Do I Need a Degree to Become a Chef?
The culinary arts are unique in that no formal education is required to get started—however, you may find that learning on the job is slow going. A degree from a culinary school is beneficial in more ways than one, and could get you moving on a faster path to achieving your goals. An associate or bachelor’s degree from a professional culinary institute could provide a more comprehensive and structured education, covering topics in food safety, nutrition, and business management. This is especially helpful for those aspiring chefs who dream of opening their own restaurant someday.
What is the Difference Between a Cook and a Chef?
Both are professionals who prepare food, but there are many key differences in their responsibilities and roles.
A cook’s responsibilities may include preparing ingredients, following predetermined recipes, and ensuring that the kitchen is clean and organized. They may work under the direction of a chef or a kitchen manager.
A chef’s responsibilities include managing the kitchen, creating menus and recipes, supervising and training kitchen staff, ordering supplies, managing budgets, and verifying the quality of dishes before they are served to the customer.
A chef has more authority than a cook, as well as autonomy—the freedom to create culinary masterpieces rather than prepare routine meals from a menu. While every restaurant has cooks, not every restaurant has chefs.
What Could an Aspiring Chef Learn at Culinary School?
Culinary school could provide the education needed to bypass decades working as a cook. You could expect to learn a wide range of skills and techniques at culinary school:
Culinary Skills & Techniques
- Mise en Place
- Kitchen Organization
- Cooking Principles & Methods
- Baking & Pastry Fundamentals
- Fabrication of Meat, Seafood, Poultry
- Applied Culinary Nutrition & Healthy Cooking
Advanced Culinary Arts
- Plating & Presentation
- International Ingredients, Methods, Cuisines
- Garde Manger
- Culinary Artistry
- Advanced Baking & Pastry Arts
- Recipe & Menu Development
Culinary Operations Management
- Kitchen Sanitation & Safety
- Purchasing & Storeroom Management
- Supervision for Food Service
- Dining Room & Service Management
What Level of Education Do I Need to Be a Chef?
An Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts degree could be a great starting point for an aspiring chef. Throughout this academic degree program, you could be exposed to everything listed above, and participate in culinary labs, immersive workshops, and even industry externships—working alongside a real chef in their restaurant.
You could earn an associate of applied science in culinary arts in as little as 15 months, with the right culinary institute.
Does Culinary School Teach Soft Skills, Too?
‘Soft skills’ refers to skills like communication and patience. It is one thing to have practical knowledge, but another to be able to effectively work with others and provide exceptional customer service. These skills are just as important to your success on the job.
Soft Skills of a Professional Chef:
Ethics: We’ve all seen TV’s favorite chef, Gordan Ramsey, pop off at … well, everyone. His particular brand of rudeness makes for entertaining television, but it wouldn't get you far in a real culinary setting. Verbally abusing kitchen or wait staff won’t earn you ratings—it'll get you fired! Save the sass for binge-watching, and treat your fellow restaurant workers with dignity and respect.
Communication: communication is a huge part of a chef’s world; whether you’re talking to a 19-year-old busboy on his first day, a head chef with decades of experience under her belt, or a restaurant customer. It is crucial to be clear, concise, and of course, professional.
Collaboration: Hand-in-glove with communication is collaboration. As a chef, you rely on your fellow kitchen staff to help prepare ingredients, cook dishes, plate and present meals, and send them out to the customer at just the right moment. This can be surprisingly challenging in a busy kitchen, but the only way to get the job done is to work together. So, stay ethical, communicate clearly, and treat your fellow workers with professionalism and respect—you need them.
Dedication: The culinary arts are not static—far from it. As tastes and trends evolve, so does the menu. You would do well to continue your education after graduation, reading culinary publications, following relevant industry blogs or social accounts, and even earning certifications. Continuing your education and improving your skills demonstrates your commitment to culinary excellence.
What to Expect at Culinary School
It’s scary to try new things! To ease any fresh-start anxiety, we’ve spelled out a typical culinary arts degree experience.
As a freshman, your only job is to learn the fundamentals! This includes history of the food service industry as well as the present culinary environment. Your instructors will emphasize time management, studying skills, research methods, technological tools, and teamwork. Your coursework will likely cover the components of taste and flavor profiles.
What else could I learn in my freshman year at culinary school?
- Culinary skills including knife work, safety, sanitation, stocks, and thickening/binding agents
- Kitchen essentials such as sanitation requirements, food safety regulations, culinary mathematics, food costing, recipe scaling, and more
- Culinary techniques for making amazing soups (purees, creams, broths, chowders, etc.), classic sauces, and contemporary sauces
- Culinary fundamentals like dry heat, braising, stewing, frying, and steaming, and more
- Dietary adjustments including recipe modification for allergies, food science, roasting, grilling, poaching, pasta, and dressings
- Culinary nutrition principles to accommodate special diets or healthier alternatives, using the USDA Food Pyramid as a guide to nutrients; recipe modification, weight management, and current nutritional trends
- A La Carte best practices including a la minute methods, preparation of fish, seafood, shellfish, and bivalves, and more
- Baking & Pastry basics such as bakeshop equipment, weights, measures, quick breads, yeasted rolls, pies, cobblers, laminated doughs, and French pastries
- Meat Must-Knows like butchering, charcuterie, sausage making, meat preservation, and more
What could I learn in my sophomore year at culinary school?
- Front of house skills including dining room organization, opening/closing procedures, customer service, table setting, and tableside cooking/carving
- Chef & Leadership need-to-knows like the history behind modern management methods, current best practices, goal setting, motivation, problem-solving, staffing, and scheduling
- A La Carte skills such as recipe development, conversions, plating techniques, revenue management, and more
- International food characteristics, standards, presentation, and menus
- Garde Manger combines food and art in dishes like charcuterie, hors d’oeuvres, sushi; special events, buffets, and display pieces
- Advanced Baking & Pastries is your chance to get creative with confections, ice creams, cakes, icing, chocolate, garnishes, and plating of desserts
There is no year three!
An accelerated degree program in culinary arts could have you starting an apprenticeship or externship at this point in your studies—and you could complete the degree program in 1.5 years.
Your externship experience is aimed at improving cooking skills and techniques under real-world pressure. Students can benefit from a broader view of the food service industry as well as the experiences and wisdom of the professionals you encounter. You may want to consider joining a professional association of chefs, such as the American Culinary Federation, Inc. or the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Is Culinary School Worth It?
If you are passionate about food, love to prepare and serve meals to others, and dream of spending your days in the kitchen, then culinary school could be a great step for you!
Where Can I Find an Accelerated Culinary School?
ECPI University’s Culinary Institute of Virginia offers the associate of applied science degree in culinary arts at our locations throughout Virginia. You could earn this degree in 1.5 years at our campuses in Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Richmond.
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