Knife Skills

You might wondering why would anyone cut potatoes on a tray while sitting on the floor? Well, dear reader, this is me trying to practice my knife skills for class the next day. And this “10 Things To Know Before Culinary School” starts with this photograph – it’s funny and at the same time, depressing. Why? Because I was never great at knife skills and having to practice every night with potatoes I brought home from class was not my idea of fun. But then again, everyone else did it, so the saying “misery loves company” was quite right in this situation. So without further ado (only to tell you this is based on my personal experience having attended The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY and graduating from their AOS degree in Baking and Pastry Arts), here are a few things you need to know before embarking on your culinary school education!

10 Things To Know Before Culinary School

  1. You won’t make any money in the first 5-10 years of graduating. You’ll pay $60,000+ to attend CIA for a two year degree and no way will you be making that back anytime soon, so be ready to juggle jobs and freelance whenever you can. Line cooks and bakers, depending on the state, make anywhere from $8 to $16 an hour, even if you are a graduate of The CIA. Culinary school WILL open all the doors for you, whether the jobs are in your hometown or in Shanghai.
  2. It’s going to be hard, and you will cry at least once (a week). Did I ever see my guy friends crying? Yes I did, although names will remain anonymous. But between my roommate and I, we shed our fair share of tears. Whether it was because my cake wasn’t the exact color I had wanted the buttercream to be to her chef yelling at her for asking what time it was during lecture, crying was a day to day thing in our dorm. Notice I specify in our dorm. There’s no crying in the kitchen, no matter what!
  3. You’re about to give up your social life, holidays, and family time.  Think about every social engagement you attend. Isn’t there food and drinks always available? Who do you think cooks it? A chef. A line cook. So be prepared to give up family holidays for the next fifteen years. Weekends? I have no idea what those are, since my real weekend is that one Monday a week I get off from work. Your work becomes your family.
  4. Freshman 15 is more like Freshman 30. It’s a career of endless temptations. Try giving up bread for a week and that’s the week you’re offered grilled cheese sandwiches like it’s the only food in the world. CIA has a great gym and while I attended school, I probably worked out about a total of 5 times. I would rather eat and those Freshman 15 were actually 22 fatty pounds after 1.9 years in my experience.
  5. Graduating from culinary school does not make you a Chef. “Don’t call yourself a chef unless you’ve earned it. It’s like calling yourself a doctor because you know the difference between aspirin and acetaminophen.” Read more about it on my article over at SheKnows.
  6. Developing addictions is a common thing (whether you’re addicted to drugs, alcohol, or bacon.) Sadly, this is a reality. The pressures of the job, the endless hours, the little time with family, the late nights – turn cooks into addicts. Now, I’m not saying every chef has an addiction, but a lot of them do. What am I addicted to? Social Media!
  7. You’ll have to throw your sensitivity out the door – the kitchen is a harsh and cruel environment. Back of the house is called that for exactly those same reasons. We all stay in the back of the house because we have dirty sailor mouths and can make an insinuation over the most innocent things. And it’s not only the guys. I can curse like a sailor and normally do in the kitchen. Sorry Mom. (Culinary school is a bit different since you have to respect your instructors. So I’d say FUUUUU…dge a lot. Or shiiiii….ttake mushroom.)
  8. You won’t ever remember a time you weren’t always tired. You’ll always be tired cause you’ll either be going to class at 4 in the morning or getting out of class at 11pm. Or you’ll get a job being an overnight baker, going into work at 10pm and getting out at 9am (I did this while working at The Broadmoor in Colorado.)
  9. Meeting crazy people, and even crazier chefs, will become your daily bread. You’ll meet that one girl that only eats cheese danishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner; that guy that is illegally brewing hard apple cider in his dorm room inside recycling bins; that one chef that makes you only eat with chopsticks during their Asia’s class. That and more, are the kind of personalities you’ll meet in the culinary world.
  10. It will change your life. The end. 

What a typical dorm room looked like:

Dorm Life

On the plus side…

…there are some amazing things that will probably happen to you if you do decide to attend culinary school:

You’ll become stronger, faster, better. You’re tolerance to BS will lower and you’re motto will become “if you want something done correctly, do it yourself.”

Your organizational skills and sense of urgency will slip into your “normal life” and make you a better person. Anyone that has to do mise en place for a dinner menu, as well as bake four desserts and train a new cook is as organized as you can get!

The friends you’ll meet become friends for life, at least some of them do. You’ll bond over late night study sessions, trips to NYC, and endless classes together.

The ingredients you get to cook with, the chefs that will instruct you, and the experiences you’ll live are unbelievable. UN-believable. Seriously, you’re life is about to change if you decide to attend culinary school.

Culinary School Experiences

 My advice…

Attend  The Culinary Institute of America. Ha! No, this isn’t a sponsored post and I must say, it’s the only culinary school I’ve ever been to, but I’ll say it to anyone: it’s the best. My professors were the best in the industry; the facilities, kitchens, and bakeries had top of the line equipment and plenty of it (I never had to fight over a pot!); the classes not only make you a good cook, but a well-rounded individual that can manage a team; the extracurricular activities are never-ending (I attended everything from demos by Michael Ruhlman and Grant Achatz to butchery classes about Mangalitsa pigs!); and the networking you’ll do in less than two years in worth the thousands of dollars. Not only is the networking with your professors top of the line, but you’re going to school with the future Anthony Bourdain, Cat Cora, Duff Goldman, Amanda Freitag, Angelo Sosa, Todd English, and Michael Mina (all CIA alumni!)

Have any questions regarding attending culinary school? Leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer your questions in a timely fashion. 

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29 Comments

  1. The number 5 content is so funny but true because I kind of like just knew about this recently, “Graduating from culinary school does not make you a Chef.”

  2. JUCINIA FERREIRA says:

    PLEASE ANSWER MY QUESTIONS !!!!!!! OMG! this article is so darn helpful. i truly want to go to CIA but i’m worried that being an international student ( Canadian ) it would be harder to get in. also did you personally have to pay for your dorm rooms or did it come with being a student in CIA?

  3. Nidhi Shukla says:

    Hi..I am a vegetarian but I want to be a chef.. Is it possible?

    1. JUCINIA FERREIRA says:

      There are a lot of vegetarian chefs but its difficult because being a chef also requires cooking with different ingredients, for ex. meat. it also all depends on what you want to major in. BUT dont take my word for it because im only in grade 11 and i too want to become a chef. just do some research.

      1. same im also looking to go the CIA

  4. Ian Anderson says:

    The problem with searching “what to know before culinary school” is that every post is the same “you won’t sleep, it’s hard, etc”. What I was hoping to find was the kind of things that are good to know about the actual kitchen world before starting culinary school. I don’t know when you posted this or if you still check the comments, but if you had any advice regarding that sort of thing, I’m all ears!

    1. Denise Perez says:

      I was thinking the same thing. I want to know more things besides the same facts I always read.

  5. All round, I agree. I haven’t come across this view before.
    Continue the good work!

  6. I’m only in 7th grade and I’ve already decided that this is my dream school. But I want to know how difficult it is to get in. And how hard the classes are.

    1. The acceptance rate is 81%. So not that hard.

  7. What if you just really want to learn to cook, but don’t want to work in a professional kitchen? Is a culinary school right for someone with low ambitions?

    What classes would you say were the most important ones for you?

    I know is almost a year since you posted this, I found it on a google search. This is all really great information.

  8. Why did you chose the CIA? I’ve been pinging between JWU and CIA.
    & also did you have much experience before you attend the school?

  9. I’ve never been or even considered going to culinary school…yet I’ve been through a lot of this. In my world it was called ‘being a single mom.’ 🙂

    I’ve had tons of people ask me why I didn’t go to culinary school, why didn’t I start a catering business, why didn’t I open a restaurant. I’ll send them here. I like to cook when I feel like it for a small group; that does not transcend to your experience…but keep at it; you’re meant for greater things!

  10. Such a great article, Nelly. I have kept it in the back of my mind since you first posted it, and I just shared it w/a kid who wanted advice about culinary school. I gave him my 2 cents and then posted the link to you article.

  11. Thanks for this post! It’s nice to hear a positive experience about culinary school since the debate about whether to attend seems to go both ways.

    BTW – beautiful agedashi tofu!

  12. I found your post very helpful…I was considering enrolling in a program myself. What made you decide to get a culinary degree?. I would love to connect with you to learn more. Let me know.

  13. My friend is an alum and I just went to visit the New York campus this weekend–it was gorgeous! Now I have dreams of doing it myself… more likely I’ll take a Bootcamp weekend, since I’m pretty sure I want to be a food writer rather than a chef, but a girl can dream!

  14. Lots of people have NO clue what goes on behind those doors, and all the prep and training it requires. Great breakdown,.

  15. I go to Johnson and Wales in providence and it has a pretty amazing pastry program (culinary too)
    so no you don’t have to attend the CIA to be an amazing chef, but yes your list if pretty much correct 😛 although i have managed to avoid the famous freshman 30/15 somehow- probably living off campus helped alot.

  16. I love this! I’ve always been jealous of Real Life Chefs, and I wish I could go to culinary school (I have 70K in student loans from non-culinary schools) but this puts it all in perspective.

  17. Great post! I too, went to culinary school, the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, in 1983 for 16 months. Back in the early ’80s, there were very few women enrolled, about 25%. The instructors were all male, and all European and all SEXIST! I still can’t watch any cooking shows where there is yelling in the kitchen!

  18. Awesome post, Marnely! I’ve been contemplating giving up my day job and going to pastry school but I know it’s crazy hard work and little money. This was just the reality check I needed – you really really need to love it to do it. Good for you, girl, for making it through all the blood, sweat and tears!

  19. LOVE this post! My aunt went to culinary school (not CIA) as an adult, so I remember how hard it was for her to balance her family and her education. But totally worth it!

    Your extracurricular activity with the pig butchery reminds me of Cleaved, Julie Powell’s second book. As she was apprenticing as a butcher, she attended one of those Mangalitsa pig demos for CIA. I don’t know if I’m brave enough…

  20. Great post friend! Some of the same things could be said about physical therapy school! 🙂

  21. Excellent post on the reality of going to culinary school. I think a lot of people go into it blindly thinking they will have fun every day cooking and baking.