Professional Culinary Education, America Eats, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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cooking class at cooking school

A typical hand-ons day at an American professional cooking school.


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Professional Culinary Education
The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is the most prominent school of cooking and food service in the United States. When the school began in a storefront in New Haven, Connecticut in 1946, professional cooking was mostly a matter of hit-or-miss on-the-job training. The CIA, and a few other professional culinary schools, would, over the course of just a few decades, change cooking from what had been a low-end craft occupation into a highly respected profession. The school expanded rapidly from its modest original base, eventually in 1970 purchasing a 150-room former Jesuit seminary in Hyde Park, New York, then later expanding to Greystone, California in 1995. Fully accredited, the CIA gives both two and four year programs in culinary and pastry arts as well as a wide variety of professional continuing education courses in food service and hospitality management.

The CIA, which costs about $27,000 a year to attend, including on-campus accommodation, has impressive facilities, including nine bakeshops, 33 classrooms, four gourmet dining rooms, five public restaurants, 32 teaching kitchens and two amphitheaters. Frequently the subject of television features, magazine stories and newspaper articles, the CIA (not to be confused with the United States Central Intelligence Agency, which has the same initials), stands now as one great of the arbiters and standard-setters in contemporary American cooking.

Michael Ruhlman’s 1999 book, The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute is both a tribute to and dissection of the rigorous hands-on education the CIA insists on; the job is physically dangerous (cuts and burns from splattering goose fat are only some of the hazards) and physically and emotionally exhausting. Career CIA students start with the basics, epitomized by the laborious process of making veal stock, a mainstay of traditional cooking. To arrive at a complete understanding of their role in tomorrow’s kitchens, they arrange dinner service and wait on tables in one of the institute’s several restaurants. The uniformed students follow military style discipline.

Johnson and Wales University, with a main campus in Providence, Rhode Island and satellite campuses in Colorado, Florida and North Carolina, maintains another highly respected, fully accredited culinary program. Depending on career goals, the would-be chef can earn a two-year associate’s degree in culinary arts or baking and pastry, a four-year bachelor’s degree in culinary arts, baking and pastry arts, food service management, food service entrepreneurship, food marketing, or culinary nutrition, or follow a one-year master’s degree program in hospitality administration.

The Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, founded in 1975, specializes in diploma courses that, though demanding, push new chefs into the market in a year or less. Many other schools follow a similar model, dealing frequently with students who may already have college degrees in academic subjects and want to get right down to the cooking. ICE offers 26-week full-time diploma programs in culinary management, culinary arts and in baking and pastry arts, as well as similar weekend-only programs that cover the same material in 31 to 39 weeks. Tuition for a full-time ICE program runs about $24,000, not including the cost of New York City housing.

ICE listed areas of study are fairly typical of most programs: baking; beverage management; buffet catering; controlling costs in food service; culinary French; culinary skill development; food preparation; food purchasing; food service communication; food service math; garde-manger; international cuisine; introduction to food service; kitchen management; management and human resources; meal planning; meat cutting; meat fabrication; menu and facilities design; nutrition; nutrition and food service; patisserie; restaurant opportunities; sanitation; seafood processing; soup, stock, sauce, and starch production; wines and spirits.

At California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, California, a large school that advertises extensively on a national basis, students can follow the Le Cordon Bleu Pâtisserie & Baking Diplôme Program, or the Le Cordon Bleu Hospitality & Restaurant Management Diplôme Program, with options for short-term and accelerated training. The school offers extensive facilities including four bake shops, a fully-equipped catering service, classrooms, a computer laboratory, a demonstration laboratory, a food production kitchen, a gourmet dining room, three learning resource centers; lecture rooms, a library, a public restaurant, 17 teaching kitchens and a café.

New York City’s French Culinary Institute handles more than 1700 students at any one time, featuring prominent celebrity instructors like renowned chef Jacques Pépin, celebrity pastry wizard Jacques Torres, wine expert Andrea Immer, and legendary restaurateur Alice Waters. The school’s facilities include six classrooms, a computer laboratory, a demonstration laboratory, a food production kitchen, a gourmet dining room, a lecture room, a library, a prominent public restaurant and six fully equipped teaching kitchens.

The New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, with 800 full time students, offers ten-month certificate programs in culinary arts and baking and pastry arts, with several longer programs in restaurant and hospitality management. The school arranges six-month paid internships for its students after they complete instruction. Tuition per year ranges from about $9,000 for certificate programs to $19,000 for degree programs.

Scores of other private culinary schools promote and advertise heavily on food television, in cooking magazines, and have presences at food shows and vocational and educational fairs. In addition, public colleges and universities, especially those specializing in vocational training, may have extensive hands-on opportunities in cooking, baking, food service and restaurant management and in hospitality management. While the local and state technical and vocational colleges lack the prestige of the major private schools with their celebrity chefs and frequent television coverage, they offer excellent educational facilities at little, or in some cases, no cost except expenses for uniforms, books, and necessaries like knives.

The cooking school experience is widely covered in American media and on television. Culinary education certainly attracts a large number of young people, but it also appeals to older people who wish to change careers, many of whom dream for years of following a full professional course before finally getting around to signing up.

Despite the wide level of available schools and courses in professional culinary education in the United States, and its related fields of food service and hospitality management, the needs of the industry are so great and growing so quickly that qualified workers are often difficult to find. Because of this fact, graduates of these schools are much in demand. Pay is low for beginners and the work is hard, but few fields offer as much job security and possibility of career advancement for the serious practitioner. Most people in the business agree that cooking school is a good start, but that on-the-job experience is necessary to turn the enthusiast into a true professional. Graduates work not only in restaurants, but in catering, industrial feeding, hotels, the food industry, and, in a growing trend, as private chefs.