To School or Not to School

Recently one of my readers, Kimberly (check out what she’s doing on her blog), requested my experience with culinary school. In the industry more and more people are getting a formal education. That being said, there are certainly still those who have attended the school of hard knocks. It is a rare industry where education is not required, nor is it a guarantee of quality. It is possible to attend school and graduate top of your class but once in a real kitchen fall flat on your face.

I feel the need to clarify that in this article, like all I write on this blog, I can only speak from my personal experiences. For me, culinary school was an amazing, life-changing event in my life. I sort of fell into it. After spending two years studying classical music at university (I play the violin), I went to college and graduated in Applied Photography. Having an inkling that I may one day want to teach, I then moved to Montreal to attend University. At this point in my life, I was suffering from extreme anxiety attacks and agoraphobia which made it impossible to attend classes and I was forced to withdraw from university.

While at home over the next 8 months I found a new haven: the kitchen. I watched a lot of the Food Network and would give myself projects to attempt, some to great success (hand made spinach pasta) and others to great failure (my first hollandaise split like a tree). One thing I did realize though was how much there was to potentially learn in this field, and as education and learning are passions of mine I was hooked. I then decided to apply to Professional Cooking at a culinary school after learning about an amazing program offered in Montreal.

The Pearson School of Culinary Arts is located in the borough of LaSalle in Montreal. As part of the Pearson Adult Career Centre I had my doubts as to the quality of the education on offer there. However, after living in Quebec for 12 months I was able to claim Quebec residency which brought the cost of attending down to ridiculously low levels. The cost of the whole program (which was 11 months straight, Monday-Friday, 8 am-4 pm), including my Victorinox knives (middle of the road cost wise), my uniforms, and my textbook was less than $1000. I went into the program not sure if this is what I wanted to do with my life but knowing that the worst thing that would happen is that I would have a very good knowledge of food and be able to forever feed myself well.

The first day I realized I had found something special. There were about ten different chefs that I worked with over the years, all with great experience and different backgrounds. Big restaurant chefs, bistro chefs, catering chefs, pastry chefs, hotel chefs, casino chefs, and on and on it went, each bringing their own unique experiences to the table, each able to teach us their way of approaching food. I cannot speak highly enough about how amazing each and every one of my chefs was at that school. Fabulously structured and run by one of the most amazing women I have ever met, Chef Nancy Gagnon, the Pearson School of Culinary Arts changed me. The moment I walked into the school kitchens I knew I was home, that I had found my calling in life.

What did my education get me and is it absolutely necessary for serious chefs to attend culinary school? At the time I attended culinary I was 24. As I learned more about chefs, the traditional apprenticeship approach, the European method, I realized that one thing was constant: start young. It seemed that so many of the chefs that were at the top of the world had started working in kitchens at the age of 12. Daniel Boulud recommends ten years of apprenticeship. I was late to the game. The biggest thing that culinary school did for me was to make up for lost time.

In one intense year I created a very strong, technical, foundation on which I have been able to build the rest of my career. Starting with the basics: how to set up a work station, the different types of vegetable cuts, soups, we worked our way up to full a la carte service, meat and seafood, sauces. I was taught why things work, not just how to do them. I would say that this is perhaps the easiest distinction to make between a formally educated chef and one that has learned by doing. The chef that has learned on the job will probably know how to make bread, but not necessarily know about the mechanics of fermentation, gluten, single vs double rise etc. To me learning theory is hugely beneficial because you can apply an idea you learned in one dish to any number of other dishes.

The other thing that completing culinary school did for me was give me credibility and get me into kitchens. The connections that the chefs at the Pearson School of Culinary Arts have are amazing. Even without them though, having a diploma in culinary, even without any kitchen experience, will likely get you an interview. You will still have to do your time in the system (garde manger/prep, banquet, breakfast, entremetier, grill, saucier), but it shows employers that you have a base set of skills to work with. I had never worked in a kitchen when I started school, but within 3 months of starting one of my chefs had hooked me up with a job that I worked on top of the schooling I was doing.

I was also very grateful that my chefs painted a realistic view of what the industry would be like. I knew it was not going to make me rich, that there would be long days, that holidays would be spent on the job. I also knew that perfection was expected, chefs were tough, and nothing would hold me back but myself. All things said, I am an advocate for vocational training in culinary arts.

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