Is Culinary School a Rip-Off? Well, Kind of.


Yesterday, Time dared to ask the question that many debt-ridden graduates already know the answer to: Is culinary school a rip-off?

This certainly isn’t the first time the media has posed the question. Last fall, it arose following news that the California School of Culinary Arts, which is a branch of Le Cordon Bleu, was (and still is) involved in a class-action lawsuit with some 800 current and former students who claim the school misled them to believe they’d somehow be able to immediately find nice, well-paid chef jobs right after graduation and pay off their loans before they hit retirement age.

Time quotes one hapless CSCA student who’s $80,000 in debt and isn’t sure he’ll “ever be able to pay it off” while working jobs that pay $10 to $12 an hour — which is what the vast majority of restaurant workers earn.

While the story doesn’t really add anything new to the conversation — we’ve already been told, for example, that TV is to blame for the delusions of many a would-be Top Chef — it does point to the great similarity that culinary school shares with many other forms of higher education: the practice of paying for connections, and of gaining access to a club that promises to take care of its members.

So is cooking school worth the money? It depends why you’re going, and what you expect to gain from the experience. Based upon our own time at the French Culinary Institute, we don’t really think so. For $38,000 — which we will be paying off for several more years — we got a nice-looking piece of paper and access to the school’s job listings. Most of these, of course, are for minimum-wage positions we could have found by applying directly to the restaurants themselves — or looking on Craigslist. Most of those restaurants, incidentally, are far more interested in your work ethic and ability to not lose your shit under extreme pressure and temperatures than whether or not you have a diploma.

Because as just about any sullen, stoned teenager who’s worked a summer kitchen job knows, you do not need to go to school to peel potatoes or run bucket after bucket of tomatoes through a slicer. You will not learn anything at cooking school that you won’t learn in a kitchen, aside from, perhaps, the arcane French ritual of shaping potatoes into perfect 2-inch-long footballs. Your money will, however, get you the one thing that almost no restaurant job, however well-paid, will afford you: the luxury of making mistake after mistake without much in the way of consequence. Except, of course, those many thousands of dollars of debt you accrue.