never too late" is a vomit-worthy cliche, but it crossed my mind anyway when I saw the 60-some year old student in the class below me show up in his whites every day. If you still have the means, now is a better time than any to shift focus, particularly for certain professions. Weary of that banking job? Come join us cooks…we'll always have somewhere to go, and people still like us