Do you have a passion for food and enjoy preparing it?  Are you inspired by the food-based reality television shows and channels?  Are you considering a career in the field of culinary arts?  Although it is a demanding, tough and competitive field – for some it can become a creative outlet that is both rewarding on a personal level as well as a professional level.

Earning your degree from a culinary arts program is not the only way to get into the culinary arts field.  Matter of fact, we asked several top California restaurants which culinary arts schools were on their radars for top candidates and an overwhelming majority said that there is no substitute for hands-on experience.  Although formal training may allow you to start out as a prep cook rather than a dishwasher, it is also important for those interested in pursuing culinary arts to know that this is what they really want to do.  The culinary world is a fast-paced, exciting, yet often very stressful environment – not everyone is cut out for it.

The culinary arts professionals that we spoke with were consistent about a couple of things when it comes to their industry.  Chef de Cuisine at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, Joshua Whigham, stressed the importance of passion.  “I want to see the hunger in their eyes!  The understanding of which – they know nothing.”  Chef/Owner of Flea Street Café, Jesse Cool, agrees with Whigham.  “We love it when we get someone who is there to learn,” she says.

Cool adds that where someone has worked and how long they stayed there is an important factor.  “We don’t necessarily look for people who have been through school as a number one reference,” she adds.  Sous Chef at Yoshi’s in San Francisco, Matt Shepherd, echoes Cool, “There is no substitute for hands-on experience in a professional kitchen.  I started as a dishwasher at 17 and moved my way up the culinary ranks for seven years before enrolling in culinary school.”  A number of other professional chefs reiterated these points.

Charlie Soule, chef/owner of The Soule Domain for the last 28 years, typically hires kitchen employees at the bottom of the ladder.  Soule did not attend culinary school himself – he worked his way up and expects his employees to do the same.

So how do you ensure that you are properly prepared for a career in the culinary arts?  Listen to the professionals.  If you have not already worked in a professional kitchen, find one that will take you on.  Many chefs prefer to have an apprentice or someone new to the field that is eager to learn.  The skills involved in culinary arts can be taught, whereas the attitude it takes to succeed cannot.  Because you will work closely with others in fast-paced, ever-changing high-pressure situations, work experience also proves you have the communications and social skills to be part of a team.

Be patient, yet eager to learn and soak up all that you can while you figure out if this is truly your passion.  Have a very clear understanding of what it is you are committing to.  Don’t underestimate the time and dedication that it takes to have a successful career in this profession.

Once you have gotten a feel for the industry, perhaps even found a niche (maybe baking or pastry) that excites you, and you believe that enrolling in culinary arts school is the next step for you –figure out which is the best fit for you!

California boasts one of the most extensive lists of culinary schools in America.  “Options range from the International Culinary program at the Art Institutes, The Le Cordon Bleu campuses, as well as over 30 city colleges all over the state offering culinary programs,” says Shepherd.  Whether you are an aspiring chef fresh out of high school, or a working professional wanting to add to your resume with additional credentials, California offers a range of educational institutions to match just about anyone’s criteria.

View a list of culinary arts schools in California >

Check to see if the school you wish to attend is accredited.  The American Culinary Federation (ACF) is the foremost professional chefs association in North America.  The educational arm of the ACF, the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation Accrediting Commission (ACFEFAC) assures that a program meets at least a minimum of standards and competencies with a thorough evaluation of their curriculum, facilities, teacher-student ratios, instructor certification and more.  Accreditation helps you to ensure the quality of the curriculum.  Although the ACF is the most common agency that grants accreditation, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology and the International Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education are others.

Chef Whigham advises, “Culinary schools are a tool to learn the trade of cooking.  It is really up to individual who attends them if they truly want “it”!”  Just as with any other educational program, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.  When you are passionate and determined to make the most of your education – you will walk away with valuable skills and knowledge that will help you to achieve your career goals.

Find a school that is not going to place you in a financial bind.  As you work toward your goal of earning your certificate or degree, keep in mind that entry level positions don’t pay the big bucks.  If tuition tops your list of criteria, know that there are many community colleges that offer ACF accredited programs at reasonable prices.  For instance the accredited culinary arts program at Santa Barbara City College costs state residents just under $2,000 per year.  Again an education is what you make of it.  An excellent culinary arts education does not need to break the bank.

In an interview with CookingSchools.com, Chef Walter Potenza was asked if he believed there was a difference between graduating from a prestigious culinary school as opposed to a college with a culinary program.  He replied, “Absolutely not.”  As other chefs we spoke with said, Potenza believes that, “The art of cooking is embodied in someone.”  Passion and an understanding of what it takes are vital to making the most of a culinary education.

Don’t let the cooking craze fool you.  As the popularity of the Food Network and shows such as “Master Chef” and “Top Chef” increases, so has the interest in culinary school.  In order to keep up with the interest and demand for educational programs new culinary schools are beginning to appear all over.  Although newer schools can provide as valid an education as the ones who have been around for a while – there are a couple of missing pieces.  Accreditation is evaluated over time and takes into account the track record of the program.  Things such as how many students enroll as opposed to graduate.
Schools that have been in existence longer also offer a broader network of alumni.  These contacts can prove priceless when graduation time nears and the job hunt begins.  The longer a school has been around, the more graduates it will have working in the culinary world as executive and sous chefs – the ones that handle the hiring.

The impact of this evolving industry.  As the culinary world expands and grows, so do the tools and equipment used in the industry.  This may impact the facilities found in older schools.  Although some community colleges have been around longer and offer better connections and accreditation, their classrooms and kitchens may not be up to date because of smaller budgets.

Visit the schools that meet your criteria.  See for yourself what type of experience and equipment their kitchens offer.  Meet with and talk to the educators and staff.  Get a feel for their experience and expertise in the field.  This will directly affect the quality of your education and training. Often, instructors specialize in a specific aspect which will be beneficial to those interested in pursuing that particular concentration.

Make sure that you can roll up your sleeves.  Keep in mind what the professionals heralded as important to getting into and succeeding in this industry – hands-on experience.  A good culinary program should offer its students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience either through an internship, apprentice program or better yet a student run facility that will give them a sense of the real world of culinary arts.  This means providing students with the ability to work in the same stressful, busy environment that they will find when they enter the workforce after graduating.

FindTheBest, a website that provides unbiased, data driven information on a variety of things offers users the ability to compare several culinary arts programs in California.  You will find the name of the school, location(s), tuition costs, concentrations and degrees offered, accreditation, how many students are enrolled, whether it is public or private and all of the information you will need to contact the school.

As we found in talking to a number of professional Chefs, the majority of restaurants care less about the specific culinary program that you completed and more about your overall experience, ability, work ethic, and passion.  Gain some hands-on experience working in different types of restaurants with different types of chefs, cuisines, and establishments.  Even if it’s washing dishes – get some practical experience. Talk to people in the field and make sure it’s what you want. Visit local chefs at the type of places you’d like to cook.  Engage them in conversation and ask them their advice before you dive into a culinary program.

View a list of culinary arts schools in California >