Is Chef School Cool?
November 20, 2008 10:31 PM   Subscribe

I want to become a better cook, is chef school the nuclear option? As a child, my mother insisted that I do the eating and not the cooking. Despite her best intentions, I ended up quite clueless on how to cook. In college, I improved by cooking for myself and quite enjoyed it. I just graduated from college and I'd like to pick up a tangible skill on the side and attend chef school. The reason is because I've only been cooking for 2-3 years and would like to improve faster than the oh-just-keep-at-it-and-it-comes-with-age-and-experience rate.

SO, collective mind:
1) Is cooking school going to improve my skill? I am not "gifted" at cooking nor do I cook all the time. Am I going to have the rude awakening that unless I enjoy cooking all the time or have some innate skill, I'm doomed?
2) Is it possible to do cooking school in the evenings while holding down a fulltime job?
3) Does anyone know the prices/good chef schools in Austin? I've looked at Texas Culinary Academy and the Cordon Bleu Program. I don't know anything about them or their prices.
4) Can anyone who has gone to chef school give advice to the casual cook who doesn't plan on being a chef at a restaurant the cost/benefit analysis of going to chef school?
posted by bodywithoutorgans to Education (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The Culinary Academy of Austin has weekend courses for home cooks to sharpen their skills. I'd suggest the techniques class, the stocks and sauces, and the knife skills class for sure--that's great basic knowledge for someone looking to take their cooking to the next level.

My sister looked into culinary school at one point and generally the full programs require quite a bit of work that wouldn't necessarily allow for a job; the programs are very intensive.
posted by padraigin at 10:38 PM on November 20, 2008

do weekend courses or week-long retreats or maybe even internships at a restaurant or bakery when your basic skill level has improved. culinary school is not just overkill for you, but very expensive overkill, as it can cost as much as getting an undergraduate education at a private university.
posted by lia at 10:46 PM on November 20, 2008

Everything that I've heard about going to culinary school full-time is that you should only do it if you (A) REALLY REALLY REALLY want to be a chef and/or (B) Have a buttload of extra cash.

Many chefs work their way up from the kitchen, eschewing culinary school altogether. And going to culinary school does not ensure a degree. I'm mentioning this to emphasize that culinary school is not like a community college, it is a serious financial investment and likely overkill for anyone who is not going to do kitchen work professionally.

Take a course or two that interests you or weekend courses, but full-on culinary school is not a good idea.
posted by Anonymous at 10:53 PM on November 20, 2008

I think that before you try a chef school, see if there are some cooking classes in the adult education program at your nearest community college. I've taken a couple of those and found them to be very useful. (I learned how to stir-fry in such a class taught by a chinese cook.)

Try getting your feet wet before you dive in.
posted by Class Goat at 11:14 PM on November 20, 2008

My advice? Buy a bunch of cookbooks, read a bunch of recipe sites, and don't bother going to cooking school unless you want to make a career out of it. Cooking is something you should do because you enjoy it -- it's not a "skill" that's going to be worth picking up if you don't.

I guess that's true of most things?

This site (and this site, and this site) are pretty awesome -- I don't think any of these people are professional chefs, and they all clearly love food (SK also has some decent technical advice, though there are probably other resources on the web that serve just as well). Guaranteed to get you excited, if cooking is your thing.

And hungry! Yum!
posted by puckish at 11:17 PM on November 20, 2008

Read this excellent book, The Making of a Chef: Mastering the Heat at the Culinary Institute. It's a wonderful, quick read and you'll get a taste (sorry) of what you'd be getting into with culinary school. You'll also be able to compare your passion to some of the people's in this'll help guide you where you need to go.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:17 PM on November 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was given the chance to go to a knife skills course as a present for my high school graduation. Seriously, even just that class gave me a passion for cooking and a set of skills that will both last my whole life. Before you do anything else, you should try something along the lines of what padraigin suggested and see how it sits with you.

Honestly, though I know you specifically mentioned you wanted to learn quickly, the best way to learn how to cook is to cook. Any classes you're going to take will just give you techniques that you then have to practice and apply. If you want to learn faster, just take some short courses and cook more!
posted by malthas at 12:15 AM on November 21, 2008

I think what you're calling "chef school" is culinary school, which would involve quitting your job. It would be like getting a Bachelor's degree in order to learn a language. Start with cooking classes.

I'm pretty sure the Whole Foods at 6th and Lamar has cooking classes. I passed a sushi place yesterday afternoon that does classes. In Austin, you should have no trouble finding all kinds of options, all of which have the potential to be really interesting and will lead you on to ever more interesting things.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:46 AM on November 21, 2008

I think you ought to clarify you goals a bit. If you don't cook regularly, why do you care how fast you're improving? Is it that you want to be able to impress your date with the occasionally fancy home-cooked meal? Is it that you want to eat pancakes every Sunday? Are you trying to achieve expert status or simply overcome a feeling of incompetence?

In any case, you're going to have to actually cook. You can read a lot of theory, but this is no substitute for seeing and touching and smelling while doing. Whether you need basic instruction in knife skills, how to boil and saute, etc. or you want to dive into more advanced projects, there's endless free information online. Browse, for example, the Egullet Culinary Institute's offerings. Pick a topic that seems within reach, gather the materials and equipment, and give it a go.
posted by jon1270 at 3:14 AM on November 21, 2008

I know people who have done long cookery courses (like 3 months full-time, or a year of night classes), and all they seem to get out of it is a bunch of recipes, and familiarity with hollandaise and bechamel sauce.

If you want to cook fancy food:
1. Buy and study cookbooks by chefs you admire
2. Practice and experiment in your home kitchen
3. Save up for fancy restaurant meals so you can taste how the masters do it

Heston Blumenthal became the world's second best chef in exactly this way.
posted by roofus at 4:20 AM on November 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

find a community cooking class rather than going to cooking school. cooking school is great for people who want to be chefs and caterers but probably overkill for the home cook.

buy a good beginner's cookbook. i'm a huge fan of mark bittman's "how to cook everything." read it. i mean, really read it. take a weekend for it. it's a cooking textbook as well as a recipe book. try stuff as you read. this is how i learned how to cook, and i had no inclination or talent for it while growng up.

also, it sound silly, but watch the cooking shows on food network and pbs. it will teach you quite a bit.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:30 AM on November 21, 2008

Graduating from TCA is in the area of $50k total. And it's not just cooking, it's a complete bachelor's degree that meets all the state requirements.
posted by mad bomber what bombs at midnight at 5:05 AM on November 21, 2008

Three years ago my wife and her two best friends signed up for six weekly cooking classes conducted by the chef at one of the better local restaurants. I recall these were on Monday nights when the kitchen was closed otherwise.

They felt like they'd really hit the jackpot, especially since the first thing the dozen class member got at the beginning of every lesson was a glass of good wine. Refills were also provided throughout the sessions.

And, of course, they got to eat what the chief prepared and discuss the food as it was being made.

My wife, who really embraced cooking like never before about five years ago, said these classes were excellent, because she learned a lot of things that the chef mentioned almost incidentally that streamlined her own cooking process. These were comments that she'd never read in books, seen on cooking shows, etc. This chef was apparently very entertaining as well.

You might see if there's a similar class offered where you are. Also, considering the food and wine, these classes were a real bargain.
posted by imjustsaying at 5:07 AM on November 21, 2008

Best answer: Around here, there are a few ways you can take cooking classes.
  1. The "One Night in Tuscany Except Not In Tuscany" option. There are general interest classes focused around making specific dishes. You'll find them offered at small cooking school, fancy grocery stores, community centers, etc. Per hour of instruction, this is your most expensive option, however, you're generally only committing to 2-3 hours of instruction per class, so it's cheap in the sense that you might only pay $150 at a time. You will not usually find these types of classes all that informative in terms of proper technique. There's a good chance most of the prep work will be done for you, and you won't be making anything to terribly difficult, since the classes are for any level of cook. You can take this type of class *in* Tuscany, as well, but with airfare, and all, that can get quite expensive. There are a very few of these types of cooking schools that also offer more back-to-the-basics education options, like stocks and sauces or knife skills type classes. Still expensive, but low commitment and definitely evening and weekend friendly, since these are basically retail operations -- they're there to serve the general public, when the general public isn't working at their own jobs.
  2. The "Culinary Mini-vacation" option. Wineries, charming country inns, guest ranches, and some cooking schools will offer weekend long courses in cooking. My perception of these is that they're more expensive and boozier than a one night course but that in general they won't teach you a whole lot more. This does vary some from program to program -- I have seen ones that seem like they might actually be a pretty good weekend of training and some that are very much stretching your visit to Not Tuscany out for a whole weekend so you can quaff more wine.
  3. The "I skipped Home Ec" option. Our school board's continuing ed department offers evening classes in the school. These last 8-10 weeks, cost only marginally more than One Night Not Actually in Tuscany (they'll be your cheapest option per hour of instruction), and offer a deeper level of instruction. They're still often very single cuisine focused, and designed for people of all cooking levels, but you're going to learn a fair bit about the techniques of that single cuisine in that time.
  4. The "Community College is Not Just for College Dropouts" option. Many of the community colleges around here offer chef-training programs. Most of those chef-training programs will accept a (sometimes limited) number of non-program students -- meaning you don't have to register for a 2 year diploma to be allowed to take the same classes as some one who is actually in the 2 year diploma program. Some of the classes will be evenings and weekends, since most of these programs also have a part-time diploma program for people who want to do their training that are currently working other jobs. This is cooking school, and the classes are going to be intense, but they're also going to be focused on the professional kitchen. You'll learn a lot in classes like these, but you might find some of it to be overkill for home cooking -- these classes are designed to turn out professionals.
  5. The "Community College is Not Just for College Dropouts" second option. Actually enroll in one of those part time chef-training programs. This will let you do really cool things like internships in actual restaurants as an estagiar. It will also usually require that you take classes in things like hospitality management, pricing and business administration, which will probably be a lot less fun for you. If you don't want to work in a restaurant, this is a high commitment, high cost option that will overeducate you for cooking at home. But if you're super interested in cooking, it will also be a tremendous amount of fun.
  6. The "I have more money than you" option. Fancy, dedicated cooking schools are expensive. They may or may not offer part time programs, or be open to allowing non-diploma seeking students to enroll in a few classes, similar to community colleges. They'll have many of the same perqs and drawbacks as community college classes, at three times the price.
I'm a pretty competent home cook with an interest in learning more, and my intention, one day, when I get around to it, is to take a couple of classes at one of the local community colleges as a non-diploma seeker -- mostly their most basic classes in stocks and sauces and kitchen skills. I think the knife work and base technique practice will serve me well. Then, I can supplement that with a mix of either more specialized classes from the community college or continuing ed classes in specific cuisines I might be interested in.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:42 AM on November 21, 2008

Have you looked into Central Market's cooking classes? They're aimed at home cooks with all levels of experience, so might be more appropriate for what you're looking for than culinary school.
posted by katemonster at 5:52 AM on November 21, 2008

My sister is in a baking program at college and I'm amazed at what she's learned to do. She has talent to begin with, but the schooling really forced her to kick it up in such a short amount of time. So I would say a resounding YES!
posted by Meagan at 6:33 AM on November 21, 2008

If there's a Williams-Sonoma in your area, sometimes they give free demonstrations in some of their stores. It actually may be a good idea to drop by one, and then talk to the chef a little after and ask them for their advice about what you should do -- they'd have a good familiarity with "how to instruct the home cook" and would probably know where to send you. Or, hell, maybe the instructions at Williams-Sonoma are so good that this may be all you'd need to do.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:47 AM on November 21, 2008

I would highly recommend trying out a subscription to Rouxbe. I think it's da bomb but have not yet bit the bullet to pay for it.
posted by toastchee at 7:44 AM on November 21, 2008

Some TV cooking shows can be surprisingly helpful. The Food Network has, in general, devolved into a cheesy "celebrity chef challenge" mode, but they do still have some shows that are full of good, solid basic cooking. Personally I recommend: Barefoot Contessa, Tyler's Ultimate, Good Eats, and whichever Nigella Lawson series they have on (currently "Nigella Express.")

If you watch them consistently, even for episodes where maybe you're not that interested in the particular recipe, you can pay attention to the little bits of skill tips they give. Like when they say "I'm adding this now because ___" or "I'm cutting it this way because ___." You start to pile up those ideas, and use them in your own cooking.

Also, get some of the classic cookbooks. Something like Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." That book did great things for my own cooking. It's very detailed in describing steps and techniques, because she was writing for an audience that was itself pretty much learning cooking from zero. It also gets you time-honored classic recipes, the kinds of things that most food today is really just riffs on. And even more, the book has a "master recipe + variations" format that helps teach you how to think about changing up a recipe. (I still remember one night when I was looking in it for something to make for dinner and thought hey, what if I made this chicken dish on this page but used the curry seasonings from this other recipe here...and voila, made my own new dish.)
posted by dnash at 9:01 AM on November 21, 2008

I know excellent cooks and terrible cooks who have completed culinary school, it isn't the place to go if you don't want to cook for a living. Cooking classes can be great, it depends on the instructor and your current cooking ability. Once you've got the basics down (you can follow a recipe without setting your house on fire) the difference between a mediocre cook and a good cook is the ability to adjust as you go to make the finished dish taste the way you want it to. The flavor and intensity of each ingredient isn't a constant - older spices are less pungent, the tomatoes you get at the beginning of the summer aren't anywhere near as flavorful as they are at the peak of summer. Recipes can only give basic information, strictly following any recipe (aside from the one on the side of the kraft mac & cheese box) will yield inconsistent results.

Learn the fundamentals - make a lot of veggie soups to practice your knife skills, it doesn't matter if your veg is poorly chopped if you're going to puree it anyway. Make stock, starting with the most basic chicken stock (chicken scraps and water on low for a few hours or more, strain, and de-fat). Nearly all protein acts the same in a pan, a whole chicken, a steak, a piece of fish - they all want high heat and to be left alone until they release from the pan, larger pieces will need to be finished in the oven (the whole chicken especially) but the process is the same. Fish is the least forgiving but it also has the most visual feedback, the color change as it cooks is impossible to miss. Learn to make a roux by making shepherds pie since nobody will be able to tell if your sauce is a mess...

My best advice is just to think about each step you take as you cook and how it may be similar to another cooking technique you're already comfortable with. Stressed out cooks seem to make more mistakes. Your job as a cook is to preserve the flavor of the ingredients you're working with, keep it simple at first and work from there...
posted by foodgeek at 9:48 AM on November 21, 2008

Studio 360's show this week is on chefs, eggs, and learning how to cook. Might be useful? You can check it out here.
posted by puckish at 11:57 AM on November 21, 2008

I recommend a good 'techniques' class - knife skills, sauces, that sort of thing. These can help you with general chef knowledge/skills like knowing what browning is supposed to do and why to do it, what recipes to avoid using non-stick pans for, etc. It can pull things together in a way that bypasses some of that "just do a thousand recipes" process you don't seem to be as fond of.
posted by Lady Li at 1:49 PM on November 21, 2008

I second Lady Li about the technique classes. That sounds like a good way to drastically improve your skills in the kitchen.

Another thing I would recommend is this website. It's a food blog with several participants, and has recipes and other food-related information. The Talk section is fantastic for questions you may have about cooking or anything.
posted by Night_owl at 2:40 PM on November 21, 2008

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