Is cooking school worth it?

CIA students

One of the most prestigious culinary schools in the U.S. – the Culinary Institute of America or CIA – recently experienced a student revolt. About 20 percent of their bachelor candidates (4-year students) walked out to protest falling academic standards and extremely high tuition rates. Several factors led to the walkout:

  • Declining admissions standards designed, according the students, to increase enrollment. Specifically, incoming students used to need six months of experience in a professional kitchen; now the requirement can be satisfied with  front of the house experience, like serving or busing tables.
  • Collapse of the dress standard.
  • Tuition that now can approach $100,000 to get a full bachelor’s degree.

Grub Street New York took a look at the protest and believes the heart of the matter is that “The underlying debate is – as always – about the value of culinary school, but also, as Lydon implies, what the value of that education really is as soon as a cook gets behind the line. For the moment, the high cost of going to class far outweighs the benefits of failing miserably in the kitchen, which remains one of the most undervalued experiences a chef can have.”

It seems that to attract students whose eyes are as much on the prize of winning celebrity status as learning to cook, the curriculum has had to be expanded to include far more than chef skills. And, with that, the value of a graduate has gone down as established chefs complain about “useless culinary school graduates who come to the kitchen door with brand-new knife kits and a lack of calluses.”  In fact, awhile ago the Eater polled a number of chefs about the actual value of culinary students in Chefs Weigh In: Is Culinary School Worth It? The general consensus was “No” – on-the-job training or community school education is just as valuable.

Of course, the perspective here is that the student will only be pursuing a career in a professional kitchen. One question that doesn’t seem to be posed is whether a culinary degree helps position you for a job elsewhere – such as food media, private chefing, or restaurant management. Personally, and as a graduate of a far less prestigious (and expensive) culinary school than the CIA, we feel that you definitely need to know food and know how to cook to pursue any career in food, but there are other less costly ways to gain that experience. We’d love to hear your views.

By the way, we should note that the CIA has responded to the walk-out with the following: “Following a walkout by some upper-level students at the Culinary Institute of America alleging a decline in admission standards and lax enforcement of the school dress code, an administrator said the students were misinformed, admission standards have not declined and the dress code leaves little room for interpretation.”


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