Friday, June 17, 2011

Guest Post: I Went to Cooking School (and Don’t Regret It)

Note: Michele, my dentist's assistant, knows what I do, loves to cook and, like so many of us, spends a good deal of time immersed in food and cooking media. So I wasn't at all surprised when she asked me if I had seen the book by a guy who wrote about going through The Culinary Institute of America. She didn't know the title or the authors' name so, I assumed that she had seen the book that Ruhlman had written ( The Making of a Chef) when I was still teaching at CIA. But after a few minutes of conversation, I got the impression that we were not talking about the same book. So when I got home I went online and, in like 2 minutes, discovered a blog post at The Culinary Librarian about a talk given by Jonathan Dixon, the author of Beaten Seared and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America.
I left a comment on the blog and in a few minutes was exchanging emails with Jonathan. (The web is thrilling still!) Later, I downloaded his book to my Kindle and was so impressed by his story and writing style that I asked him to guest post so that I could support his work. Bob dG

by Jonathan Dixon 
I am an author and a private chef. I am compensated for writing about food, and I am compensated for cooking it. I am also a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. I did not enroll there without a lot of thought and significant research. I weighed all the pros and cons. The essence of the positive side seemed to be the notion of a total immersion in the world of cooking and really, truly learning how to handle food. As for the cons...well, I found many, many screeds that took a negative point of view.

The crux of almost every argument against going to cooking school always comes down to this: the cost of tuition far and beyond outweighs the salary you’ll make in a restaurant kitchen. You (or your parents) will be slowly crushed under ten tons of debt while earning only a very little more than minimum wage. It’s when advancing this argument that anti-culinary school folk often start sounding like crotchety old codgers, explaining that they didn’t need cooking school—they did it the old fashioned way, beginning as a dishwasher and working their way up, and not wasting time with some fancy education that won’t ever pay off. This has always sounded to me like a variant on the old walking-to-school-barefoot-through-blizzards-uphill-both-ways trope and, even if there’s truth to it, whenever I hear the tales, my mind starts wandering and my eyes glaze.

In one sense, though, it’s hard to argue against the point. Restaurants are notorious for exceptionally poor compensation. And this leads to the oft-leveled charge that cooking schools take advantage of students’ ambitions, telling them they could very well be the next Grant Achatz or David Chang if they get an education under their belts (it’s worth noting that both are culinary school alums). There are class-action suits pending right now on this issue. Interestingly, no one has ever sued, say, the Universities of Iowa or Arizona for letting its MFA writing students believe one of them could be the next Denis Johnson or David Foster Wallace (both of whom did, in fact, get MFA’s). I, for one, once wished I could be the third guitarist in the Grateful Dead, a goal which sadly failed to work out, but a failure which has not made me consider litigation against my one-time guitar teacher.

But the keystone of the whole discourse is wrong. The underlying assumption of the entire polemic is that every student will wind up in a restaurant kitchen. I’d venture that’s where most students see themselves. Look at Achatz and Chang and their presence in the media and culinary worlds, read the strutting romance of Bourdain’s  Kitchen Confidential, and hell, where else would you want be but in a professional kitchen? Some will wind up there and it’s just where they are going to want to be. For a lot of people, that is precisely where they don’t want to be.

The food industry in America generates something like $900 billion annually. Restaurants contribute a good chunk of that cash to the revenue stream, but obviously not all of it. Where else does the money come from? Menu development, research, test kitchens, catering, writing, food styling, consulting, on and on and on and on. Someone needs to help write The Babbo Cookbook and someone needs to test its recipe for Beef Cheek Ravioli. The ribs and cornbread that got served at my girlfriend’s college reunion which we attended last week? Someone had to cater the affair.  Okay, yes—none of these jobs is as swashbucklingly cool as being a renowned chef. No matter how great she may be, Abigail Kirsch lacks the star power of a David Chang. But not everyone can be—or even wants to be—a star, and most of these jobs pay a hell of a lot more than a restaurant does. I have a gig cooking privately for a family in Manhattan. This means that I’m missing out on some exciting stuff. I don’t get the adrenaline thrill of service in full swing. I don’t get the intense camaraderie that comes from working with others in that situation. If the many war stories I’ve heard are to be believed, I am not having sex in the walk-in, nor am I doing lines of blow off of a server’s breasts. But, in one night, I might make what a line cook in the city earns in a week. Being a private chef may, as Anthony Bourdain has written, get me laughed out of any bar he and his confreres drink at, but somehow I suspect I’ll live.

Jean-Michel Basquiat never went to art school. Cormac McCarthy did not get an MFA. Thomas Keller did not attend cooking school. There is more than one way for anyone to reach his or her personal endpoint. And there are a whole lot of different endpoints to reach. If a culinary education is going to put one them that much closer to your fingertips, then why the hell not take the plunge?


Jessica said...

I went to university and got a degree which, seemingly, would not lead to direct employment in an easily defined field. I got a MA in behavioural science.
I got a job but it wasn't in a way I had imagined it would be. I got to use what I had studied somewhat indirect. I don't regret going to university, and now having student loans up over my ears but it was worth it. sometimes education isn't about what you'll be paid after graduation, it's about enhancing oyur mind. Education is not a waste of time and money. In the end, you'll figure out what to do with it all.

WineHarlots said...

The last paragraph was awesome. I think everyone tries to simpify life by saying there is only one true path to the destination. All roads lead to Rome, but there are many roads to get there.

Best Wishes,

Nannette Eaton

chef said...

I have begun reading your book over the past weekend. Needless to say I have found it hard to put down.
I am a currently a culinary school instructor in Austin (and formerly in Vermont) and I have been struggling with and arguing pro and con for both sides of this issue for years. I too graduated from culinary school, after having been in the industry for ten years and almost eight years after having gotten a bachelors degree in hospitality management.
I have had to deal with both sides: young self-taught cooks, and fresh faces straight from school. Both can be rewarding, and both can be as frustrating.
My arguments for culinary school have always been that culinary school can allow you the opportunity to get a broad base of basics quicker than if you spent time moving from kitchen to kitchen and from position to position. The key to this is that culinary school allows you the access to the education. What you take away from school will be entirely up to the individual. What I am finding is that there are more students going to culinary school these days with no experience or expectations or even motivation than there are students who have the initiative to succeed there.
In your book, you talk of how you spent hours in the library each day pouring over the books available, and working to succeed in every way possible. If only I had students like you. My current class consists of several career changers, six students fresh from high school, and several dilettantes who have no idea who Thomas Keller is, let alone Escoffier or Careme. And what’s worse is that for some reason, they don’t really want to find out about what they don’t know.
I have been struggling with this for weeks now as I see myself getting more and more frustrated with how the students’ attitudes towards cooking and food are nowhere near what I have experienced previously with new students or with new line cooks.
In fact, I have had unschooled line cooks who are more ‘foodie’, more motivated to learn, more focused than any of the students I have right now. (Not that I haven’t had my share of stoner, alcoholic, party all the time, Bourdainesque line cooks). Its just that I have tried to hire for motivation, not necessarily skill level.
Last night I read through the chapter where you talk about your fish chef and how even though he motivated with fear, he got you to want to learn. I personally would like to become someone like that.
On the flipside, my argument against culinary school has always been two fold. One, the money. From the inside, it is easy to see how monetarily focused the education business is. And it is not sustainable in its current form. Due to the education reform act recently passed, things are getting better, but not necessarily for the student or their future career. Number two is this, if you just go to class and don’t put in the work, then you are just wasting the time, and summarily the money you have spent. You have to be focused and milk the school, the educators, and the experience, for all it is worth.
You get out what you put in to it…ultimately.