Similar to how Neil Armstrong created a generation of little boys who were desperate to become astronauts, celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck have inspired recent generations to become chefs. The only caveat is that many believe to become a chef you need to attend culinary school. But even going through a two-year or four-year program doesn’t guarantee you a show on the Food Network. Many are left working minimum wage at chain restaurants with crippling student loan debt. Unlike future lawyers or doctors, would-be chefs have a harder chance at making enough money to pay off their loans. It’s because of this fact that culinary schools are on the decline.
In 1989, there was a list of culinary schools that reached 125 while that list today includes 447 different schools. Thirty-five percent more students are attending culinary schools than five years ago, according to Tim Ryan, the president of the Culinary Institute of America. So more students in more schools: what could go wrong? Many graduates end up taking out loans that they can barely afford and cripple themselves with debt. A culinary school degree also doesn’t guarantee a cushy restaurant job so they are forced to take prep or line-cook jobs that may not pay very well, hence the debt keeps adding up. Even with the restaurant industry creating around two million new jobs in the next ten years, restaurant cooks are still making an average of $9.86 per hour.
Funding is also being cut due to recent legislative measures, which means budgets are being slashed and fewer classes are being offered. Along with that, almost half of the schools accredited by the American Culinary Federations are for-profit and are subject to stricter rules regarding student aid. These regulations implement college programs to “better prepare students for gainful employment or risk losing access to Federal student aid.” What is an aspiring chefs with stars in their eyes to do? This just leaves one option: start out at the bottom and pay your dues otherwise known as the “bootstrap”approach. Just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get your hands dirty. It’s a way to develop the same foundation of learning that culinary school would teach you sans the hefty tuition bill.
The next Julia Child could come out of a top culinary school or just someone with aspirations to be a great chef that started at the bottom and worked his or her way to the top. In the next decade, you might not be able to tell the difference of where a chef got their start!