Should You Work in a Restaurant Before Attending Culinary School?

Posted on 26 Oct 2015 23:02

Many of those interested in becoming a chef, or pursuing some type of culinary career, become interested in food, and perhaps develop a passion for cooking, at home. Then, they decide to enroll in cooking school, and pursue their dream job: Becoming the head chef at a big-time restaurant!

With this in mind, one of the most frequently asked questions about going to culinary school is whether it is advisable to go to culinary school with no experience or to work in a restaurant, or at least in some aspect of food service, before going to cooking school.

Most people say, yes, it is a good idea, but not mandatory. Working in a restaurant first before you enter culinary school will give you a good idea of what to expect, and help prepare you for the grueling challenges ahead. Cooking school is not all lectures and term papers. Some of the classes are done in cooking-school kitchens that simulate restaurant kitchens, including the pressure.

Other Reasons to Work in a Restaurant Before Culinary School

This is all fine and well, but if this is the only reason to work in a restaurant before pursuing your education, you might ask how often people work really work in a field before going to college to study it. Many students head off to college without ever having worked any kind of job, let alone one in their chosen field.

However, there are other reasons you might want to work in the restaurant industry before you head off to culinary school. First, you may find out that a career in cooking is not for you after all. In fact, many other good reasons to work in the field before attending school may be more practical than "knowing what to expect."

Why? Because the idea that what you learn in a restaurant, even a "white tablecloth" one will prepare you for what you encounter in cooking school may not hold up at all. What a restaurant chef teaches you and what a culinary school teaches you may not be the same. Chefs develop many short-cuts and they have their own ways of organizing work. Despite what cooking shows may have you believe, chefs don't necessarily use "basic skills" like those learned in a cooking school.

You may simply find yourself entering school and having to un-learn some bad habits you picked up! There are basics cooking skills and fundamental kitchen management skills that everyone should know, and it is true that some of these fundamentals may be the 'best' way to do something. But this does not mean everyone in the industry practices them, or that they haven't found a way that works better for them.

Having previous experience in a restaurant will prepare you for encountering different standards than those you will learn in school. This may help you adapt once you enter the job market. It may even help you get along with your fellow employees. Nobody likes a "fresh out of school" greenhorn!

One thing that working in a busy restaurant will teach you is that restaurant work is grueling! It is not for everyone, and going into school knowing right off the bat that you are up to the challenge, or even enjoy it, is invaluable. This is especially true since culinary school is among one of the most expensive educations you can get.

Are You Sure You Want to Be a Chef?

One of the most valuable reasons for working in a restaurant before you commit money and time to a culinary education is that you may find that, while you are interested in a food-related career, you don't necessarily want to be a chef.

Think about what I, the author of this website does. If you look around, you'll see articles on food science, food history, food culture, etc. Would culinary school alone have prepared me for pursuing this aspect of food? Or, would education in science, history, etc. have been a more valuable use of my time and effort. Surely, some or all of it would be a great idea, but realistically, most of us want to pinpoint our educational needs so that we can become better prepared for what we truly want to do, and get to doing it as soon as possible!

In that respect, my time studying history, not to mention Latin, helped prepare me to author this website as much as my time in restaurants. Likewise, my scientific education, such as it is.

So, let's say you work in a fancy restaurant as a line cook. While there, you meet a person who does something highly related to food but who does not work in the kitchen. In fact, this person is, in some respects, an expert on food! You've gotten to know the sommelier.

A sommelier, or chef de vin1, is a person who is an expert on wine. Not only that but a person who is an expert on pairing wine with food. You always did have a keen interest in wine and this intrigues you! Perhaps becoming a sommelier is what you want to do. You've just learned something quite valuable to your education!

restaurant kitchen

image by tup wanders via flickr

restaurant kitchen

image by tup wanders via flickr

You see, there are schools who offer specific programs for sommolier. Here, you are pursuing a wine education, really, but learning a great deal about food is a part of it. However, it is a wine-first pursuit, rather than a food-first pursuit.

As a sommolier, you would be responsible for anything to do with wine service. You would purchase the wines, and prepare the wine list.

However, let's say you decided to become a sommolier simply because you loved wine, so you attended school for it, only to discover that the primary job of a sommolier, whether in a fine restaurant, or fine wine store, is to sell wine. After all, the most important responsibility of a sommolier is to help guests choose wines, and then to serve this wine. This is not a passive assistance role. You bought the wine, and your job is to move it.

If you went into it thinking you were going to spend all your time tasting wine and sharing your love of it with other folks, well, you may be discouraged. Lots of people love wine, but not everyone wants to spend their time convincing others to buy it, and to do so in a way that doesn't suggest they are doing so!

Even so, you may want to consider that even in hard economic times, when restaurant dining goes down, wine, beer, and liquor sales tend to go up, or at least to stay fairly constant.

However, while all restaurants will employ a chef, or at least a cook, not every restaurant will hire a professional sommolier. In some restaurants, this responsibility may move to the dining room manager or Maître D'hôtel.

Now you've learned that, should you want to become a dining room manager, sommolier training would serve you very well!

Other Food Related Careers

Other food-related careers may not be best served by a culinary school education. This is not to say that culinary school wouldn't still be valuable, but that given one choice for a degree program, it would not be the best choice.

Even if you decide that culinary school is the right choice for you, but that you prefer to work outside the kitchen, now you know what type of internships or other activities make more sense for your goals. There are hundreds of careers related to food, after all. Below is a list of just some of the opportunities for careers in the culinary field.

Culinary Careers Outside the Restaurant

  • Food writers: You could be like me! Well, perhaps not like me. Food writers and critics keep abreast of the trends and fashion in food and cooking, up and coming chefs, new and exciting restaurants, and anything else food-related. They may eat in restaurants and then review the food for a magazine or other publication, or cover food in a general way. Going to culinary school and becoming well-versed in the culinary arts would certainly make you a better food writer or food critic. Julia Child was a food writer, as much as she was a television star.
  • Food and Beverage Manager: Those in charge of the food and beverage services at large hotels, resorts, etc. will often have a professional culinary education.
  • Food Stylist and Photographer: Similar to food writers, above, food stylists and photographers work for magazines, and book publishers. They may also help with developing the food images for catalogs or advertisements. Photography school would be a good choice for an aspiring food stylist/photographer, but much more goes into "styling food" than taking great pictures. Knowledge of food presentation is very important as well. The more a food-stylist knows about food, the better. Culinary School would be a good choice.
  • Food Research and Development: Not only food scientists work in food research and development. People trained in the the culinary arts are also employed to help develop new food products, or as consultants to food companies. Also, there are many test kitchens operated by cookbook publishers and other organizations. Culinary School graduates may seek employment for the research and development wing of a food company, in a test kitchen, or in many similar areas.
  • Food Related Sales: Any person involved in the selling of food or food equipment to chefs or other culinary professionals would benefit greatly from a culinary school education.

For more information about the various positions within a restaurant kitchen, see the kitchen brigade.

So, the simple answer to whether you should work in a restaurant before you go to culinary school is, yes, given the opportunity, you should.

What if I Can't Find a Job in a Restaurant?

You may not have time, or the inclination, to spend years working your way up in a fine-dining restaurant kitchen, say from dishwasher to line cook. Likewise, getting work at a restaurant that would hire a cook with no experience may or may not help prepare you for culinary school (don't even think that being a short-order cook is "easy" however).

It may be possible, though, that you can set up a stage. A stage is basically restaurant jargon for a short apprenticeship or externship. A traditional means of culinary education in Europe are long apprenticeships. However, in the U.S. most culinary schools require at least one to several short externships, if not longer internships. Some of these may even be done in Europe.

It may be difficult for you to set up your own stage. If you know someone in the restaurant business this may help. A stage will help you gain some valuable experience, though unpaid, before attending culinary school.

It is absolutely reasonable to spend some amount of time working at a restaurant and getting on-the-job experience, even if you are not being paid. Such experience will help you figure out whether to attend a culinary school, and just what type of culinary education is best for you, while still giving you valuable training and experience, that will help prepare you for school should you decide to attend. You may scoff at the idea of doing work for no pay, especially if you have to travel to do it! Well, keep in mind that such experience is invaluable in the restaurant industry, and…it goes on your resume, where you do not have to say whether it was paid or unpaid!

Don't be too worried about the idea of working at a restaurant for a short time, say a year, just for the purpose of preparing for culinary school, or getting your feet wet in the restaurant field. This is completely normal (if difficult for employers) in the restaurant world.

We often hear that a chef spent a couple of years at a certain top restaurant before moving on, and think, my, what happened? Why didn't he stay?

It was a stepping-stone! Chefs often only stay for a couple of years at one restaurant before moving on. The same goes for cooks in general.

Restaurant Work is a Dose of Reality

Now, more than ever, working in a restaurant before going to cooking school is an important consideration. The Rise of Food TV and the celebrity chef has made many home cooks think that restaurant cooking is a glamorous profession. Even a week in a busy restaurant kitchen will quickly dissuade you from that notion. Not that you should be discouraged from a culinary career based on the lack of glamour.

As well, there is a lot more to the restaurant kitchen than preparing delicious and beautiful dishes. There are systems to maintain. There is even math involved!

Deciding whether or not to attend culinary school is a big decision. It will pay to get some experience in restaurant work before you enroll. It may even put you ahead of the other students who don't have such experience!

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