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The culinary world and food industry in general has exploded over the past few decades. Cable television, specifically the Food Network, has created stars out of chefs and exciting food cities nationwide began to foster unique, local food scenes featuring various flavors in cuisine, such as French cuisines. Nowadays, a career in the food business entails not only long hours in hot restaurant kitchens or food service, but a career that is increasingly creative and inspiring, which should excite future students who have a passion for cooking and appreciation for food. It may involve many job changes over the course of a career, as you move from restaurant to restaurant in the fast-paced environment of restaurant kitchens or within the hospitality industry, gaining foundational skills, extensive experience with new flavors in cuisine, international foods or American comfort food, the baking and pastry arts, or with chefs who have unique food concepts to teach.
To start your career, you'll want to start with an associate degree program or a certificate from one of the many culinary school programs available. There are culinary and pastry programs available all over the U.S. Culinary education demands that students have a passion for cooking and appreciation for food, but does not require any current knowledge since the culinary program will teach you all the foundational skills required and the fundamentals of cooking. When you devote that time to a culinary school degree, you will gain a vast amount of knowledge in a short period of time. You will learn more about the art and science of cooking in your approximate two years of culinary school than you can learn in five years of extensive experience in kitchens or the food industry. Plus, you can learn about inventory control and the various facets of kitchen management. Culinary school grads will have the culinary knowledge and skills to open a restaurant, become a bakery owner, pastry chef, apply for a position with the Food Network, start an event catering business or another food service, find a position in the most exciting food cities, work in kitchens at luxury hotel properties, get some business experience in the food or hospitality industry, and much more.
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Components of A Successful Culinary Career
A successful culinary career begins with a passion for food, service, and lifelong learning. We all visit restaurants, sometimes several times per week. Many of us become enthralled with what it takes to make a dinner exceed our expectations, to surpass being a mere meal and rise to the level of a memorable experience. Yet, you not only need to know how to prepare and present a single plate of food, you need to know how to set up the systems necessary for preparing several hundred plates of food in a few hours. That is where you need not only experience but skilled training to ascertain the very best methods for efficient food preparation. For instance, you could design a labor-intensive dessert that takes at least ten minutes to prepare, but if your kitchen doesn't have the space or staff to devote to that confection, you might want to re-think your approach. A culinary trade school degree will give you the tools you need to adapt and still create a repeat, loyal customer.
What Does A Culinary Chef Do?
A culinary chef is a person who oversees a staff of cooks in a kitchen. They might oversee certain aspects of food preparation, such as expediting orders or operating the grill. Chefs are also frequently charged with taking inventory and making food orders. They also might create menus or special items depending on deals they find in the market, or special seasonal produce.
Typical Culinary Trade School Requirements
Culinary trade school requirements frequently include at least a high school diploma or GED. Some programs might ask you to demonstrate your desire to become a chef by detailing your experience in foodservice, or to explain what drives your passion for food.
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To excel in the culinary world, you might strive for special certifications that will set you apart from other chefs. You could, for instance, seek certification in nutrition so that you could work in a healthcare setting, or design menus for clients with special dietary restrictions. There are also culinary certifications that verify your credentials as a chef, or a Sommelier certification that asserts your wine expertise. You could also focus on the business side of the culinary world and become certified in restaurant management, or simply take more courses in bookkeeping to help ensure that all the finances are in order.
Academic StandardsTo achieve a culinary degree or certification, you should strive to learn as much as you possibly can. After all, you will apply your knowledge and skills directly to your life's work. Most programs don't have strict requirements for maintaining your status in their program but assume that you need to maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA to remain in good standing and to graduate.
Exam and Experience Needed for a Culinary CertificationTo earn a degree in culinary arts, you will likely need to pass your courses and then perform to high standards in an internship. If you are aiming at a specialized certification, however, you may need to pass an exam. To become a sommelier, for instance, there is an examination that covers tasting, wine theory, and wine service, including sales technique.
Culinary Vocational Degree & Certification Options
Certificate: A certificate program will allow you to get a great start in the culinary world. You'll learn about various cuisines, kitchen management, and nutrition. These programs are not all that expensive. In fact, if you work for a larger restaurant chain, they might even have a tuition reimbursement program, provided you plan to continue working with them after graduation.
Try to attend an accredited program because then your credits will be useful in case you decide to pursue a full associate or bachelor's degree. It's also more likely that your employer will reimburse tuition for an accredited education.
Here are a few example courses:
- introduction to Nutrition
- Event Planning
- Introduction to Hospitality
If you're just getting started, an associate's degree is a great place to start your culinary education. This degree will take a bit more time than a certificate, but you will surely learn more and be able to show future employers a bona fide degree. You may also take helpful courses in management, marketing, or accounting which will pay off in the long run.
Consider each level of education a foundation on which you are building a career. An associate's degree is a solid foundation that will support a long, fruitful career. The courses you might take to create your foundation include, but aren't limited to:
- Cuisines and Cultures of Asia (and other select cultures)
- Wine Studies
- Introduction to Hospitality
- Formal Restaurant Cooking
- Culinary Fundamentals
Though in no way required, a bachelor's degree can continue to open doors. If you buckle down and do the hard work it takes to complete a four-year degree in culinary arts, you will attract hiring managers from top hotels and restaurants. During a four-year degree, you will have a bit more leeway to branch out. You might take more courses in your favorite cuisine, or pursue related subjects such as cultural anthropology, where you can study the cultural importance of food worldwide. You can also take courses in accounting, nutrition, marketing, and management. Some of the courses you might take include, but are not limited to:
- Stocks, Sauces, and Soups
- Cooking Methods
- Cost Control
- Fish and Sauces
- Fine Dining
Fields of Study
Baking: Skilled bakers are always in demand. If you focus on breads, you'll find that artisanal bakeries will love you, as will larger bakeries that feed grocery stores and local restaurants. You could also branch into baking cakes, cookies, and pies. With the rising tide of gluten-free baking, you could break new and exciting ground in this ancient art.
Culinary Arts: This is probably what most people aim for when they think of culinary school. You will study the basics of culinary practice, including how to properly prepare vegetables and more advanced techniques. You could study specific traditions, such as Indian food, and discover new ways to mesh cuisines together.
Culinary Management: Inventory control, marketing, and personnel issues are the primary focus in this field of study. You will also study finance, accounting, and even leadership along the way. If you have been working hard on the line, or even in the front-of-house as a server, you might want to study culinary management to level-up your career. With this degree you could aim towards being a general manager, an executive chef, or opening the restaurant of your dreams.
Dining Room: The front-of-house staff is often segregated from the kitchen staff, but their jobs require study and preparation, as well. Not only do servers need to pay special attention to customer's needs, but they need to properly prepare the dining room, understand all the dishes, and sometimes do light preparation of things like beverages and desserts. Ultimately, dining room staff needs communication skills to translate diner needs to the kitchen.
Food Science & Human Nutrition with Culinary Option: This field is rather broad and delves deep into the science of food flavors, composition, and how it impacts our health. With the culinary option, you can put your scientific knowledge to practical use, creating tasty dishes for clients with special needs.
Institutional Foodservice Management: Running a restaurant staff, even a smaller one, is difficult but operating an institutional facility that feeds over a thousand people a day is something else. You could apply this knowledge towards a career working in a hospital cafeteria, a college campus, or even a major corporate campus.
Pastry Arts: Cakes, pies, and delicate phyllo dough creations are the domain of the pastry chef. This specialized skill set is always in demand and you can bring home loads of bacon with this focus. You might work for high-end caterers, creating custom wedding cakes or award-winning desserts that become famous in your town.
Preparation Cook: People who work as prep-cooks are often called Sous Chefs, and they are usually the #2 person in the kitchen. Food preparation is vital to the food assembly. You might spend your afternoons creating sauces, prepping julienne carrots, or de-boning the evening's market fish. However, your work will come to fruition once the evening's orders start rolling in.
|Degree Level||Tuition||Total Costs|
Note that sometimes culinary schools carry additional costs for supplies. For instance, you may need to purchase a set of knives, chef's coat, and headgear. Sometimes these costs are included, but please consult the school prior to enrolling.
Potential Careers & Salaries for Culinary Graduates
A career in the culinary arts can certainly begin with a certificate program. In fact, you technically only need a high school diploma or GED, and some restaurants will even hire you without that. However, if you wish to create a successful, fruitful career you should start at least with a certificate.
Your pay with a certificate should be slightly above that of a person with only a high school diploma, as you will have certain skills and knowledge that will make you a true asset. Further, there are things that your employer won't have to explain or spend as much time training you to do.
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Culinary Median Salaries by Occupation
Annual Median Salary by Occupation
|Restaurant General Management||$40,800||$49,100||$55,200|
|Hotel General Manager||$32,000||$40,000||$39,700|
Important Questions to Ask
How long does it take to earn a Culinary Degree or Certification?
There are a range of academic programs in the culinary arts. You could go for a bachelor's of arts that is a four-year course that includes many of the same core curriculum found in a typical liberal arts college. You could also choose a certificate program that is light on academic standards, but which focuses on food-service curriculum and will take approximately 2 years, including a paid practicum in a hotel, resort, or restaurant.
How much does a Culinary Trade School Degree cost?
A Culinary Trade School degree can prepare you to lead a kitchen, design menus, and manage your staff for a reasonable price. If you choose a program in a public community college, for instance, you might expect to pay a total of around $10,000. That would include all the materials associated with your profession, including a chef's jacket, neckerchief, apron, textbook, and tuition. A private program will cost more, but somewhere in the range of $19,000. You will then need to pay for your room, board, and other expenses on top of that.
How many students graduate “on time,” in 12 months or 24 months?
Culinary schools, like any other sort of college, all face a certain percentage of drop-outs. Some schools, such as the CIA boast 78-90% graduation rates, depending on the program. However, they are highly competitive. This would seem to mirror traditional academia, where more competitive schools graduate more students in four years than their open-door, open enrollment peers. With that in mind, figure that the lower end only graduates 30-40% of all incoming students in a timely fashion.
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?
If you are attending a culinary program for an associates or bachelor's degree, you need assurances that your credits are backed by a regional accrediting agency. That is because full degree programs are likely to take longer than a short certificate program and you will pay more for the credit hours. Furthermore, if you decide you want to build on your education with the next degree level, you will need credits that will transfer to a university or graduate school.
To assure that the program you are considering enrolling in stacks up to independent scrutiny, seek out one accredited by American Culinary Federation Education Foundation Accrediting Commission (ACFEFAC.)
Software, Technology & Skills Needed
If you start culinary school with a good deal of experience and knowledge, you will be in a good position to advance. Simply knowing how to chop, whisk, dice, and julienne will be helpful and allow you to make more culinary discoveries. Since most of your practical work will be in the kitchen, you probably won't need many computer skills. However, your program may include a few academic courses that involve short papers. Also, if you decide to delve into the managerial side of the kitchen, you may need a familiarity with spreadsheets. Overall, however, if you have a laptop and an Office suite, you should be fine. That said, please consult your school's documentation to make sure you have everything you need on day one.
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CIA ACAP Alumni Referral Scholarship
If you know an alumni from the Culinary institute of America and have them write you a letter of recommendation, you can qualify for this scholarship. This scholarship is applicable to two semesters in their certificate program – ACAP. The CIA is a prestigious culinary institute, but it is also a little expensive. Winning a scholarship will be very helpful.
CIA Accelerated Culinary Arts (ACAP) Merit-Based Scholarship
Deadline: Normal Application Deadline
This is for students who have demonstrated outstanding academic scholarship and who have taken leadership positions. This scholarship is awarded from the pool of applications, you do not submit a separate application. However, keep this in mind and make sure your application highlights your strengths.
American Culinary Foundation Scholarship
Deadline: April 30, October 31
The ACF awards three scholarships on an annual basis. They have a $1,500 award for their apprentice program, $1,500 to help with a certificate program, and a $2,500 award for students seeking a post-secondary degree.
Kitchen Cabinet Kings Entrepreneur Scholarship
Deadline: June 30th
Current college students or incoming first-year students who are studying culinary arts are encouraged to apply for this $5,000 award. To enter, you must submit an essay that answers a specific question. A previous question was about the impact of cryptocurrencies on the business world.
Court of Master Sommeliers Americas
This association certifies sommeliers in the USA. Their goal is to continually improve on standards for wine and wine service in restaurants and elsewhere. They conduct four examinations to certify their members, qualifying them as among the top experts in the wine industry.
American Culinary Federation
This trade association began in 1929 and continues to be one of the oldest such associations in the United States. They offer regional and national events, members-only publications, and many educational and other professional resources.
International Corporate Chefs Association
If you become a corporate chef, this is the association for you. Their aim is to help members develop in their careers and form networks amongst themselves.
Choosing an Accredited Culinary Vocational School
When you are deciding on a culinary vocational school, make sure your credits are fully backed. That is, make sure they are certified by an independent agency such as ACFEFAC. You might also look for regional accreditation. Accreditation will assure that your credits can be applied to another degree later. Even if you only want a certificate, bona fide credits will serve you later.
Online vs On-Campus
These days there are some online certificate programs available for culinary arts. These programs will likely only cover academic topics such as culinary history, nutrition, food science, and others. For the best culinary education, look for an on-campus education that will give you the real-world hands-on instruction you need to thrive. However, if you do take online culinary courses, make sure they are accredited so that they can apply to a later on-campus program.
Does the Vocational School Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Assistance?
Once you graduate, you will want a job. Speak with your admissions counselor to learn about their job placement programs and other resources. Many culinary schools require an externship as part of the program and it will be beneficial if the school has local contacts in great restaurants to help you complete your degree.
Why You Need to Consider the Overall National Rankings of the School and The Effects on Your Career or Salary
The national ranking of your school might help you if you attend a well-known institution such as the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson and Wales, or Le Cordon Bleu. However, keep in mind that culinary arts are mostly learned and developed on the hot kitchen line every night. That said, your degree or certificate will certainly open doors, as hiring managers will see your dedication to formal education as proof that you will be a focused, and knowledgeable, employee.