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Are You Tough Enough for Culinary School?

By David Cleary

It's hard to be a chef. Not everyone has the talent, skills, and stamina to succeed in the intense world of a commercial or restaurant kitchen. Fortunately, you can now acquire culinary skills, as well as test your mettle, by undertaking a chef education at a culinary school.

If you can't stand the heat...

Before pursuing a culinary career, you should know the challenges that you'll face as a chef. You will almost certainly work long hours. Thirteen-hour days are typical for chefs, and they often work nights and weekends. You will find the kitchen to be physically demanding in other ways, too. Chefs often work in 110-degree conditions. They must stand for hours at a time. Sometimes they must lift heavy crates or cookware. Most chefs have a few scars from gas burners, errant knives, or spattering oil.

Finally, you will find that the kitchen can be psychologically demanding. During busy times at a restaurant, you'll have to prepare many dishes as quickly as possible, knowing that your customers' satisfaction will depend on the quality of your efforts. And long hours may mean you work hours that are antisocial, especially as far as family is concerned.

Cooking school: what's on the menu

If you are determined to be a chef, a culinary school can provide you with the necessary training. Culinary programs are generally offered by trade or technical schools. Programs vary, but you might learn classic French cooking techniques, or perhaps a culinary art like baking and pastries. Much of your class time will be spent preparing food in cooking labs on campus. Depending on the program, you will earn a diploma or a degree.

Though it's possible to secure a job as a chef without a degree, a completed culinary program can help you immensely. Your fellow students and instructors can provide you a networking base, and employers notice resumes that have degrees.

Testing yourself at cooking school

Culinary training will also give you a sense of how you would weather a restaurant job. You are likely to spend as many hours per week in cooking labs as you would in the kitchen if you were working at a restaurant. You will also have to demonstrate your mastery of the same culinary techniques that you would use at a restaurant. These can range from butchering, to soup and stock making, to menu design. And you will probably serve an internship at a restaurant, where you'll see how you handle the stresses of cooking for others.

Learning from Master Chefs

Your cooking school instructors will further challenge you. These instructors, often veteran chefs from gourmet restaurants, can bring a perfectionist attitude to the cooking classroom. They won't hold back from criticizing you if your mol? sauce doesn't turn out right. And many instructors are disciplinarians. Researcher Michael L. Wray cites the case of a culinary instructor who would evaluate his students after a cooking lab session. He would rate their efficiency, timeliness, teamwork ability, and also their appearance. Wrinkled slacks or long earrings would rate demerits. Some instructors are harsher; they'll simply send a student with an unprofessional appearance home.

Though such lessons might be humbling, they will teach you professionalism. If you can tolerate criticism in the classroom, you'll know you can tolerate the criticism (and tantrums) that might be thrown your way by executive chefs in the professional kitchen.

The Equal-Opportunity Kitchen

If you are a woman hesitant to pursue a career as a chef, because you're afraid of working in a male-dominated industry, you should wait no longer. Forty years ago, female chefs were a rarity. But now, according to U.S. census figures, there are about 48,000 female chefs and head cooks working in the U.S. What's more, there are more women in culinary school than ever before. The Christian Science Monitor reports that one culinary school, which had a student body that was only 5 percent female in 1972, now boasts an enrollment that is 25 percent female.

Granted, the ranks of executive level chefs are still disproportionately male, and there may still be residual sexism at certain restaurants. But census figures don't lie. Women are succeeding as chefs.

Order Up!

If you want to be a chef, culinary school can teach you the cooking skills you need and it can give you valuable networking contacts. Most importantly, your experiences in the culinary classroom can allow you to determine if you will thrive in the stressful but exciting, professional kitchen. As the starter for a main course as a professional chef, a culinary degree from the right school has all the right ingredients to ensure success. Place your order, now!

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