Top 5 Things You Should Know About C-School (but Won't Until Afterwards)

Hey readers -

It's been a blast writing for the culinary student blog over the past year, but now that I'm a c-school alumni, it's time (as Padma says) to pack my knives and go. I'm not traveling far, though. You can find me answering culinary quandaries on this site's Ask a Chef section. Unsure of what to do with chicory, or even ask what chicory is? I'm your gal.

Before departing the culinary school section forever, though, I'd like to share a bit about what I learned at the French Culinary Institute. Schools like the FCI put out a lot of information about their programs, but there are some things you only learn, or fully realize, after graduation. That's where I can be helpful. And tell you how to make an excellent poulet roti grandmere, but you'll have to go to the other section for that.

Top 5 Things You Should Know About Culinary School (but Won't Until Afterwards)

  1. Don't go to culinary school to figure out if you want to be a professional chef First spend time in a restaurant, a catering company, a corporate kitchen, wherever it is you might be interested in working after culinary school. It's not like medicine – you don't need the degree to practice. So do a short internship or a stage before leaping into a program. There are a lot of students who cook at home and then "want to be a chef," but don't really understand the reality of working in a kitchen. When they're faced with it, they don't like it, or can't do it. *** So before spending thousands of dollars on a degree, do a little hands-on research first. It'll only help, and you'll be ahead of the game with a bit of experience under your apron strings on Day 1.
  2. Be a nerd And I don't mean wear onion goggles (though, admittedly, they're helpful).Cooks are a competitive bunch, so there's a natural inclination in the classroom kitchen to be the fastest, or show off by nailing a tarte aux pommes without any outside help. But the reason you're in culinary school instead of a restaurant is to ask those questions that would be pesky to a chef who's busy getting his mis done or dishes out the door. Yeah, it's nice to be the "experienced student" who doesn't need any help, but that student doesn't actually exist. If he did, he wouldn't be in culinary school. So ask questions! Lots of them.
  3. Take advantage Along the same lines of being a nerd, definitely take advantage of all the lectures, demonstrations, trips, happy hours, whatever the school has going on outside the classroom. It's easy to be tired after a long day and head home, but it's worth downing a coffee and participating in the activities. You can learn a lot by watching Jacques Pepin quarter a chicken, attending a scotch tasting or visiting a local farm. Moreover, it's a great way to make connections with fellow students or future employers. Any in is a good in, and I had friends who got jobs simply by approaching a chef after graduation and opening with something along the lines of "I really enjoyed your demo on Chilean cookery at the FCI, etc etc." Sounds silly, but it works!
  4. Speaking of jobs, don't have one I know it's counterintuitive to spend money without making it. But if you're a full-time student and can get through culinary school without a job, do it (part-time and night students are a different story). My classmates with night jobs suffered. They were exhausted, and didn't perform top notch in class or at work. They also couldn't participate in any extracurricular activities, or bond with classmates over post-school day beers. If it's kitchen experience you're looking for, get an internship for 2 days a week with negotiable hours, or sign up for the many volunteer cooking opportunities.But if you can't make it through financially without outside income, strongly consider going to school part-time.
  5. There’s a difference between a chef and a cook Alright, so the school literature says you'll be a "chef" after graduation, and you'll definitely have a respectable degree. But you’re not really a chef. Your instructors who spent years in the industry are chefs. The sous and executives at your restaurant are chefs (although they may never call themselves that). But in the eyes of the culinary world, especially in NYC, going to cooking school does not make you a chef. It makes you a cook. A better, more educated cook, but a cook all the same. It seems silly to quibble over terms, but the chef title connotes a certain amount of kitchen experience, expertise and deserved respect, none of which you have as a fresh-out-of-culinary student. The people who called themselves "chefs" minutes after graduation were generally ridiculed by other cooks in the program, and far worse when they got into the real world. Who knows what happened to the guy who got "Top Chef" tattooed on his arm (other than being expelled). In a kitchen, it pays to check your ego along with your street clothes.

*** In terms of "restaurant reality" in culinary school…I can't speak for other programs, but L'Ecole's kitchen at the FCI wasn't exactly restaurant reality. There were three to four students at a station that, in a restaurant, would have a single cook. You get a taste of what it's like in the real world, but it's more like riding a bike with training wheels before hopping on the big kid's ride. Nice and safe, but not the same.