Culinary Arts/Chef Training  Interviews


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Celebrity chefs and changing ideas about the way people look at food preparation are generating a huge interest in culinary programs.

In addition to sizzling employment opportunities, working in a kitchen has become fashionable since the rise of the celebrity chef. Shows like Iron Chef made stars of some chefs. You can "kick it up a notch" by going to culinary school, instead of just watching Emeril Lagasse on TV.

Allyson Merritt has always dreamed of being responsible for a cute little bakery cafe on the corner. Or maybe the hidden gem, deep in the heart of the city that only the locals know about.

She's followed her dream to The Culinary Institute of America. She is taking her bachelor's degree in baking and pastry arts management.

"Healthy is trendy!" says Merritt. She is preparing for a future with organic and vegan products. Learning from highly skilled professors has been a great experience for her.

"My Pastry Techniques teacher is the man who first introduced creme brulee to the United States -- now the number one dessert," she says. "How many people can honestly say they learned from someone with these kind of credentials?"

A variety of instructors is also important for culinary student Aly Sunderji. He attends a college which offers a 12-month professional cooking certificate. About 75 percent of the class time is hands-on practical training.

"I like how we change instructors every four weeks, and get to learn new techniques from each of our instructors," he says. "My main difficulties were knife skills and learning the classic French terms for dishes."

Merritt usually has one or two classes at a time during her 38-month bachelor's degree program. Each class is six or seven hours long. This lightens the homework load, but she still spends at least an hour studying every night.

"Any student thinking about coming to this school, or even just entering the industry, should be prepared for how demanding it is. It's serious, it's intense, it's fast-paced. We don't get holidays off, we work weekends, we're tired and we drink a lot of coffee. That's the nature of the business," warns Merritt.

Since Sunderji's program is mostly hands-on work in class, homework is not very demanding. "We don't really need to study, we just need to look over our notes and refresh our minds a few days prior to our exams," he admits.

Culinary students may need to buy learning guides, a cooking textbook, uniforms and knives. There may also be smaller items, like a monthly cookbook and a name tag.

Some programs include the cost of textbooks, equipment and uniforms in the tuition.

How to Prepare

Sunderji suggests taking food studies in high school. You might also look into courses offered in your community, such as cake decoration, creative garnishes, or chocolate and sugar workshops.

Some high schools offer a culinary arts program through a technical school. If you can gain experience while in high school, you'll be ahead when you reach culinary school, as Merritt found out. "It was an amazing opportunity for me, and I really learned a lot at tech school," she says.

Working in the industry for a year is another great way to find out if you want to go to culinary school, she adds.

High school math, science and English will come in handy for future culinary students. "Trust me, you'll need to pull a lot of that back out eventually," Merritt says.