Borelli & Boye: On culinary school
Is culinary school for you?
Editor's note: Executive chef Jennifer Boye of the Mansion on Delaware Avenue and her sous chef, Dan Borelli, have teamed up outside of the kitchen to provide answers to reader-submitted questions that are culinary in nature. You can catch them here, on BuffaloSpree.com’s Yum blog, at least once a month.
Question: I'm wrestling with the idea of going to culinary school. Any advice?
Borelli: I think it's worth considering how my—or anyone else's—answer to that question would affect your decision. When a student can successfully bring suit against Le Cordon Bleu, a cornerstone of culinary education for over a century, for misrepresenting salary statistics and job prospects, it's a sign that something has gone sideways.
To me, paying for something you can learn for free seems like the exact opposite of having "street smarts", which I think might be the most valuable thing someone can possess in a kitchen or in life. Anything you can learn in a restaurant, you can learn on the clock.
Granted, those first paychecks will only be enough to barely keep you fed and clothed, but will you really be in a different position than someone who just dropped $100,000 or more to learn how to tie a neckerchief? No one graduates from culinary school and gets a job running a kitchen the next day, right? It’s not like law or medical school or even other vocational training programs, where you can graduate directly into your chosen profession. Regardless of your training, you're going to start at or near the bottom rung, and you’ll have to climb the ladder. If you're motivated enough to do that, to take shit, to think critically on your feet, and eventually move up, you can do it with or without a degree.
And when you consider the debt you're likely to incur attending a top program like Johnson and Wales or the Culinary Institute of America (tuition in excess of $37,000 a year, for a four-year program), and then weigh it against the industry’s starting salary (minimum wage varies by state, but...), the idea of receiving any sort of return on your investment begins to sound absolutely fucking crazy. Embarking on a low paying, consistently stressful career with the hope of someday making decent money was a lot easier for me without the constant, nagging burden of massive loan payments.
Almost all great restaurants around the world accept stagiaires, which, while unpaid, definitely present eager young chefs the opportunity to apprentice under some real heavy hitters, train behind a functioning line, and get their foot in the door. Committing to a degree in the culinary arts without having spent some time actually sweating in a hot, smelly, nightmare of a kitchen seems a bit like getting married to someone before having lived together. Until you see someone at their worst, it's hard to gauge if they're really for you.
Personally, starving to death was all the incentive I needed to start taking cooking seriously. I followed a pretty clichéd trajectory: went to a liberal arts school, flunked out like an idiot, needed to find a way to support myself, washed dishes, chopped onions, made salads, etc. I don't think it's a coincidence that you've seen an increase in creative, interesting cooking around the country since the economy tanked in 2008 (the year I would have graduated, incidentally). Kitchens seem to have transformed from a haven for the otherwise unemployable, to a place where smart, creative people—who normally could have used their bachelor's degrees in history or philosophy to secure jobs pushing pencils or attaching do-dads to whattzits, before those jobs disappeared completely—can go and earn a respectable living.
Many of my favorite chefs happen to be self-taught. They also happen to be the sort of people who have far-reaching interests in things outside of the kitchen. Again, I don't think that's a coincidence. It's a skill that unfortunately can't be taught or learned, no matter how rigorous a curriculum: a basic, natural curiosity about the world around them. They are people who read books, go to museums, look at art, listen to music, stay informed about the world, travel ... as corny as it sounds, they seem to understand that life itself is intended to be one, long sustained masters class. And the food they make reflects it. Which is not to say that school stifles this impulse, but it does teach students someone else's idea of good food and good cooking, at a time when many people are at their most impressionable.
I'm not saying culinary education is a bad thing, but it's not the only way to get behind a line and succeed. Who could ever argue with that?
Boye: I find myself having conversations with cooks about culinary school more than you might imagine, and I'm always presented with the negatives:
So many recent culinary grads are coddled and cocky.
The whole "culinary school breeds egomaniacal young cooks" theory never really held much weight with me. You're a new student, with little or no professional cooking experience, you're placed in a kitchen, and you're told to cook for instructors that know a hell of a lot more about the subject than you do. The experienced chefs/instructors then critique your food, no-holds-barred. If that isn't, at best, a humbling experience, then I don't know what is. The second I encounter a recent grad who thinks he or she is hot shit, I know I'm dealing with someone that has a personality flaw or two, and I also know that those flaws were most likely present long before they decided to pack up and head off to college. No amount of culinary school accolades or pats on the back can turn a student with humility into a bigheaded blowhard if that trait wasn't bubbling just under the surface in the first place. Blaming their schooling is basically a way to ignore the fact that this particular candidate won't be a good fit for you or your kitchen, whether they went to school or not.
Students can spout off about Escoffier and Careme until the cows come home, but they can't properly cook a steak. Is that really worth the expense?
The Culinary Institute of America is expensive.
Johnson and Wales is expensive.
Community colleges that offer culinary programs are not. If a student has a hefty college fund set aside (or is willing to pay back decades' worth of debt upon graduation), the pricey schools may be alluring and attractive. That's not the only option out there, however. The less expensive schools are a nice choice for people who know they are interested in cooking, but aren't sure they want to invest tens of thousands of dollars on an education in a job field they may later decide to back away from. And, yes, these schools do fill you in on the history of professional cooking, which, believe it or not, is pretty valuable information. Cooking is steeped in tradition and, though such traditions may seem antiquated at times, it's the backbone of why we butcher, prepare, and cook certain foods and dishes the way we do. Having this information in your back pocket, combined with a part-time kitchen job or internship that can help you grow creatively and develop your own culinary personality, gives you the opportunity to be a well-rounded, practical and thoughtful cook. In time, you'll not only know how to correctly cook a steak, but you'll know why you did what you did to get there.
Why would you spend money on formal schooling when you can learn it all in the "school of hard knocks"?
There's a reason why you'll hear a lot of cooks tell you that they often don't have the time for extra-curricular activities: they don't. Imagine throwing a dinner party for a hundred of your closest friends every single night. That leisurely coffee date with your BFF might have to be put on hold for a bit. There are obviously examples of that very idea in the work kitchen as well. A chef may have every intention of teaching a new hire how to cost out a menu or properly order inventory for the upcoming weekend, but your door is about to be knocked down by hungry guests in two hours and there are still four hours of prep work to complete. This is where some pre-existing knowledge comes in handy. A new hire that can tell me the profit margin of the dish he's prepping—while simultaneously following proper sanitation procedures, for example—has a clear advantage over someone who can't. Culinary school can give a student a handful of tools to help them succeed, but perhaps the most valuable is time. That's basically what a student is paying for, isn't it? The time to devour books, the time to ask questions and receive satisfactory answers, the time to fix a mistake if one has been made, thus avoiding the same one once they get to work. If all of that class time has been put to good use, it'll save their chef/employer a tremendous amount of time.
Is every cook who graduated from culinary school going to be stellar? No, and neither is every cook who didn't attend. However, I've found that something pretty great happens when: a) you choose a field of study you're truly interested in and passionate about, and: b) you're hardworking and ambitious. You actually acquire knowledge! And a knowledgeable candidate is a desirable one, plain and simple.
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Chef Boye is a Buffalo native and a graduate of ECC’s culinary program. Boye spent years cooking in various kitchens around the greater Buffalo area before choosing to spend the last eight years as the executive chef at the luxurious and stately Mansion on Delaware Avenue, a boutique hotel well known for its exquisite accommodations and wonderful food. Boye is a Nickel City Chef and has cooked at the James Beard House. She is also a partner in the well-loved Fables Cafe, which is located in downtown’s Central Library.
Chef Borelli has a real penchant for distinct flavor profiles and won the 2013 Nickel City Sous Chef competition. Locally, he really began to make a name for himself among his peers when he penned an insightful story that ran on BuffaloEats.org earlier this year.