Hack College Presents: How To Become A Chef

Culinary arts

Do you remember the first time you made a delicious meal for your family or friends and thought to yourself, “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if I could do this for a living?” Well, the good news is you can!

Launching a career in culinary arts is considered by many to be one of the most rewarding experiences a food-lover can have, and also one of the most grueling. Anyone who feels that they have the motivation and chops (no pun intended) to become a top chef in their community owes it to themselves to find out more about what a culinary career path entails. The following guide should help you understand the ins-and-outs of obtaining an education in culinary arts, as well as what to expect when you’re ready to apply for your first job.

Part I. The Culinary Industry

There has been talk in recent years about the culinary industry being at its weakest in over a decade. This has a lot to do with the economic fallout from the 2008 financial collapse and the fact that most Americans just can’t afford to go out and eat as much as they used to.

Fortunately, as dark economic times begin to brighten with each year that passes, now is an excellent time for students to begin their training in culinary arts. Take a look below at some of the more popular career paths you can take on your quest to become the next top chef!

So You Want to be a Chef?

  • Executive Chef:  While chances are that you won’t be accepting any jobs of this calibre right out of college, for many culinary artists, becoming an executive chef is the ultimate goal for their career. Executive chefs are like CEOs of the kitchen: they must ensure that every aspect of the food preparation process is running smoothly and efficiently, and take full responsibility when even the smallest things go wrong. In other words, an executive chef must know a kitchen like the back of his or her hand, and the role often requires several years—if not decades—of consistently excellent food preparation experience.
  • Sous Chef: Of the many roles in a fully-functional kitchen, the sous chef is perhaps one of the most important. The sous chef acts as the assistant and right hand of the executive chef, often acting as a liaison between the executive and other kitchen personnel. While the sous chef typically does the lion’s share of the work with little-to-no recognition or reward, having experience in the role is almost required to gain the hands-on management skills needed to become an executive chef.
  • Pastry Chef: If desserts are more your style, then becoming a pastry chef could very well be the career in culinary arts that you’re looking for. Pastry chefs work with sugars, chocolates, breads and more to craft delicious and wonderful looking dishes for a restaurant’s dessert menu. Because having a pastry chef these days is more of a luxury for restaurants, competition can get pretty stiff—but as with any career, where there is a will, there is a way!
  • Sushi Chef: Not all careers in culinary arts must conform to the Western (mostly French) standard. These days, budding chefs can choose to take the Eastern route when establishing their career in the culinary industry, and skilled sushi preparation is certainly one of the industry’s most noble professions. If Japanese cuisine is your cup of tea, then be sure to learn more about what it takes to master the ancient art of sushi-making.

Salary Expectations

If you are considering a career in culinary arts in hopes that it’ll be a quick and sure-fire way to earn big bucks and get famous, you can stop reading this guide now. The hard truth is that chefs—even executive chefs—won’t be making much dough over the course of their career (other than the baking kind). The Bureau of Labor Statistics has determined, as of 2010, that chefs and head cooks throughout the country make a median income of $40,630 per year or $19.53 per hour.

Let’s face it, unless you plan to own your own restaurant, apply to reality shows, or test your mettle among world-renowned chefs, the culinary industry doesn’t have much to offer in the form of concrete rewards, like money. In fact, there will be times when you question the reason why you ever got into such a torturous business to begin with. That said, the culinary industry does provide a lifelong labor of love for those of us lucky enough to have a chef’s magic touch (and a genuine love of food, of course).

Career Outlook

As mentioned briefly above, the culinary industry took some heavy damage during the recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008. Even some of the country’s most cherished restaurants found it hard to seat enough people, much less afford to hire new workers for their kitchens. Fortunately, the New York Times reported that the industry has made a remarkable turnaround in 2010, despite the dismal job forecast for chefs made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that same year.

Regardless of statistics and economic downturns, a true chef, like any true professional, will be able to ride the wave because they are in a career that they love. Moreover, these times act as a sort of rite of passage for many chefs who may have wandered into the profession without much forethought earlier in their academic career. Simply by reading this guide, you are already setting the right expectations for yourself as you begin your journey to become a practitioner of the culinary arts.

Part II. Top U.S. Culinary Arts Programs

Given the huge number of culinary schools available throughout the U.S. and online, one might assume that finding a great culinary arts program shouldn’t be much of a problem. Well, simply because there are so many relevant schools and programs available, quite a few of them may not offer the quality of education you deserve. To help you with your research, we’ve compiled a list below of some of the best culinary programs offered at universities, institutes and academies throughout the country.

Culinary Institute of America (Multiple Locations)

The Culinary Arts Institute (or CIA) has been one of the country’s top culinary schools for over six decades. CIA currently has campuses in New York, California, Texas and Singapore. Only the most dedicated chefs and culinary artists pass through the gates of CIA with a degree in hand.

  • Accreditation: The Culinary Institute of America is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
  • Specialized Degrees: CIA offers several different degrees in the culinary arts across their various campuses throughout the U.S. For example, the institute’s Hyde Park location offers both bachelor’s and associate degree programs, while the San Antonio, Texas and St. Helena, California locations only offer associate degree programs.
  • Industry Perception: The Culinary Institute of America has remained one of the leaders in culinary arts education since its founding in 1946. Many chefs who have graduated from the institute have gone on to lead successful careers in the culinary industry. The institute also holds an awards ceremony (called the “Augie” Awards) that celebrates the achievements of some of America’s greatest culinary pioneers.
  • Cost: Tuition at CIA can vary by program and location. At the institute’s Hyde Park location in New York, tuition for the 2012-2013 academic year was posted at over $14,000 per semester. Additional costs for supplies are assessed during the student’s first and fourth semesters with the institute.
  • Financial Aid: The Culinary Institute of America offers several financial aid packages in the form of Federal and State Aid, scholarships and grants from the institute itself, as well as student loans.

California Culinary Academy (San Francisco and Online)

Now a part of the ubiquitous Le Cordon Bleu chain of culinary schools throughout the United States, the California Culinary Academy still stands as one of the West Coast’s greatest academies for culinary arts.

  • Accreditation: The CCA is accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), as well as the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC).
  • Specialized Degrees: The California Culinary Academy offers an associate degree in culinary arts, as well as certificates in culinary arts and baking and pastry arts. The school also offers several online degree programs, such as a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Management.
  • Industry Perception: Since its founding in 1977, The California Culinary Academy has been considered to be one of the top culinary schools in the country. The academy has also produced several distinguished alumni, such as Juan-Carlos Cruz, a former celebrity chef for the Food Network.
  • Cost: The cost of attending the CCA can vary depending on the type of degree program you choose to pursue. An associate degree at the academy can cost at least $37,050 and the online bachelor’s degree for culinary management can set you back at least $49,600 over the course of the program.
  • Financial Aid: The CCA offers financial aid packages for students through the Federal government, as well as resources for applying for private student loans.

International Culinary Center (New York City, San Francisco and Parma, Italy)

Since 1984, the French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center) has led the way in providing top quality facilities and educational resources for its students. The institutes list of several prestigious alumni is testament to the school’s focus and drive to ensure the success of its graduates.

  • Accreditation: The International Culinary Center is nationally accredited by the ACCSC.
  • Specialized Degrees: While the ICC does not offer specific degrees, the school is proud to provide several innovative immersion training programs in culinary arts at each of its locations. The ICC also provides opportunities for students to study and gain valuable culinary training abroad.
  • Industry Perception: The list of world-renowned chefs who are associated with the French Culinary Institute and/or the International Culinary Center is exhaustive to say the least. In fact, famed French chef Jacques Pépin acts as the dean of special programs at the institute’s New York location.
  • Cost: Tuition can vary based on the training program you choose. For example, total immersion training in culinary arts at the center’s New York location costs $48,700 for its 2013 program. A nine-week immersion training course in Parma, Italy is priced at $43,300. In addition to the cost of the program itself, these costs also include supplies, uniforms and other training necessities.
  • Financial Aid: Like the California Culinary Academy, the International Culinary Center does offer financial aid guidance for students who wish to finance their education through the Federal government, as well as through private scholarships, grants and loans.

College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University (Providence, North Miami, Denver, Charlotte and Online)

Since Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales founded the university as a business school in 1914, Johnson & Wales has grown to encompass several different programs, such as engineering, equine management, and of course, culinary arts. The College of Culinary Arts at JWU is one of the more revered schools of its kind in the country.

  • Accreditation: Johnson & Wales University and the College of Culinary Arts are accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
  • Specialized Degrees: The College of Culinary Arts at JWU offers associate degrees in culinary arts, as well as baking and pastry arts. The college also offers bachelor’s degrees in culinary arts and food management and baking & pastry arts and food management at each of its locations, as well as online.
  • Industry Perception: As mentioned above, the College of Culinary Arts at JWU is widely considered to be one of the best culinary schools in the country. Some of its more notable chef alumni include Tyler Florence of the Food Network, as well as celebrity chef Graham Elliot.
  • Cost: In contrast to the culinary schools mentioned thus far, the cost of tuition at Johnson & Wales can be far less prohibitive. For the 2013-2014 academic year, tuition costs for all colleges of the university is slated at $27,156 (or $502 per credit).
  • Financial Aid: In addition to offering several comprehensive financial aid packages through Federal and private resources, JWU also offers need-based grants and scholarships from its own coffers for qualified students.

New England Culinary Institute (Vermont and Online)

Founded in 1980, the New England Culinary Institute continues to make good on its tried and true educational philosophy: “learning by doing.” In addition to having a well-respected brick-and-mortar institute in Montpelier, Vermont, the NECI also provides several online learning programs that are currently leading the way in providing remote education in the culinary arts.

  • Accreditation: The New England Culinary Institute is accredited by the ACCSC, and is also regionally accredited by the Vermont Board of Education.
  • Specialized Degrees: In addition to the robust degree offerings available at the institute itself, NECI also offers online bachelor’s degrees in culinary arts, as well as in hospitality and restaurant management. Take note that the online degree program requires an associate degree, which equals about 2-3 years of higher learning in culinary arts prior to taking advantage of the program.
  • Industry Perception: The New England Culinary Institute is widely ranked as one of the top institutes for culinary arts in the nation. One of the institute’s most well-known alumni is Alton Brown, famed American chef and host for several acclaimed series on the Food Network.
  • Cost: The bachelor’s degree program at NECI is priced competitively at $30,765 for the 2012-2013 academic year. This includes other costs for materials, technology usage, as well as room and board. These costs decrease a bit each year the student attends the university. The two year online bachelor’s degree program costs a flat $12,600 per year as of the 2012-2013 academic year.
  • Financial Aid: The New England Culinary Institute offers several financial aid packages through Federal, State and private sources. The institute also offers great proprietary scholarships for exceptional incoming students.

Part III. Launching a Career in Culinary Arts

Now that we’ve investigated the various educational routes you can take on your quest to become the nation’s culinary master, let’s take a look at some of the things you should expect once you graduate with your new chef’s hat in hand.

Portfolios: Unlike a painter, writer or architect, lugging a portfolio around of your best culinary masterpieces can get a bit messy. What many chefs do when trying to establish their career is think creatively about how they can present their work to potential employers. This professional online example of Chef Drew McPartlin’s culinary portfolio includes recipes he has developed, photos of dishes, as well as menus he has worked on. Structuring your own portfolio as such is a great way to prove to potential employers that you are serious and confident about a career in culinary arts.

Cover Letters and Résumés: Unfortunately, becoming a chef does not excuse you from crafting an effective and marketable cover letter and résumé as you begin looking for jobs. In fact, many employers may only see these two documents well before they ever see your portfolio, much less taste your culinary creations in person. Careerfaqs provides an excellent sample cover letter and résumé that new and seasoned chefs can use to build or expand upon their own.

Personal Branding: In the end, true success in the culinary industry will come as a result of successfully branding yourself and your skills over the course of several years—f not decades. As with most careers in the arts, becoming a chef requires hard work, dedication, and above all, and infinite supply of patience. A career in culinary arts can be tough, if not downright abysmal for chefs right out of college. This is why it is so important that you come up with a realistic strategy for your career and make sure that you focus on perfecting your craft at every possible opportunity.

5 Tips from Culinary Pros

  1. I learn from my staff as much as they learn from me. And I am inspired by my staff probably more than they are inspired by me. You can never stop learning, and if you think you can’t listen to a busboy or dishwasher in order to learn how to do something better, you’re dead wrong. – Marc Vetri, head chef and owner of several renowned restaurants, including Vetri Vetri Ristorante in Philadelphia.
  2. I was about getting the biggest paycheck then, so I could see music, smoke expensive weed, do cocaine, that kind of life. It was less important to me that I would get good at my craft. I deluded myself into thinking I was good. And by the time it occurred to me that I’d never worked for a three-star chef, I didn’t have the skills. It was late in the day. – Anthony Bourdain, world-renowned chef and host of famed Travel Channel series Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.
  3. If you want to do it right, I always recommend going to school. Schooling gives you a foundation. It teaches you culinary vocabulary and product identification; it gives you the basics of what we do. We teach things in the restaurant, but we teach finishing skills, not basic skills. There’s just not the time to do it. – Christopher Lee, former executive chef for New York City’s acclaimed Gilt Restaurant.
  4. If you don’t love it, don’t waste your time getting involved. You have to physically love the hours, the stress, getting burned potentially, sweat dripping in your eyes. – Kenny Gilbert, the youngest African American to become executive chef for The Grill at the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island, Florida.
  5. You need to fully understand the business, because at the end of the day it is a business. If someone wants to be successful as a chef, they have to take the time to understand that some of the failures come from someone becoming a pretty decent cook, but not understanding the financial makeup of a kitchen—the food costs, the labor costs. – Charlie Palmer, world-renowned chef and owner of Aureole in New York City.

Oh, to Be a Chef!

As we reach the end of our handy guide on how to be a chef, we’d like to remind you that becoming a che—particularly a successful one—requires an almost superhuman level of dedication and patience. Countless would-be chefs have spent a significant amount of their youth (and life savings) on culinary schools and trying to make it out in the real world, only to realize years later that they could not cut it. Don’t let this happen to you!

We hope our guide gives you a bit more background on what it means to educate yourself in the culinary arts and ultimately what life might be like once you’re ready to brave the industry itself. In the end, while skills and know-how will get you far, steadfast dedication, patience and careful planning are essential in your quest to become a successful master chef.