The other day I got my first loan invoice. Suddenly, the adrenaline-fueled decision I made less than a year ago didn’t seem so great. Nine months of culinary school for $20,000—was it worth it?
I’ll soon find out, as will my 14 classmates at the Institute of Culinary Education.
We all signed on for different reasons. A former executive traded in a fat salary to open her own wine and cheese bar. A flight attendant left the friendly skies for something more exciting. I was growing weary of my publishing career and wanted to learn a new skill. Plus, I really love food.
What you don’t learn until after you’ve plunked down your tuition and donned your chef’s whites is that it’s harder than it looks. I have trouble remembering how to make a perfect hollandaise, and when I cut into a piece of steak, I still pray it’s cooked properly.
On the other hand, culinary school can demystify some of the magic of the kitchen. I can now make pasta from scratch, and I’ve learned that the secret to making perfect poached eggs is to stir the boiling water into a whirlpool before dropping in the egg.
But even the most intensive culinary program can’t adequately prepare you for the chaos of a real restaurant kitchen. I learned this the hard way when I volunteered to work for a night at a restaurant. My diced tomatoes were too small, I burned the croutons, and I nicked myself slicing a shallot.
Don’t think that culinary school will give you an open door to a glamorous and high-paying career. An ICE grad I know got laid off from a popular midtown eatery—where she was earning $9 an hour. Another classmate lucky enough to snag a paid externship (most are unpaid) at a three-star restaurant, earns just $70 for a grueling shift of up to 12 hours.
And chefs won’t necessarily be impressed with your culinary certificate. “A lot of people come out of school with a ridiculous dream that they’re going to be like Emeril,” says Herb Wilson, executive chef of Bull Run in the Financial District. “That’s like saying, ‘I want to be Michael Jordan; I’m taking up basketball.’ ”
Wilson allows that school does give students knowledge of the basics—for example, what mirepoix is (the holy trinity of onions, carrots, and celery).
“But when you get out of school, you won’t get anywhere near a stove in any major restaurant,” he says. “You’ll probably be relegated to doing prep work or serving up soup until you prove yourself.”
If this notion doesn’t scare you, you’re in luck. New York City has three culinary schools, and is only a few hours from the Rolls Royce of cooking schools, the Culinary Institute of America (800-CULINARY, ciachef.edu) in Hyde Park, New York, which offers bachelor’s and associate’s degrees. But for someone who wants an education or career change more quickly and for less money, it’s best to opt for one of Manhattan’s schools, where you can get a culinary certificate in less than a year.
The Art Institute of New York City (ainyc.artinstitutes.edu) is easy to get into—all you need is a high school diploma or a GED. Located on the Tribeca/Soho border, the school has nine kitchens. This summer, the school will also open a working restaurant—one that won’t be open to the public, but will function as a restaurant-simulation lab. At about $20,500, it’s a pretty good bargain, considering that pays for more than 1,000 hours of education, either full- or part-time, including 242 hours at an off-site externship.
Further east lies the French Culinary Institute (212-219-8890, frenchculinary.com). It has a good reputation among city chefs and boasts alumni like Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill and Wylie Dufresne of WD-50. It’s the shortest program, with 600 hours of classes that can be taken either during the day or evening. But starting at $25,750 for tuition (to go up to $30,500 in 2004), it’s also the most expensive. While the FCI’s program does not include an externship, the school has a restaurant open to the public, L’Ecole, and the last two levels of class are spent working in its kitchen.
The Institute of Culinary Education (212-847-0700, iceculinary.com), formerly called Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, is in Chelsea. Unlike the Art Institute and FCI, which only require a high school education, ICE applicants must have two years of college or two years of work experience, not necessarily in the food-service industry. Tuition for a culinary arts diploma is $20,000. You can choose from a morning, afternoon, evening, or weekend schedule, and while most programs run five days a week, the school offers three- or four-day sessions. The 610-hour course includes 400 hours of classroom instruction, and 210 hours at an externship.
No matter how many potatoes I have to peel at my Washington Park externship, I’ll only have the smallest twinge of regret when I write out my first loan check. How else would I have learned how Joe’s Shanghai makes its soup dumplings? (Answer: Start with soup that’s been chilled until it is gelatinous.) If that knowledge isn’t worth it, I don’t know what is.