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S5 E5 – Do you have to go to culinary school to be a chef?

There are such a huge range of food establishments out there from michelin star restaurants to food trucks but what is required of chefs these days and should the standard vary according to where they work? Ben, Mike and Jamie discuss this idea in this week’s podcast. Warning: There’s also an added conversation about cheese sandwiches that might go on for far too long…

Best soundbite: “What’s a chef de partie, are you a chef de party? Are you gonna call the cops and end de party?” – Mike Huttlestone

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33 Comments

  1. AlyssaCapocci

    Both me and my boyfriend went to college. I went for baking and he went for Culinary. But despite our degrees we both had trouble finding jobs right away. Most people in our area were looking for more experienced people. Even though my labs were centered around preparing us to work in the real world, no one cared about the diploma they wanted to see some work experience. I currently work in an amazing little bakery. And the owner also went to School for both baking and business. But one of my coworkers has simply been working there since she graduated high school. And she does an amazing job. She has truly learned the way they do things and does it extremely well. BUt if she were ever to work anywhere else she may not be able to adapt. Every place does things differently and having that foundation allows you to better adapt to the changes.

  2. mcali0317

    Late to the game, but I’m in the industry and I went to CIA for school. I loved it there, although I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone. One can learn so much from just being in a kitchen, that I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone.

    To me a chef is someone who runs a kitchen, they don’t have to own it but if they make the menu, see over daily tasks, then they are a chef to me. They also don’t need a certificate of any kind to get to that status.

  3. Phelan

    As most of what people think. Qualification, skills an experience make a chef.
    Cooks are people who like to cook but don’t dedicate themselves to learn the skills, experience…

    In Australia most chefs spend 3-4 days in the Kitchen, 2-3 days in Trade Schools. Usually a TAFE(Technical and further education) or University will supply the teacher’s time to pass on the skill. They’ll then spend the time learning the experience behind the skills.
    The teachers give the Restaurant and head chef the itinerary for skills based on weeks. So they know how to push their new apprentice to master the skills they learn.

    My best mate did that for 5 pay slowly increasing by his years of learning. He also was taught in the first week, get a iron and board. Learn how to iron your shirt and pants. If you’re not spotless white in shirt, crisp checked pants and polished boots. Your not entering the kitchen..

    Having both been in the Air Cadets. We knew how to iron, we also had the discipline to stand for long times..

    So yeah Cooks might have the energy to cook but do they know how to make a basic roux, someone asks for 300g of Holy Trinity vegetables. Do they know what vegetables to use and how to prepare.

    Chef’s tend to know things by name, Cooks tend to need a recipe for it first.

    Chef’s tend to have OCD tendancies as well. Everything needs to be in its place. Repetitive actions mean less time to do something..

    All the chef’s I know of or follow tend to explore the world based on food flavours..
    Cooks tend to have a passion for food.

    I’m a foodie cook but trained as Barista. I got taught how to bake bread for a year by a Baker of 30 years.
    My neighbor of a decade was a Sous Chef at a Vineyard Kitchen. I learnt how to make stews, to grill varying meats or how to pair wines into dishes based upon what you’re trying to impart..
    My best mate of 20 years told me how to deal with Seafood or Pasta.
    Even with my knowledge I wouldn’t call myself an Apprentice Chef. I haven’t learnt the basics and put my time on the line.

    You respect your teachers by gaining the knowledge and skills, then putting your time in the kitchen. You earn their respect and like a fledgling you’ve earnt your ability to fly from the nest..

    Army Cooks learn it all on the job, they don’t sit in a classroom. They learn it via the cuts and burns and feeding 200 people. They still only call themselves cooks. The chef’s get called that by earning the respect of the others and it’s a title bestowed by peers of learned persons

  4. Ursookrazie

    I currently work in the industry as a baker with a degree in restaurant management, but I did want to attend culinary school for a good portion of my childhood.

    I was always in love with being in the kitchen since I was little and considered myself a home baker. I never got the chance to attend culinary school, but I saw that my college had Hospitality and tourism management with an emphasis in restaurant management. That was the closest I could get to what I loved to do so I switched over to study that.

    I still continued to bake at home and found myself baking large quantities of desserts and elaborate cakes for family and friends. I looked for jobs that involved working around food. I worked in a small empanada shop and I worked in the kitchen on my college campus.

    After graduating, I searched for a long-term job. With my experience in the kitchen in college, I thought I would only qualify for prep-cook positions. But I still applied for baker positions since that was my passion. And I got one!

    I started as the person who made the cookie dough and brownies. Even though I was more interested in cake decorating and more elaborate bakes, I was still ecstatic about having the job title, “Baker.” A few months later, I get promoted to the position that bakes and decorates cakes.

    I still can’t believe I got to that point with no culinary education even though there are a few of my coworkers that went to Le Cordon Bleu. But credentials or not, we all love what we do and would continue to do it wether we had the credentials or not.

  5. Smidge

    My husband went through chef training with a local institute aimed at giving teens from vulnerable populations a great foundation for a career in the field. He had an extraordinary passion for food and I loved seeing him light up as he talked about the future he hoped to pursue as a chef. However, having to take standard fast food jobs to pay the bills utterly destroyed his passion. Customers rely on what you provide and then take you for granted or outright abuse you for providing it, and that’s to say nothing of the management. However, chefs higher in the ranks have their own issues with burnout, overwork and worse. In many cases, substance abuse is commonly relied on to cope. There is a lot behind providing our food that we examine, like country of origin and ingredients, but in both prepared food and ingredients, we seem to be plenty aware of the human toll but reluctant to do anything more. I wonder if that might be a follow-up topic or a segment in a future episode.

    When you love doing something that fills a basic need that you yourself rely on to survive, how do you balance artistry, passion, presentation and compensation with what consumers are willing to accept, knowing that all humans must eat?

  6. angiec79

    I work in the industry and have for many years. I went to culinary school and while I never regret it, I do often wonder if I would have been better off just working in kitchens as an apprentice. My time in school was very valued but I feel my previous management positions are what really gave me the leg up. I had those prior to going to school. I don’t think school is necessary, but agree with Ben that it is helpful in learning theories and discipline. Call yourself a chef if you’ve worked in a kitchen and led a team, otherwise you’re a cook. Chef is a form of Chief, so I think there is a management aspect needed to call yourself a chef.

  7. theanita1

    In Luxembourg the person doing the cooking in a professional manner must have done an apprenticeship or have a qualification – this even counts for food trucks; whenever we have food truck festivals the majority of the trucks come from the surrounding countries. I think this intense regulation stifles creativity.

  8. Margusenock

    I am not a native English speaker (obviously…:)) but I have my own definition of Chef and Cook. Chef = education+passed certification+dedication, skills, passion, hours of work. Cook = Chef – education.
    Home cook is me:)

    When it comes to restaurants, cafes….I do value education (in here I mean not only university but also a special cooking school). Even if someone is extremely talented and super creative, can cook complicated stuff and even work in a fancy kitchen, I would still feel better to call this person a Chef when this particular person has special education and certification. To me it’s not just basic knowledge, it covers deeper aspects such as hygiene, health and safety. Of course, just by having a piece of paper you don’t become the best of the best, you will still have to work hard, believe in yourself and be passionate in what you do.

    I appreciate and value a lot amazing input and dedication of people who work hard day and night without special culinary degree, I saw self-made own trained “gods” in certain fields and this is awesome. Ferran Adrià was a good example, he is unique. He is like an amazing artist with great management skills, who has build an extremely professional and strong team that helps him grow and be the best. (I feel bad that I did not have a chance to visit el Bulli when it was still open…). But people like these unfortunately are so rare …

    At the same time, if I want to cook some healthy meal (not baking, baking is a different area to me, here my creativity is getting crazy), I would probably watch video of “normals” because they are more close to my level and my skills. They speak my language and don’t use “saint tear drop of golden bear from abandoned area of Alaska” type of ingredients. They use simple stuff, make it fast, easy and tasty. And at the end of my cooking adventure I don’t feel that bad after failing :)))

    P.s. Have nothing to do with the industry but I have a close friend from high school who is a main Chef in one of the best chains of Russian restaurants. His farther is a well known Chef as well who runs one of the most expensive restaurants in Moscow. I remember us being in school and a friend of mine was already then working daily in a kitchen next to his farther. His dedication was insane. He was hungry for work, ended up living in Spain, then came back to Moscow, and now moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg where opened 6 restaurants. One of which is specialized in brisket. He was one of the first chefs in Russia (from what I know) who went to Texas to learn how to build a smoker and cook meat. Needless to say that when he cooks meat, well…. mmmmm….Looking at him, how he works, what he does, how passionate he is… it’s just amazing. People like him inspire me a lot.

  9. Kelreese21

    In the Philippines, many have undergone a small course for cooking not the full education degree and they can be called chefs already.

  10. posion_me_daddy

    Great topic and great discussions as always!:) Love how Mikes shirt match with both his mug and part of the table

  11. Dimi

    I don’t work in the industry, so I don’t have much of an “insider” idea. But I do have a lot of confusion with the whole, chef vs cook thing. I know 2 people “in the industry”, but not very well/don’t talk to them often. One went to culinary school, and now works at a very high end Melbourne Cafe making delicious breakfast and brunch style food, but she refers to herself as a cook, not a chef. I also know a guy that went straight into an apprenticeship in one of Melbourne’s best restaurants, learnt from some great Chef’s. And he currently does not work in a kitchen and is working in another industry completely, but still refers to himself as a Chef. Ability wise, I think they are just as good as each other.
    Is it an ego thing? Is it about where in the kitchen you’re working? I’m not sure?

    • Dimi

      Amendment: The chef I was talking about that no longer works as a chef is a guy I work with, today I decided to ask him his opinion on this because I’m still curious. His take was: Cook is an occupation, Chef is a title. He also insists, only someone with an actual qualification can accurately call themselves a chef. Anyone that is working in a kitchen, no matter how long they’ve been doing it for, or how skilled they are, is a cook, as that’s the occupation, but only those that have gone through the training (either via school, apprenticeship traineeship etc) and have a qualification can call themselves “Chef”. I asked if this was a specifically Australian standard and he was adamant this was a world wide accepted standard.
      When I pointed out that this all sounded a little elitist his argument was that when he’s working in a kitchen, if he hires a “chef” he would expect to be able to ask them to fillet a whole fish or *INSERT a bunch of french words I’ve never heard before and a couple I have but can’t remember now HERE* and he would expect they know what that means and be able to do it competently, and understand why and how they are doing it. Whereas a cook might still be able to do all the same things, but without the qualifications might not know all the terminology, or they might know how to do something but not be able to explain why they have to do it that way.
      He also pointed out that technically, anyone could call themselves a chef, there is no legal implication to calling yourself a chef when you haven’t had training, and no one is really “checking”.
      I don’t know if this made me less confused or more…

  12. Character

    Love this episode! I run a market stall and have this conversation often with the people who run the food trucks. I sell baked goods so consider myself a baker. The food truck guys mostly consider themselves cooks and not chefs except for the ones who run food trucks that are offshoots of brick and mortar restaurants. Really interesting topic.

    • Margusenock

      Eh….. you are living my dream. If one day I fail at my job, I will open my small cafe. Have a name already, actually have a company registered in Finland for that purpose but then life made a ruff turn so I ended up in Spain for a while… have a concept in my head already :))) I guess it’s a matter of time…:))

  13. joelistic

    Interesting topic, as I am working in the industry for 7 years. I have a background in the industry as I am have a Bachelor in Hotel and Restaurant Management. I started as a kitchenhand and worked my way as a cook. Been in different establishment such as hotel, restautants and coffee shops but then I don’t consider myself as a chef.

    I do agree that working in the kitchen does not need qualifications as anyone can cook but do they have what it takes to rise above and be a chef? It is like the difference between a job, a career and a calling. A cook can know the techniques and copy what is needed for the dish but a chef can discover and input other ingedients or techniques to elevate the dish. While a master chef or someone higher than a chef can specialise on that dish and make a menu out of it.

    For me a chef knows how to combine different ingredients and make it work and make a new dish out of it. Techniques can be learned out of school but having a knack to take apart ingredients and combine it with others and make something new out of it is chef-y. Also, in my opinion a chef is someone who has an expertise on a certain field in the kitchen such as bread, pastry, savoury, pasta or noodles. And someone who gains and give respect for the hard work to his subourdinates.

    In conclusion, it is obvious that most of these are just my opinions about the said topic. I don’t want to be a chef but I would like to own my own business someday which is kind of ironic for me.

  14. JoRo

    Good topic, lots to think about.

    I worked in the industry (greasy spoon and high end kitchen for a summer season) for a few years while at university and the only certification I have that relates to food is the basic food hygiene. The industry wasn’t for me, however I met such a variety of people working with food and sharing their passion for food, some had qualifications as chefs, some had worked their way up through kitchens and honestly the only thing that matters is that they are passionate about food.

    Putting on my teacher hat now, I work with students with special educational needs, and as you said about Jamie Oliver, they can excel in practical, hands on learning, but get them to sit an exam or write essays they are completely out of their depth and will panic and there is a high probability they could “fail.” However if they are passionate about something they can talk eloquently about it and honestly talk your ear off about it. A massive part of the problem from my perspective is how we assess, for some reason, regardless of subject, we still insist on there being some type of long form written assessment, which for some people is great it’s their time to shine, for others it’s pretty much impossible, when you are having to medicate and go to therapy in order to sit a written exam or submit a supporting essay with course work (in a subject you are passionate about) that’s got to be a sign that something in the system in flawed? The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve seen some talented young cooks actively avoid seeking out further academic training in catering/hospitality because of their fear around assessments, and honestly it’s heartbreaking because they then felt a career in the industry was not in their reach.

    Overall I guess I’m saying if you can and want to gain a qualification via culinary school as a chef, great! However it can’t be the only route as it would rule out so many people and ideas, which is what I think Ben said, isn’t it?

    • Sorted

      Pretty much yeah. So interesting to hear you dabbled in the industry- thanks for sharing!

  15. Donna_D

    This is a great topic. I work in the food industry and have colleagues that are certified chefs. I think you have to work your way up to being called chef even if you have accreditation. The title is very much a form of respect. You can definitely work your way up to being a chef and in someways that may be beneficial as it gives you a greater understanding of and compassion for the other rolls in the kitchen.

  16. suebarnes

    In some countries, (Scandinavian ones spring to mind) people are paid a living wage regardless of the profession or professional qualifications they have including the hospitality industry. It makes eating out expensive, but it is also considered a worthwhile career. The industry is therefore not understaffed. The profile of hospitality in this country and across the pond needs to be elevated

    • Sorted

      That’s amazing. Has it affected the demand of consumers eating out at all?

  17. SammiJMB

    This was a lot of fun 🙂 I did a Catering GCSE at school in the ’90s, though I only came away with an E – I love learning perhaps as much as Ben does, but I struggle when it comes to tests and assignments to demonstrate what I’ve learned. I was the pupil who would try to think of the less predictable options for the in-class assignments – for example, if it was pastry week everyone would be making eclairs or choux buns while I made baked apple dumplings out of shortcrust. For the rice assignment, instead of risotto or chilli, I did baked stuffed peppers!

    I haven’t gone into the food industry, but seventeen years ago I was working in the Fresh Meat/Fish department of a major supermarket – I could recognise cuts of meat on sight, and I could fillet both regular and flat fish. I don’t think any of the butchers I worked under had formal qualifications, but had just learned the skills after leaving school.

    • Sorted

      Butchers/ Fishmongers/ Bakeries are an area we didn’t get a chance to tap into sadly but would be amazing to know more about those worlds and how you become established.

      • SammiJMB

        It’s pretty basic in the supermarket world, really: I started working in the Chilled section initally, with responsibility for keeping the Bacon fridge stocked and rotated. They then reassigned it to the Butchery team, and me with it, but I was also expected to help out behind the counters. So I had to pack the meat cuts for the Butchers – there was a production line setup and you had to be able to recognise each one by sight without prompting – and also deal with any customers at the fish counter, so I had to learn to fillet, descale etc. as well.

        It’s been seventeen years since I last did that, so it would take me a little time to refamilarise myself with what the cuts look like! I can probably still just about fillet a dover sole though 🙂

      • SammiJMB

        The butchers I worked under, from what I gather, picked up the trade from high street butchers and meat factories before applying to the supermarket. One of the guys moonlighted at a factory, breaking carcasses down, for extra cash.

  18. Lynzilla

    Another fascinating discourse, gents!
    My dad was an engineer, and he had this saying: “Anyone can build a bridge, but it takes an engineer to build a bridge that can barely stand up.” This can be applied to pretty much any profession, for to be successful it is important to understand not only the HOW, but the WHY.

    I also feel I deserve some sort of accreditation for watching all the Sorted videos. That kind of dedication deserves some manner of pretentious acronym that I can put after my name!

  19. Foolofatook919

    Great discussion. I feel like this applies to a lot of careers and vocations. Especially in America, there is a push for everyone to have a degree in something but not all of these degrees actually qualify you for well paid jobs. Even the degrees that do require with it a load of experience that you typically don’t have time to get while you are busting your arse to get school done. I think what makes degrees in vocations such as cooking great is what Ben mentioned about the hands on and experiential piece of the education. All higher education degrees should be adjusted to include much more hands on and experiential learning so kids aren’t leaving college with a lot of book knowledge and no real world experience. At the same time, can that experience and education all come from on site experience and higher education be unnecessary for some types of jobs? Or maybe should vocational schools or apprenticeships become more of the norm? I think this should actually be higher priority for us to figure out as so many people are living with enormous amounts of debt from their student loans these days and still struggling to find decent work in their fields of study.

  20. Anya Lampesberger

    Love the topic! I’ve worked in the industry for four years, came into it with no qualifications whatsoever and worked myself through the different areas – service, bar, and kitchen. During my time I completely fell in love with food and the industry surrounding it, and even though I’ve moved on to get an education in a very different field at the moment (and wish to work in that field professionally), I still have it as one of my pipe dreams to qualify as a chef (i.e. go to culinary school or go through an apprentice scheme as it is common in my home country) one day. I’m mainly interested in learning about food from a ‘chef-y’ perspective, knowing what to do with different ingredients, how to put together a dish, knowing the background behind certain things you do in a kitchen. (Basically what Ben said; I love education, what can I do) I don’t necessarily want to own my own restaurant (though that would be cool), but I’ve always wanted to work in a professional kitchen environment as a chef.

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