So, you wanna be a chef? Is culinary school the way to go? Probably not. 

On the job training — and the connections you get from it — is often more respected than school. For chefs, it just is. If you’ve got some time underneath your belt, you’re not going to get much more ‘cred’ from a piece of paper.  

School is an incubator, it’s a protective shell — putting your time on-the-line in different kitchens is the way to go. Plus, you won’t go into debt, (you’ll make money) and you’ll learn other valuable skills they can’t teach in a traditional classroom. 

When chefs ask me whether or not they should go to culinary school to get a certificate before opening their personal or private chef business , it shows me they don’t have the confidence to match their skills. And if you’re going to boost your credibility, you’d be best served by boosting your confidence. (Anthony Bourdain would have told you this too, in his classic book Kitchen Confidential in the chapter called So You Want To Be A Chef?.)

I’ve seen more than a few chefs drop tens of thousands of dollars for the degree, only to come out in debt — and get that ‘first job’ in some kitchen somewhere peeling potatoes for close to minimum wage right alongside the next guy who stepped in off the street. 

You’re going to have to climb the ladder on some level, whether you went to the Culinary Institute of America or you just immigrated to this country. People respect work — the work you have done which tells people “you can handle the heat in the kitchen.”

Which Famous Chefs Did Not Go to Culinary School?

I combed the internet for you. Check out this list. Recognize any names???

  • Gordon Ramsay
  • Martha Stewart
  • Jamie Oliver
  • Tom Coliccio
  • Lidia Bastianich
  • Charlie Trotter
  • Thomas Keller
  • Guy Fieri
  • Paula Deen
  • Rachel Ray
  • Nigella Lawson
  • Ina Garten
  • Tiffany Thiessen

These folks did alright for themselves. They bypassed the fear of thinking they weren’t good enough and went for it. On the job. 

They received the baptism by fire that on-the-job training gives you — and they came out without debt so they could invest further in themselves. If you ask me, I’d follow their example.

Want the inside scoop about one of these chefs? At HeyChef! we’ve got that. Hook up with a chef from our company, Brian Hudson, in our Facebook group. He can tell you volumes about one of the chefs in this list he worked alongside and whom he respects greatly for her skills and gumption.

What are Some Alternatives to Culinary School?

There are a lot of ways to get the education that you so crave. Here are four valid alternatives, depending on what stage of your exploration or career you are in. 

Benjamin Franklin — writer, inventor, statesman, the ‘First American’ — started out as an apprentice. He got on-the-job training in the newspaper and publishing world. He essentially worked for free for a while to learn on the front lines. It worked out pretty dang well for him — and does for chefs, too.

On-The-Job Training

Nothing will give you a better idea of whether or not you want to work in the culinary world than actually working in it. 

And whether you have a culinary degree or not, everyone starts in the dish pit. 

You have to work your way up and through each station in a kitchen. Everyone starts in the dish pit because that’s the heart of the kitchen. Once you’ve mastered the pit you will revere every team member who works alongside you. The best head chefs know every single station because they’ve worked them.

This is actually the easiest way to get into the business. Just show up at the back door of any restaurant and they’ll put you to work. What comes next will solidify your future. Work hard, prove yourself, and learn as you go and get paid along the way. No culinary school debt. No brainer. 

Online Options and Courses

You can learn a lot on YouTube. You can. And most of the time, this free option will give you some valuable advice. 

Some will waste your time, and you may just get caught up in looking at dancing cats or some other rabbit hole, but this is a great way to augment on-the-job or other training.

These days, many renowned culinary schools also offer some sort of online or hybrid education. They aren’t cheap, but they do allow some freedom of location — and oftentimes you can attend ‘lectures’ on your own time. Some hybrid plans will have you traveling to campus a couple weeks out of the semester while you can learn from home the bulk of the time.The gold standard for online education before 2020 was Rouxbe and now Escoffier also offers 100% online too. Check it out and see if these options suit you.

Community Colleges

If you’re set on going to school for a formal certificate, Community Colleges increasingly offer valuable vocational training programs — and a lot of their culinary programs are top notch, and cheap. They’re an inexpensive way to get the classroom time. 

Plus, you can often take less than a full course-load (one or two classes per semester) so you’ll have the time to work in a kitchen simultaneously.

Stagiaire

This French word translates to something like ‘trainee’. A stage (“staahj”) is essentially an unpaid internship, but it’s not for beginners. It’s an age old form, one that still works in today’s world.

For journeyman cooks who’ve been around for a while, staging brings your skills (and your resume) to the next level. Chefs looking to expand their repertoire and make a name for themselves become a stagiaire for a short time (think of it as a sabbatical) working under the tutelage of a well-established or notable chef is an excellent way to go. 

The truth is some of the culinary trade is built upon your pedigree, where you went and who you worked beside. If you follow Thomas Keller or Marcus Samuelson and can stage with them for a week or a month, it will boost your credibility and confidence–not to mention help you get the clients who are impressed by such accomplishments.

Which Famous Chefs Went to Culinary School?

I searched high and low and only found three recognizable names. 

Bobby Flay attended the International Culinary Center in France (France’s Culinary Institute), Julia Child went to Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School, and Anthony Bourdain went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). 

And for the rest of his career Anthony Bourdain proceeded to tell chefs NOT to follow that path. 

Based on his own experience, Anthony told chefs not to go to culinary school but to execute a stagiaire instead. Check out his landmark book, Kitchen Confidential, here.

People think if you attend Harvard, you are set for life. They may be right, but it’s less about what people actually learn there — and more about the connections they make. They’re set because of who they get to know. 

And that’s what Bourdain talks about a lot. It’s not about the piece of paper. The cred comes from the work you’ve done, the people you’ve impressed, and the next steps that come from it.  

Some culinary schools will tell you they’ll help with job placement if you pay the money to attend. Yeah, well you can show up at the back door of any kitchen ready to work and get a job. And most of the time — whether you’ve paid for a degree or simply learned by cooking for yourself or your family — you’re gonna start out in a very similar position and wage.

There are Many Alternatives for Artistic Chefs to Get a Culinary Education and Break Out of the Norm

A  lot of schools back in the day were called ‘Normal Schools.’ They were called this because schools were intended to ‘normalize’ students, to give the population the same skills based on an approved curriculum. Artistic types usually had trouble fitting in.

That’s not how you break out of the mold and become profitable. 

Left-handed Jimi Hendrix picked up a guitar one day and taught himself how to play a right-handed guitar. He literally turned the thing upside down and figured out what worked for him.

In his life, many fellow artists told Vincent Van Gogh his art was too ‘out there,’ even that it was ‘ugly.’ He broke the mold and now history remembers him — not his school-taught peers. 

Van Gogh wasn’t normalized by school, and he came to produce immortal works. Like Bourdain.

Same with Gordan Ramsey and Tiffany Thiessen and all the rest who didn’t waste their time and money in culinary school. They had the courage to just go for it. No piece of paper was going to give them the confidence they needed to follow through on their mission. They already had it, inside. 

Maybe it’ll be the same for you, chef. You already know how to cook. Focus on the business end of things, work with a coach who can help you know as much about business as you do about cooking, and just go for it.