What Is Culinary School Like? 2010-11-02 08:00:00

So You Want to Go to Culinary School


Graduate schools are a great way to switch careers or advance the one you have. I talked about the most common reasons to get a grad degree, and my new school series will give you a quick glimpse of what options are out there.

Think you have what it takes to be the next Anthony Bourdain? Well, why not start off where he did, at the Culinary Institute of America, a cooking school that's based in New York. As a graduate, you'll be part of the school's elite alumni network, which boasts of Alinea's Grant Achatz, Chipotle CEO Steven Ells, Iron Chef's Cat Cora, and the list goes on. Jennifer Purcell, one of the associate deans at the CIA, told me more about the famous culinary school.

SavvySugar: What can a typical student expect to experience at the CIA?

Jennifer Purcell: A class day may start at 7 a.m. and end around 1:30 p.m., and that’s for a kitchen course. [Expect to] stand on your feet and cook, and kitchens are warm! They can be long days, but we also have sit-down lectures, courses and classes, but the bulk of our coursework is culinary. You’re in the kitchens, and repetition is key, because it’s how you build your skills. The classes are sequential so your building blocks of starting with basics and you build on those throughout the program until you end up in the CIA's four public restaurants. The whole experience is to synthesize all of your training and put it into action in a live restaurant.

To find out about the common misconceptions people have of cooking schools, read on!

SS: What can a graduate expect from the job market?

JP: Our job market usually doesn’t get hit too hard at all as food and services in general are on the rise in this country. Even during the recession we saw a little dip. Some of it was in externships it went down just a little bit because less people were hiring internships and externships but it’s on the rebound, it’s already back. We’re lucky in the sense that we can fulfill the needs of a lot of divisions out there.

SS: What are some of the career paths after graduation?

JP: Many go the culinary route, the cooking route. The majority go into cooking and the kitchen, and baking as well. They can work at an independent restaurant or country club or hotel. Although they usually go into those respective fields, we are finding that there is an increase in our graduates going into wines and into the hospitality service.

SS: How do you get a job in this line of work?

JP: Even in this business, a lot of it is still the typical networking and connections. Reference letters do still help especially in the food business and especially like in restaurants. For example, in New York City, if you worked for chef x that’s usually sometimes very telling and it comes from that internal network. The community is very small and even though it’s huge, the restaurant business is very primarily in New York. The actual food community is very small and tight and very community-based so a lot of people know who each other are, they know where they work, so that becomes a very important piece of the networking and career search.

SS: What are some of the misconceptions about culinary school?

JP: I think some misconceptions are that it’s not academic. Some students may think, "This is awesome I want to come here and cook." Well, there is a lot of academic tied into cooking and cooking school. You have to understand cultures, math, [and more.] it’s a full integrated program to really enrich students with liberal arts and business management, so it is college. We’re just a little bit different. We’re not quite the traditional college, but we do have all those components as well.

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