Should You Become a Self-Taught Culinary Professional?

If the popularity of food television has made more people think about jobs in the culinary industry, shows like “MasterChef” have demonstrated that people can develop exceptional skills as home cooks as well, and not every professional chef has a formal educational background in cooking. So is one path better than the other? What are the advantages and disadvantages of going to school to be a chef versus teaching oneself?

One big advantage of being self-taught is that it is less expensive. Culinary school can be costly, and students who attend sometimes find themselves deeply in debt upon graduation while able to secure only entry-level work at low wages. A self-taught chef might walk into the same entry-level position without the debts incurred by a culinary student. Additionally, a self-taught chef would be in a position to set up a private cooking or catering business without being burdened by educational debts.

An advantage of attending a culinary school is that it is a guaranteed way to get a good grounding in an enormous variety of important techniques. The danger in being self-taught in any discipline is that sometimes crucial parts of the foundation are missed. Students may also simply learn better with an instructor rather than trying to learn from cookbooks and videos. A technique that an aspiring chef may struggle to master while alone might be more easily conquered in a classroom setting.

Another advantage culinary school may offer is connections. A talented home chef may be turning amazing dishes out of a home kitchen but have no way of breaking into restaurant work. Even line cook jobs may require experience or they may be dead-end and not be an avenue to advancement. Cooking school can connect aspiring chefs to professionals in the industry and a community of cooks.

There are aspects that cooking school cannot teach, however, and that includes talent, passion, and a good palate. Without these qualities, aspiring chefs cannot succeed whether or not they attend cooking school. Dedication is another important quality, as succeeding as a chef involves working extremely hard for long hours. Anyone considering becoming a culinary professional would do well to experiment with some home cooking and try to get almost any sort of restaurant experience before jumping into the profession, and especially before taking out enormous loans to pay for culinary school.

In fact, one criterion that aspiring chefs may want to use to determine whether or not they should attend culinary school is whether they can afford it. If it’s a significant financial hardship to do so, they might be better off going the self-taught route. Some culinary specialties, such as working as a private chef or running one’s own catering business, also may require less formal education.

There is another route available to aspiring chefs that is somewhere between culinary school and being self-taught, and this is to learn through experience working as an apprentice to a chef. Many culinary professionals got their start in this way. This allows an aspiring chef to learn on the job under trained guidance without incurring any debt.

A look through the biographies of culinary professionals will show that being self-taught, attending cooking school, and working under an accomplished chef have all been routes to success. People who are interested in the food industry should carefully weigh the pros and cons of the options based on their own circumstances and ambitions.

Paul P. Finch is a freelance writer who focuses on culinary education, food and diet, nutritional science and other assorted topics. Those who’d prefer to learn through classes should view the resources available here

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