How to choose the right culinary school for you
All culinary schools teach certain foundational techniques of cooking, but beyond those basics, culinary schools vary significantly. Students’ experiences can be vastly different depending on their school’s culture, location, and other factors. Figuring out which school is best for you takes some research, so here are some of the most important factors you should consider:
1. Look at areas of specialty
MaryKate Howland, Vice President of the International Culinary Center, recommends that prospective students consider whether a school’s areas of specialty align with their interests. “The areas of specialty, in my experience, are driven by passion and interest, and so while that foundation and having fundamental techniques to take with you into the industry and through your career is vitally important, passion is just as important in this industry,” she says. “Being driven by what you're most interested in and devoting your time and career to is what makes you the most successful in this industry.” Chefs will need to focus on their passions once they’re out in the workforce, so the training they receive should prepare them to excel in those areas.
2. Look at the cost and length of the program
Culinary schools offer either degrees or diplomas. Degree programs generally take two or four years to complete and include liberal arts courses; they also tend to be more expensive. Diploma programs focus on culinary skills and can sometimes be completed in under a year. Howland notes that a diploma program may be a better choice for someone who wants to start working as soon as possible. “That could be a real benefit for somebody who might be a career changer, who might have a degree from previous education and have worked in a previous career and [isn’t] necessarily looking to attain another degree, but [is] looking to get the training necessary to work in this industry,” she says.
3. Check out the school’s social media
Brian Aronowitz, Chief Marketing Officer at the Institute of Culinary Education, recommends that prospective students “look at the role the school plays in the culinary community” to evaluate the quality of its faculty and its ability to place students in externships and jobs. “All that information is accessible to students, so look at a school's social media. Look at the videos they're putting out. Look at the thought leadership that they're doing,” he says.
4. Consider location
Howland notes that schools in large metro areas can offer better networking and placement services than schools in smaller towns. “Being in a large city offers easy opportunity to explore different kinds of food, see what different chefs are doing first-hand [and] potentially intern with them,” she says. “I do think that it can add to a student's education and experience if they are attending a school that is surrounded by a dynamic environment of chefs, and cooks, and restaurants, and culinary entrepreneurs.”
5. Ask about career services
Howland advises prospective students to “ask about what student services are available to them, and what career services are available to them” as well as asking about alumni services and the school’s network.
She also recommends finding out what typical alumni—not just famous alumni—are doing. “Looking to see what alumni of the school have done is really a wonderful way to assess the potential for your future, and looking at the alumni network and just different paths that alumni […] have taken is helpful,” she says. She cautions against “focusing on the biggest names and the biggest success stories when it comes to alumni.” Instead, “when you're visiting the school, ask somebody in the career services team to tell you about what some recent graduates are doing. You can ask, ‘How about some people who graduated earlier this year? Where are they working? What are they doing? How about some people who graduated three years ago? Or five years ago?’”
6. Go beyond the admissions office
Aronowitz recommends that prospective students explore a school’s campus to get an idea of whether they’ll feel at home there. “Sit in on a class. Get the feeling of what it would be like to be a student,” he says. “Use as many resources as a school will make available to you to help make that decision, to see where you're going to fit in.”
7. Be open-minded
Howland advises prospective students to avoid getting their hopes set on a specific career path because the culinary industry is always changing. “It's helpful to keep an open mind and understand that your ideas of what you might want to do, and where you might want to work, and who you might want to work for can shift and change, and [to be] open to that because I think that that can lead to the most opportunities and the most success,” she says.