Ask a Chef: Too Late for Culinary School and the Kitchen?

Is it ever too late to go to culinary school? I'm 50ish and in a position to start a new career. I've loved cooking and food my whole life and could work another 15-20 yrs (Lord willing ~ I'm now in good health). Would love to do something I love. How realistic is it to change careers now? Thanks for answering.

- Suzie from Portland, OR

This question popped up in a recent Ask A Chef Twitter chat, and it deserved a longer explanation than was possible in a rapid Chef2Chef Twitter dialogue. In short: no, it’s never too late to go to culinary school. I graduated from The French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, which hosted a diverse range of students of all ages, races and backgrounds. My class ran the spectrum from 18 to 60′ish, with plenty of career changers in every stage of office disillusionment. But whether it’s realistic or not to change careers and become a cook at 50 is a trickier question. So let me elaborate.

Professional kitchen work – whether it’s in a restaurant, catering business or school setting – is incredibly rigorous, as you’re probably aware. Combine long hours on your feet with a hot, pressure-filled environment, and suddenly the rigors of preparing meals at home seem like youthful play with an Easy-Bake Oven. It’s an invigorating environment in many ways (“dinner time rush” has a double meaning in a working kitchen), but it certainly wares on one after awhile. Even my 25 year-old cook friends are immobile-on-the-couch exhausted after a week of work (granted, they’re nighttime chefs at a popular i.e. slammed Manhattan restaurant). I’m not writing this as a deterrent to anyone. It’s just that the unique physical and mental pressures of the professional kitchen are necessary to know before you shell out thousands of dollars for a culinary arts degree, and the only way to know them is through experience.Before filling out an application, I think it’s essential to intern (or “stage”) in the industry area you’d ideally like to work after c-school graduation. And this doesn’t mean you have to tackle the night shift, where you’re slogging home at 2 am. There are plenty of sectors in the industry that are friendly to older cooks with families (or those who simply like to get 8 hrs of sleep and see the light of day). Catering, cafe kitchens, corporate/school dining and the lunch or prep shifts in restaurant kitchens are all good options.

What becoming a cook ultimately boils down to is whether or not you can do the work. Pretty much anyone with two hands and enough money can attend culinary school, and while over-45 students aren’t the norm, they’re certainly not an anomaly. But in terms of using that degree in a professional setting, it really depends on the individual’s capability and drive. If you’re a 50 + year old kitchen whiz who’s cooking 25 year-olds under the table (or even just an average cook holding your own), no one is going to care. And a lifetime passion for food certainly gives you a leg up. So if you’re interested, test the waters in a real world setting and then, if you take to it, get the degree. If you can cut it, you belong in the kitchen, no matter your age.

All of your culinary questions can be addressed by a wide range of professionals in the Ask a Chef forum, so send them along!

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            5 Program(s) Found
            • Alumni have appeared in reality competition shows such as Top Chef and Project Runway.
            • Has a team of about 4,000 faculty members focused on helping students tap opportunities in a marketplace driven by ideas.
            • Offers programs in design, media arts, fashion, and culinary.
            • Provides program coordinators who work with students to ensure they have the learning materials, assignments, facilities, and faculty to get the most out of the program.
            • Over 50 campus locations nationwide.
            Good for Working Adults
            • Flexible Scheduling
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            Baker College is the largest independent college in Michigan with the most focused approach to education and training available. Our mission is to prepare you for meaningful employment.

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            • Ranked among the Best Online Bachelor’s Programs in 2015 by U.S. News and World Report.
            • Lets undergrad students try classes before paying any tuition.
            • Has an average class sizes of 18 for undergraduate and 13 for graduate-level courses.
            • Offers numerous scholarship opportunities that can help students save up to $750 per term on their tuition.
            • Tends to educate degree-seeking online and campus-based students who are adult learners with families and students who work while pursuing higher education.
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            Good for Working Adults
            • Online Courses
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            • Received the 2015 and 2013 “Cooking School of the Year” Award of Excellence from the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP).
            • Accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC).
            • Externship opportunities are available at numerous famous New York City restaurants.
            • Campus is located near downtown Manhattan, within walking distance of many popular attractions such as the Radio City Music Hall.
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            Good for Working Adults
            • Flexible Scheduling
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            L'Ecole Culinaire , Kansas City
            • Offers educational opportunities for the aspiring, career-minded chef.
            • Students are trained by professional chefs and spend the majority of their final term working in the campus restaurant to learn all phases of the culinary industry.
            • St. Louis campus offers new Food Truck Entrepreneurship courses.
            • Has a student-run food truck that tours around St. Louis.
            • All campuses have a public restaurant where food is prepared and served by students.
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            Good for Working Adults
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            • Students get real-world experience through the required externship at the end of the program.
            • Curriculum includes laboratory sessions, academic preparation and hands-on experience.
            • Program objectives are to provide students with skills needed for cooking wholesome, attractive, food preparations and to assist graduates in obtaining positions in the food service industry.
            • Accredited by the American Culinary Federation (ACF).
            • Has campuses in Melbourne, Sarasota, and Tallahassee, Florida
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            Sullivan University is a private institution of higher learning dedicated to providing educational enrichment opportunities for the intellectual, social and professional development of its students. The institution offers career-focused curricula with increasing rigor from the certificate through diploma, associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree levels. Throughout those curricula, the university seeks to promote the development of critical thinking, effective verbal and written communication, computer literacy, and teamwork as well as an appreciation for life-long learning, cultural diversity and the expression of professionalism in all activities. At the graduate level, the university also seeks to promote a culture of research.