The recent separation of Chris Olson, former Chef de Cuisine from Parka, a restaurant in Minneapolis, has spurned interesting conversations about things they don’t teach you in culinary school. Olson’s original post was published on Eater, though he deleted it from his blog, and Chef Stewart Woodman elaborated through his blog Shefzilla.
Culinary school is like any other type of school. No amount of education can instill within a student a strong work ethic. Unfortunately, many other educational systems also don’t adequately prepare students for the reality of work, in a general sense. In restaurants, this reality will entail the intense schedules and physical working conditions described by the posts above. Outside of the restaurant industry, higher education doesn’t necessarily prepare students for the reality of work. That an expensive degrees won’t guarantee a job or that we’re not all as outstanding as our alma maters may have lead us to believe. No college degree can compensate for laziness, immaturity, or personality disorders.
College didn’t encourage me to have realistic expectations of days spent stuffing, labeling, and sealing thousands of envelopes. For the sheer boredom of a five-day work week straight out of Office Space. College couldn’t make me responsible enough to keep my desk clean. College certainly did not emotionally prepare me to answer the death calls from people whose loved ones just died, to be the first one to call them back, or to sit in my office staring at their ashes. These things I had to do myself, through baptism by fire. I got better with maturity and age. Through a painful quest for self-awareness that only I could initiate. May I confront these realities with increasing grace and maturity. They will return for me, again and again, and they return will for you. That’s the reality of life. It’s both harsh and beautiful.
Culinary School is, indeed, more forgiving of making mistakes. So was college. What might get you a tongue lashing or “C-” in school might put you on a progressive disciplinary path or result in termination from a real job. Like any other education, culinary school involves students who work their tails off and students who slack, burdening others with their shares of the work. Some of these slackers will graduate and the depressing fact is that we’ll all earn the same degree. The value of culinary school, or any school for that matter, revolves around the effort one puts into class. And not just into class, but the opportunities and work experience beyond the classroom.
Culinary school simply can’t instill within a student a strong work ethic or character. No school can. Culinary school can provide exposure to new ingredients, some of which may be difficult or expensive to attain at home. It provides basic instructions for preparing said ingredients and correcting mistakes, whenever possible. Students will have to relearn their employer’s way of making dishes anyway, but at least they will have had an introduction. There’s got to be some value in not balking at culinary basics like making roux or setting up a breading station. Culinary school teaches students how to use industrial kitchen equipment. It teaches students to convert measurements and practice working quickly and efficiently through repetition and structure.
Many of the students in my class are combining this culinary program with their first experience in higher education. At the end of two years, they will have learned culinary basics and completed their generals, paying far less than if they had attended for-profit institutions like Le Cordon Bleu or Arts Institutes. This is not to say one must have a college degree to be successful at work. My husband is a prime example. He worked from the most lowly of positions into management. However, this is the path my classmates have chosen and, when they graduate, I will be proud.
I’m not delusional. I’m under no impression that I’ll wear a chef’s jacket upon graduation or be the next Food Network star. I would expect to earn any career by working from the bottom up through time, blood, sweat, tears, and a certain degree of luck.
I know what I am. A better-than-average home cook enrolled in a community culinary school with a blog. And I’m ok with that.