Are you a cooking enthusiast who wants to go pro?

Many hobbyist cooks, spurred on by the popularity of TV reality shows like Top Chef, Iron Chef, Ace of Cakes and more, are turning to culinary schools for a formal education. Some cooks who have worked in the industry for years return to school for additional instruction. Culinary arts training can provide you with a certificate, associate degree or bachelor degree, and will qualify you for a career in the food service industry.

The career outlook for food industry workers is decent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Steady job availability is projected from 2010-2020, and the median annual wage in 2010 was $40,630. If you are considering culinary school, it is important to choose the right fit for you among the enormous number of available programs. Use the following list of questions and examples as a helpful guide as you make this decision.

What do I hope to achieve from culinary school?

There are several degree programs available and each is tailored to specific needs. An associate degree is a 2-year program that qualifies graduates for entry-level positions like that of sous chef, food prep supervisor or chef de cuisine. There is an ongoing debate in the industry whether culinary school is a necessary ingredient for success, and many “old-school” chefs believe that working one’s way to the top is the only way to advance in the kitchen. Some students use this 2-year degree as a jumping-off point into hands-on learning while working.

A bachelor’s degree offers a traditional 4-year degree program that encompasses typical general education requirements and offers more advanced training in business, cooking techniques and the cultural history of food. These programs usually also offer internships at on-site facilities or externships at partner facilities in the area. Graduates from a 4-year program like this are qualified for positions on a management track in the restaurant, hospitality and tourism industries.

A shorter certification option is also available at some culinary schools. Designed for an experienced cook who desires more training or for an adult trained in another field who wishes to switch careers, these programs provide an accelerated, intense course in skills and techniques. Certificate programs like this are more affordable and can generally be completed in less than 18 months.

What hands-on experience will I gain while in school?

Depending on the size and location of your school, you may find yourself in a cozy, family-style environment or a fast-paced, hectic kitchen with state-of-the-art equipment. For example, all 20 of Le Cordon Bleu’s campuses feature a student-run restaurant called Technique. During the course of study, students at Le Cordon Bleu will work at Technique, which is open to the public. All back-of-the-house kitchen stations are taught, as well as front-of-the-house management and customer service. Graduates of Le Cordon Bleu will have experienced each possible position available to them before they finish school. Interested in dining at a Technique in your city? Reservations are available on OpenTable.

Where is the school located?

Consider the surrounding area of your school, since it is likely that you will be assigned to an internship or externship at a restaurant nearby. Le Cordon Bleu boasts campuses in 20 major U.S. cities. Kendall College in Chicago, which offers a 4-year BA in Culinary Arts, partners with numerous restaurants in Chicago, a city known for its great restaurants. The famous Culinary Arts Institute (CIA) is headquartered just outside of New York City, and draws students to the area’s famous eateries.

Is the school accredited?

Some hiring managers prefer that students have attended an accredited culinary school, especially given the explosive growth in new culinary schools. The accreditation process takes time, and an accredited school has undergone rigorous testing to achieve its certification. The American Culinary Federation (ACF) is one such granting body. An ACF-accredited school meets industry standards in its curriculum, instructional resources, organizational structure and its faculty and staff. ACF-accredited programs exist for all three culinary degree programs.

What are the expected costs, and is financial aid available?

Tuition costs depend largely on the length of your program and whether your school is accredited. Beyond that, costs still vary widely, so it pays to research your options carefully. The three CIA campuses (Hyde Park, NY, Saint Helena, CA, and San Antonio, TX) are accredited by the U.S. Dept. of Education, though not the ACF. A four-year BA program at CIA costs about $30,000 per year, or $120,000 in total. Need-based financial aid is available from the government, and most students heavily finance student loans to cover the balance.

Le Cordon Bleu, another widely recognized name in culinary arts, is not accredited by the ACF, though it is by the U.S. Dept. Education. Its students also qualify for financial aid. Tuition is similarly costly at Le Cordon Bleu campuses; a 2-year associate degree program costs a little more than $37,000 before room and board. Its accelerated certificate program, which can be completed in nine months, carries a $20,000 price tag.

Kendall College in Chicago, while it may not pack the power of recognition that CIA or Le Cordon Bleu does, offers ACF-accredited associate and bachelor degree programs. Tuition pricing for a bachelor degree totals $95,000, and an associate degree costs $55,000. Even less well-known but still accredited by the ACF are over 100 local community colleges that meet ACF standards for 2-year degree programs. For example, the College of DuPage in west suburban Chicago charges a bit less than $8,000 for its associate degree in culinary arts.