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Posted: March 28, 2013

Half-baked dreams

'Tis the season for deciding futures

Laura Cook Newman

How do you know spring has sprung? You might look at the calendar or out the window – seems logical enough. I personally sense the seasons have changed by two indicators:

  1. Neon yellow Peeps flank every end cap of the neighborhood Walgreens
  2. High school seniors are a bit on edge – well, more so than usual – as they await news from their college of choice.

As a former admissions officer, I know firsthand the anticipation that surrounds the receipt and subsequent thickness of the envelope. I recall tearing into that fat manila envelope many years ago and exclaiming, “I’m goin’ to culinary school!” My parents, however, were less than thrilled. They ranked culinary school right up there with attending community college or enlisting in the Marines (I’ll let you decide the order).

At the time, being a chef was a blue-collar gig. August Escoffier’s (aka “The Grandfather of Gastronomy”) reign was 100 years prior, and most people didn’t put too much stock in food service as a legitimate career path. Guidance counselors envisioned my future as a tired line cook with a Lucky Strike dangling from my lips, making SOS at the local greasy spoon. “You need a degree for that?” they’d say, frown lines deepening across their foreheads.

Just as the culinary arts were at their darkest hour since Ron Popeil’s invention of the Showtime Rotisserie (“Set it, and forget it!”), along comes the Food Network. Emeril “Bams!” us with pork fat, and Paula Deen butters us up with biscuits. Early on, to reassure viewers that the network had some credibility, they’d finagle a cameo from Jacques Pepin or Wolfgang Puck.  But if it weren’t for this motley crew of celeb cooks, the culinary artists of the world might be asking, as my elders predicted, “Do you want fries with that?”

What a difference 20 years makes! Culinary arts education is big business now. Google “Culinary School” plus your zip code, and a robust list appears. In Denver alone there are three schools where you can hone your knife skills (four if you include Boulder). That’s great for the industry but bad for lazy teenagers who are considering enrolling because they once made peanut butter cookies in Home Ec; “Skippy” won’t last one week in culinary school.

Those who thought I was practically shipping off to Parris Island weren’t far off. We suited up in our pressed uniforms and steel-toed boots and were given weapons in the form of French knives. We were ready for battle, alright – the battle against odd-shaped vegetables and unruly poultry.

I survived this boot camp of sorts. I now make a comfortable living with my culinary diploma in tow – skills that I actually use everyday – which is more than I can say for my high school BFF with her Bachelor’s in Sanskrit. Namaste.

While watching Chopped, you might hear your teenager contemplate “I’m thinking about becoming a chef.” Don’t panic. Gaze into my crystal ball of predicted outcomes:

  1. This is a phase, like when he wanted to learn to ride the unicycle and enroll in clown college. It will pass.
  2. His dreams of chefdom will fall by the wayside after discovering that the mandatory 3 a.m. baking class starts on time. He’ll pursue his other passion, Doctor Who, and become a renowned Time Lord.
  3. He will conquer his culinary dreams, audition for Top Chef and star in his own show: BBQ’s, Bars, and Burgers (aka “Triple B”). Eat your heart out, Guy Fieri!

Or in all likelihood…

  1. During his culinary school tenure, he will incessantly moan about how hard it is – then proceed to land a great job, never go hungry and reflect back on his time at culinary school as the best two years of his life!

Good luck, seniors (and parents!). Fingers crossed that the thick envelope of your choice arrives in your mailbox this spring.

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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Readers Respond

Whether it is culinary school or beauty school, decisions that impact the future are always exciting and difficult at the same time because something important is on the line ..... your future. I think it is important to make that decision with the best information you have available, do what is best for what you, make the most of the decision and don't second guess. Plus, if it doesn't work out at least you will have a great smelling kitchen to fall back on. By Roy on 2013 04 01
Dear Shoes, Sandy is right. There's a ton of risk in a kitchen. I have the scars to prove it. (side note - never catch a falling knife.) Proper footwear is exactly why we can't consider Guy Fieri a real Chef. The dude wears flip flops in the BOH. Yes, that's right...flip flops...and shorts. He's dressed like a Cabana Boy at Ed Hardy's house. "Shoes for Crews" are a good brand for slip resistant. However Orange Crocs are not (sorry Mario Batali). In culinary school the cool kids wore Doc Martens to be bad-ass. Today, I wear Danskos clogs -not slip resistant, but heavenly on my arches. By Chef Laura on 2013 03 30
Mr. Skippy - Have Skippy Junior pursue her passion - be it Culinary school or otherwise. Go for the Associate's degree and reassess after that. Her initial interest in food may lead to management, marketing, teaching, food science, nutrition, etc. I'm not a big advocate of the 4-year culinary degrees (which do exist). Go for the 2 year degree and then start WORKING in the field (experience = education), while she continues her formal education towards her Bachelor's in a complementary area of study. Make sense? CL By Chef Laura on 2013 03 28
Apparently "I like shoes" (and who doesn't?) never saw the Friends episode where Monica dropped a knife, slicing off part of Chandler's toe. Too bad he was wearing huaraches instead of steel-toes. Love the article, Chef! By Sandy on 2013 03 28
Chief, probably a silly question but why steel toe boots? Being a risk averse person I can understand the need for slip resistant soles, gloves, and sometimes goggles but steel toes are usually for lumber yards and factories, can't quite imagine a toe crushing injury in a kitchen! By I like shoes on 2013 03 28
My "Skippy" is considering culinary school. I worry that she will not receive a well rounded background by focusing for only two years on just the industry. Do you think it is wise to get another degree, say an associates before/after culinary school to help broaden her education? By Skippy's Dad on 2013 03 28
Great article Chef Laura! Keep 'em coming. By Chef Wanna Be on 2013 03 28
I don't know if this is advice to go to culinary school or to avoid it. Either way, funny stuff. Keep it up. By Culinary Dropout on 2013 03 28
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