I'm constantly amazed by the number of people who, after learning I went to culinary school, confess that they’ve dreamed of doing the same. “What's it like?” they ask with puppy-dog eyes, hoping to hear about some magical kitchen that transforms decent home cooks into world-class chefs.
Usually, I bite my tongue, and instead of launching into my rant about the rigors of culinary school, I just say, "It's a lot of fun—you should do it!"
But that's not exactly true.
While culinary school can be a lot of fun—not to mention very rewarding—it can also be a trying experience that will test you emotionally and physically like nothing else. So, it's important to know what you're getting into.
If you're a casual home cook thinking about going to culinary school, here are four things you should know before going down that road to professional chefdom.
1. It's Intense
Everything about a professional kitchen (even an educational one) is easily 100 times more intense than your home kitchen. Knives are sharper, stoves are hotter, space is tighter, and everything moves at a sprint-like pace. Even simple tasks like turning on a stove are much more difficult, and you'll be expected to figure everything out very quickly.
On my second day of cooking school, I asked my chef where the pots were, because I needed to get water boiling to de-skin some tomatoes. He simply looked at me and said, “You should be done with that by now,” and walked away. He wasn’t trying to be mean—he was just letting me know that the pace in his kitchen was quick and that I needed to catch up.
On my third day, the first thing I did as I walked into class was grab a pot. You learn to adjust to the pace, and eventually it just feels normal.
2. You're Going to Get Hurt
With a pace like that, injury is almost inevitable (especially for beginners). Everything in the kitchen is hot and sharp, and it's just a matter of time until you cut or burn yourself pretty badly. Everyone does it, and you learn to be ready for it. Before class, I would grab Band-Aids, finger rubbers, and burn gel out of the first aid box and keep them in my pocket so I wouldn't have to waste time later while I was cooking.
You’ll face a lot of emotional trials as well, and at some point you’ll probably just want it to be over. I vividly remember calling my then-girlfriend in near tears, telling her I didn't think I could go on. I was physically and emotionally drained, my hands were burned, bloodied, and scarred beyond recognition, and at 5 PM each day, I had to leave my day job to stand in a 500 degree kitchen for six hours where an angry French gentleman would stop me every five minutes to tell me how terrible I was at cooking.
I was lucky enough to have someone in my life who was there for me emotionally and who pushed me to keep going, and it’s very helpful to have a support system. But just know that everyone feels this way, and you'll get past it. It's part of the process.
3. Cooking Will Take Over Your Life
While you might be thinking, “Cooking already takes over my life,” this is a little different than burying yourself in cookbooks and spending all your free time in your kitchen. You'll start to find that, slowly, all you really think about is cooking and what's happening in school. Even your language will change, as culinary vernacular slowly infiltrates your everyday life.
This is kind of a great thing, but just know that it’s less great for other people in your life who aren’t as immersed in cooking as you are. One time at my day job working for a tech startup, our CEO asked if I was prepared for an upcoming meeting. I quickly snapped, “Yes, chef,” and we both walked away slightly confused by what had just happened. Your life will just seem like a kitchen, and everything you start to do will be perfect kitchen behavior.
4. It Won’t Make You a Chef
Regardless of what school you attend, no culinary school will give you the golden ticket to becoming a chef. You will become a badass cook, but culinary school is really all about learning the basics. You’ll have the skills to continue to learn and push yourself to cooking greatness—just don't expect to be throwing down against Bobby Flay anytime soon.
But the great thing about a culinary degree is that you can use it to do so much. For example, while you may not be a top chef, you can walk into most top restaurants and get a job (the lowest job on the totem poll, but still, a job). Or you can go into catering, media, writing, whatever—the options are really endless, and having a culinary degree makes it easier for you to break in.
I decided not to go into the culinary world after graduating, but I still found the experience incredibly rewarding. It was hard for a thousand different reasons, but ultimately, I know that I have a life-long skill that will always be useful and that I was able to became the best cook I could personally become. (Just don’t call me a chef.)