Bon Appétit: What to Know About Culinary Education

Earning a certificate or degree in culinary arts doesn’t just lead to jobs in restaurants. Many career opportunities are available, such as working in hotels, country clubs and sports stadiums; developing recipes for cookbooks or magazines; and being a culinary instructor or a private chef.

“It’s not just limited to the back of a kitchen,” says Michelle Zuppe, professor of culinary arts and hospitality management at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. “That’s not today’s chef. And to truly earn the title of chef, you really need the education to go with it.”

Here’s what prospective students should know about pursuing culinary education.

Types of Culinary Education

Some programs are based out of community colleges or four-year institutions, where students can earn an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree in culinary arts or other food-related fields.

[READ: What to Know About Transferring From a Community College]

Compared to an associate degree, “bachelor’s-level training goes much deeper into not just the technical and skill-based pieces, but also that rich academic context,” says Jason Evans, dean of the College of Food Innovation and Technology at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. “Those bachelor’s degree students are going to leave with just a larger liberal arts core and would have had more opportunities for coursework related to those other tangential topics, like entrepreneurship or management.”

Other programs don’t grant degrees and focus specifically on culinary or pastry training. Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Massachusetts, for instance, offers 16-week culinary or pastry certificate programs, as well as 37-week professional chef or pastry programs.

“Many of our students are career-changers,” says Matt Grymek, manager of enrollment and student services at CSCA. “They are coming into this from other educational backgrounds, other professional backgrounds, oftentimes not wanting to duplicate schooling or coursework they’ve already done. They just really want to come in and do that culinary aspect of it.”

Admission Requirements for Culinary Programs

Admission requirements vary by program. Most community colleges have open admissions policies, while other programs may be more competitive and focus on factors such as high school grades.

The Culinary Institute of America, for instance, looks for “students with a demonstrated passion for culinary/baking and pastry arts as well as a solid academic background that allows them to be successful at CIA and in their future careers,” Rachel Birchwood, the school’s vice president of enrollment management, wrote in an email.

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To be considered by culinary programs, students may be required to submit their high school transcript, letters of recommendation and a resume, as well as write a personal statement or essay.

“It’s not required (at Johnson & Wales), but it’s certainly a plus if they’ve been a part of some sort of technical or vocational courses in high school, particularly ones where they might have been able to earn a certification, like through ProStart, or even just their food safety certification,” Evans says. “All of that stacks up in their favor.”

What’s Taught in Culinary Arts Programs?

Curriculum looks different in each program. But culinary students can expect to learn mastery of knife skills, how to prepare ingredients, food safety, nutrition and customer service, among other aspects of the food business and hospitality industry, experts say.

“A lot of my friends who work in the industry or the field, they didn’t go through school,” says Rian McCusker, a recent graduate of Brookdale‘s culinary arts program. “Their approach was, ‘Oh, I learned everything at work.’ But I learned everything at school in two to three semesters that you learned in like 10 years of working. It was interesting because I saw things I never have seen before. I learned techniques and skills.”

It’s not just about learning those core and technical skills. Culinary education also teaches certain life skills, Evans says.

“One of the ways that culinary institutions have failed in the last few decades is not taking that message to prospective students — that food education really can launch careers in social science, in science, in management, in entrepreneurship,” he says. “And (culinary schools) have undersold the fact that no matter what these students do for a career, learning these life skills in college — how to cook, how to bake, how to shop, how to plan, how to organize, how to put on an event — (can) serve students their entire lives.”

[READ: How to Find Financial Aid for Vocational Schools]

Should You Pursue Culinary Education?

Those in the culinary world may choose to learn and develop their skills on the job, but earning a certificate or a degree can accelerate career growth, experts say.

“A lot of our students are people who have been in the industry for a long time,” Grymek says. “They’ve been working in restaurants, but feel very limited in their career growth because they never had that education. They are just kind of going along this linear trajectory of, ‘I’m just doing the same job in different places because I don’t have that education.’ This is a way for them to advance their careers forward by having that formal culinary education.”

However, this career path is not for everyone. Working as a chef can be a physically demanding job, often requiring hours of standing. Culinary candidates must also be able to handle stress, be disciplined and work well on teams.

Birchwood advises prospective students to get some industry experience before starting a culinary program.

“Whether it’s a paid or volunteer opportunity, putting themselves in the environment — a dishwasher, a server, even an ice cream scooper — it’s a great way to discover if it’s something they want to pursue,” she says.

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