Become a Chef Without Spending a Fortune on Culinary School

culinary school

Aspiring chefs who want to be the next Anthony Bourdain may want to reconsider going to a big-name culinary school.

That’s because the high cost of tuition often has a low return since many entry-level cooks make just over minimum wage.

And when your potential salary is so low, taking on large student loans may not be the best financial decision.

But that doesn’t mean you have to forego your dreams of becoming a chef. There are other ways to break into the industry without taking on thousands in debt.

In fact, according to some chefs, the alternative routes are often the best ways to build your career.

How much does culinary school cost?

As of last year, the average cost of culinary school tuition at the nation’s biggest schools is three times the tuition at a regular four-year school.

For instance, if you attended the Culinary Institute of America, a two-year degree in baking and pastry arts or culinary arts would cost more than $66,000.

And if you opted for their four-year program, the total cost of attendance tops $130,000. That’s a cost on par with the price of a law school degree.

But unlike a career as a lawyer, working in the culinary industry usually comes with low earning potential.

According to PayScale, which compiles wages nationwide, the average pay for an entry-level line cook is just $10.23 an hour. With that kind of income, paying off six figures of student loan debt is next to impossible.

Other routes to a culinary career

If you are passionate about food and want to pursue a career in the culinary industry, you can do so without racking up tons of debt.

Many top chefs got their education through community colleges or trade schools, then worked their way up.

And according to head chefs, students who go through big-name culinary schools are no more prepared than students who pursue alternative routes.

“The private schools do offer excellent facilities and usually have great instructors,” says Chef Jeff Bacon, Executive Director of Providence Restaurant and Catering and the Executive Chef at Second Harvest Food Bank in North Carolina

“Are they ten times better than a community college?” Bacons ponders. “I would say no.”

Bacon has trained and worked with cooks from top schools. However, he says students from trade schools and community colleges are often more work-ready.

“Many of the students who have gone through community college, trade schools, or apprenticeships are usually better prepared to work in a real kitchen,” Bacon explains

Chef Jose Gonzalez, Executive Chef at Cuba Libre Restaurant and Rum Bar in Orlando, agrees.

“The most valuable asset and I look for in any candidate is the attitude and energy that they bring to the interview and to the workplace,” says Gonzalez. “We can teach and train skills but we can’t teach attitude or dedication. That has to come with the individual.”

Community colleges and trade schools

Many community colleges and trade schools offer culinary programs at a fraction of the big schools’ prices.

These programs are also usually accelerated. So students can complete their education and get a job in the field within one year. And, programs are often eligible for federal student loans.

For example, York Technical Institute (YTI)  is a trade school offering programs in pastry arts. The program costs $20,500, but students can complete the curriculum in just 12 months.

And because YTI designed the program to focus on practical skills, 93 percent of the students get jobs in their field.

What’s more, many graduates have gone on to excellent careers in the industry. Past students have worked at top restaurants and major resorts like Walt Disney World.

There are hundreds of community colleges and trade schools nationwide that offer quality culinary training. To find a good school, first ask for the school’s accreditations.

“Institutional accreditation varies by state but programmatic accreditation offered by the American Culinary Foundation is the national standard,” says Bacon. “I always recommend those schools so that issues of transfer credits and state by state validation do not come up.”

Additionally, make sure the programs includes completing the necessary training requirements to get hired. Many states have certifications for food safety.

“We look for ServSafe sanitation training in all of our back-of-house employees and certification in our leadership positions,” Bacon adds.

Going to culinary school

If you want to go to culinary school, check out local trade schools and community colleges before enrolling in an expensive, big-name institution. You can get a quality education and be ready for a great career without taking on six figures of debt.

“Do not let yourself be fooled by the big name, high priced private schools,”says Bacon. “Unless you can cover 80 percent or more of the overall expense in scholarships, you are usually better off choosing a community college program.”

“Paying off $100,000 plus in student loans on $10 to $12 an hour is no one’s idea of fun,” remarks Bacon. “You can complete most community college programs for a tenth of the cost of a big name institution.”

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