Culinary School vs. Kitchen Experience: Who Gets the Job

The restaurant industry has been getting bigger and bigger due to the fact that many people switch careers or have found an interesting career in cooking. Maybe this obnoxious fad can be blamed on Food Television, like the Food Network, where almost everyone wants to become a celebrity chef like Rachel Ray or Bobby Flay. Culinary Schools have been popping up everywhere in the country like a contagious disease, offering education for aspiring chefs in hopes of getting a job after getting their associate degree in Culinary Arts.  The sad fact is that education is not a factor, nor your golden ticket to chefdom, when compared to several years of working experience.

Knowledge is very important when you are working in the kitchen. For example, when the head chef tells you to cut something into brunoise cuts, a culinary student would not have any trouble doing just that. Culinary school familiarizes students with techniques, culinary history, and technical terms. Most students know what an Escoffier is, as well as the major players in the world of culinary arts. On the other hand, an average “Joe” from the street, even if they have been working in a kitchen for years, would not always know a brunoise cut from a batonnet cut. They also would have very rough techniques, relying primarily on instinct, and if you asked them who Ferran Adria is, they would probably just give you a blank stare. Under the realm of knowledge, the culinary student has an obvious advantage.

Skills are not overrated in the kitchen as some may say. It is indeed a very essential part to be a great chef. It is a major factor in whether an employer will hire you, and whether you can get a job in a 5 star restaurant, or a one star restaurant. A culinary student will have the technical skills to do just about anything, but they will be rough and unpolished. They may have troubles doing things correctly every time. They are used to being allowed to make mistakes from school, because that is how they learn, but in a real kitchen, in the real world, there is not that time to correct those mistakes. You have to be on point every time you do something. On the reverse side of it, someone who has been in the kitchen dealing with the stress and pressure would be far less inclined to make those same mistakes. They learned their skills from experience and from the chefs they work with that have been around for a longer amount of time. It becomes second nature just to do it. They don’t question or stop to think about it, they just do it. For example, they may not know what a brunoise cut is, but they will be able to follow an example, and more than likely will be able to cut it faster than the student. In this area, the experienced worker ekes it out over the culinary student.

Experience is probably the largest factor considered when an employer is looking for a candidate to fill a vacant position. They scan a person’s resume for experience first, because they want to find someone that knows what they are doing and can handle the strain and pressure of an everyday kitchen. A culinary student does not understand this. They have been working in a kitchen that is like a fantasy world. It is all pixies and fairies for them. They don’t realize until they get into a real kitchen that they will be staring into the maw of a 30-foot fire breathing dragon. If they are not careful, and they make too many mistakes, they will be burnt to cinders. They don’t understand the pressure that a lunch or dinner rush will put them under. They don’t know about the heat on the line when there are several other bodies pressing in on you. It is like the most humid of Nebraska summer days. A person who has been in the kitchen for years on the other hand, well, they have no qualms with any of this. They have slain the dragon and they have eradicated the pixies and fairies. They know exactly what to do when a rush comes in, and they always have their ducks in a row. The experienced cook is like an army war veteran who has seen his fair share of battles. He doesn’t get nervous, he just checks to make sure that he has all he has, tries to prepare for any eventuality, expects the worst, and is good at improvising when something goes awry.  In the case of experience, the culinary student is at a distinct disadvantage.

Working experience is more advantageous when looking for a job. It will tell all potential employers that you can do it, and you can do it right. However, it is a great boon for anyone to go to culinary school. When you get to go to school, it gives you a higher status in the culinary world, and it also gives you a sense of accomplishment that others may never feel. If you have a combination of both, working experience and culinary school, then you have a very good standing in the eyes of potential employers. You will have the knowledge, the skills, and the experience. That is the total package when it comes to what employers are looking for.

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2 thoughts on “Culinary School vs. Kitchen Experience: Who Gets the Job

  1. true that. I have learned that because of what I’d been through myself. Such a looooong time before anyone thought of hiring me, because I had no work experience to show for.

    But, you’ve got to start from zero, right?

    In which case, I think AGE truly matters. Those who started young have more advantage.

  2. I think like any other job, your diploma and work experience are equally important. Education is the passport. Because if you have it, you’ve got more chances to show ’em what you got. It doesn’t mean though that those who finished a culinary degree cook way better than those who didn’t. Experience is the best teacher. But when you’re starting out, and you want to impress an employer, you should have the credentials to back you up. Especially if you want to be employed in big corporations. That’s how the world works.

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