Due to the incredible popularity of a culinary education and working as chef in today's world, it seems as though there are culinary schools and educational facilities popping up everywhere. In any of the larger U.S. cities, there are literally dozens of culinary options to choose from, and even in smaller cities, students can hop on board their local community college to get a culinary degree.
Culinary and food preparation jobs continue to expand at the current market rate, so getting a culinary education is a great idea for many individual looking to find secure employment. However, when it comes to making a choice for school, the sheer number of options can be intimidating. Do you go for the low-cost community college cooking school, or the more prestigious but pricey culinary institute? If you only intend to learn how to cook to build your personal skills (and not your professional ones), is it better to find a short program, or to take a full training course?
While no one can answer these questions for you, it is best to first know how culinary education works. When it comes to the world of food, there are three primary categories of training: culinary schools, cooking schools, and cooking classes. Learn what the differences are and what they mean for your future in the kitchen.
Culinary schools are generally the quickest route for becoming a professional cook. They include culinary institutes, colleges, universities, community colleges, and technical schools. Most of their culinary programs are geared toward preparation for professional work in the field (ranging everywhere from entry-level to work to restaurant management).
Programs last anywhere between 9 months to four years, depending on the speed and depth of the program. Students move through basic knife skills to specialized culinary training and techniques. You graduate with a diploma, certification, or degree from the school – which, if the school is a recognizable name, carries its own weight in terms of your marketability as a culinary professional.
In addition to your culinary training, you may be required to take business courses, communication classes, humanities studies, and even science or math classes. At the end of your program, you may have an Associate degree, Bachelor's degree, or a culinary diploma from your school. Master's degree programs also exist for those who wish to continue on past the Bachelor level.
The costs of culinary school depend on what type of school and program you choose. On the low end of the spectrum, community colleges can cost as little as $3,000, while private four-year universities and some of the more recognizable culinary institutes can exceed $50,000.
Cooking schools are educational facilities that do not offer any sort of higher education degree upon completion of the course, although they may offer a school-based diploma or certification. Educational courses are geared at an amateur level, so although the education offered from a cooking school might be excellent, most of the students are there to boost their existing personal or professional culinary skills, not start a career.
Cooking schools often operate as a smaller department within an established culinary school. For example, you may attend evening classes as a school that offers degree programs during the day. However, you may simply not be on the same track as the professionally-minded students. Instead, students in the cooking school classes are typically there to boost a specific skill, renew skills they learned in the past, learn traditional cooking techniques for their own personal edification, or boost team-building skills for the staff in their existing kitchen.
In fact, it is this diversity of student make-up that distinguishes a cooking school from a culinary school. Although you can choose from a variety of programs and program lengths (ranging from a few weeks up to a year), most students will not have the overriding goal of culinary employment, as you see in culinary schools.
Cooking classes are a sort of continued education in the culinary world. They are offered from a variety of sources, including big-name culinary institutes, cooking schools, private facilities, and even personal chefs.
The ultimate goal of a cooking class is not to provide a foundation for a career, but to enhance skills in a very specific subset. For example, you may take a four-week course (usually one or two evenings a week) in Thai cooking, or a one-time lesson in knife skills. Costs vary, but typically run between $50 for a one-time class to several hundred dollars for more lengthy programs. They are often taught by working chefs who teach in their downtime as a way to share their knowledge and make a little extra money.
They differ from cooking schools primarily in their short duration and concentrated effort on a single subject. They almost never come with a diploma or certification.
Perhaps the most important feature of your culinary education is what you want to get out of it. You may be looking to eventually become a certified chef through the American Culinary Federation, or you may simply want to boost your skills but aren't yet sure if you want to cook as a career. Either way, you need to determine your goals now – before you make the investment in your education.
Always bear in mind that culinary schools may use any combination of the terms institute, school, and classes when describing their programs. You often have to look at the actual set-up of the programs to determine which category of school it really is.