Culinary School Vs Working Your Way Up - Which Is Better?

In 2018 there were approximately 64,370 enrolments in cookery qualifications in Australia according to National Industry Insights. Over half the enrolments were for commercial cookery qualifications with the intended occupation Cook or Chef, while another 38% were intending to become Kitchenhands.

This seems like a good thing as Tourism Research Australia’s latest Australian Tourism Labour Report projected skill shortages, particularly for Chefs and Cooks, into 2020. But are qualifications from a culinary school really what employers are looking for?

Employment in restaurants and cafes (where the highest proportion of chefs are employed) is expected to grow by 16% by 2023, so the chefs of tomorrow need to be trained somewhere that’s for sure, but where?

More and more people are chasing the dream of becoming a chef (probably due to shows like Masterchef and My Kitchen Rules) and one of the first questions many ask is: Is formal institution-based training actually worth it? For an industry with infamously low starting wages, often formal education just doesn’t have a pay-off when you compare the cost with how much you will earn back.

There are also those that argue it does little to prepare you for the ‘real world’ with training run by those that often lack practical industry experience. Many industry employers say they value practical experience over formal qualifications. Even more say that the passion to succeed and attitude towards learning is far more important than any certification.

At the end of the day, certified or not, all chefs will have to prove themselves in the kitchen. Many young cooks attend culinary school, then realise they still need to work the prep station for days on end, at entry-level pay, and through weekends and holidays on top of that.

Of course, there is no one-size-fits all answer to this long-debated question. It depends on your own situation including what your alternatives are, how much the school itself may cost, what you want to do ‘when you grow up’ and your attitude towards learning.

Some chefs say if someone else is going to pay for it – go for it! It’s a luxury that will make life easier. Culinary schools are a great way for people with no experience to get their foot in the door, you can become an excellent cook at culinary school (but not a chef).

Perhaps it’s also worth talking about apprenticeships. These can be rare but an invaluable way to get started in the industry as you learn how to apply techniques in a high-pressure setting. You can also test your willingness to learn and love for the culinary arts.

Basically, no matter which option you choose you will need to be willing to learn, show tenacity and perhaps be prepared to start form the bottom of the food chain. Are you already a chef? How did you get your start in the industry?

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