One of the first questions you will be asked when you tell people you're going to culinary school is about your intent behind it. Most commonly: Do you want to be a chef or work in a restaurant? While there are certainly cooks who go to culinary school in order to work in a restaurant, it can also be beneficial to the home cook.
That being said, there are a few key differences between home cooking and the kind of cooking you learn in culinary school. Here's what I discovered.
First off, you don't have to be a chef in training to go to culinary school.
When debating going to culinary school, a lot of my friends who are chefs told me it was a waste of money. Because I had no intention of working at a restaurant, they didn't think it was worth my time. They suggested instead that I do some kind of "stage" or free labor at a restaurant in order to pick up skills. For me, however, I was seriously lacking confidence in my abilities, and I really craved the attention I imagined would be in a course.
Once I had decided culinary school was right for me, I debated taking the short course or the professional 9-month course at The International Culinary Center in New York. A part of me really wanted to take the professional program as I thought I would benefit from it long term for my interests and career, but I just couldn't justify spending the amount of time and money. Culinary school is definitely not cheap.
The short program ended up being the perfect fit for home cooking. I had excellent hands-on experience, my instructors were incredibly attentive, and I asked all my burning questions without hesitation. The result was that I gained more confidence in the kitchen and have the basic skills and knowledge that makes cooking at home more enjoyable. You really don't have to want to work in a restaurant to get the most out of this course.
That being said, there are some things culinary school focuses on that are aimed towards students who want to work in a restaurant. Then there are other things that simply don't have any equivalent outside of cooking school (like space). Here are those things.
How Cooking at Home Differs From Culinary School
1. You don't have a professional dishwasher.
One of the luxuries of going to culinary school (or at least the one I went to) is that we never had to wash our pots, pans, and bowls. Mhmmm, it was a dream to not give a care in the world about using anything we wanted to cook with. This is definitely not the reality when you're cooking at home.
2. You don't need to rush.
In culinary school we rushed to present our dishes to our instructor, and I think this partially had to do with getting the feel for working in a restaurant. While it's important to try and get dinner on the table before midnight if you have family, there's usually no exact time that you have to have everything ready.
3. You don't need to plate your food a particular way.
Good plating can definitely enhance the experience of eating, but you're not going to get yelled at if you forget that sprig of parsley that was supposed to go on top of the chicken.
4. You can wear whatever you want.
In culinary school, like in restaurants, you usually have to wear chef whites, or something that complies with the heath code. At home? Forget about it.
5. You don't need to know the French word for everything.
I learned a good deal of classic French culinary terms while I was in culinary school. I imagine that they might be used in restaurants, but they are definitely not used in my home (or at least for the most part).
6. You don't have as much space to cook.
The idea of having unlimited counter space, and multiple ovens and burners to work with, is now a sad, distant memory.
7. The cost of food is a bigger concern.
Something I haven't talked a lot about is the amount of waste that happens in culinary school. If you mess up, it's not a big deal to toss your dish and start over. If you can't take something home to eat later and nobody else wants it, you toss it. This is where restaurants and home cooks take a stand: throwing something out is simply a waste of money.
8. Mise en place tricks don't matter.
A few times in culinary school we talked about certain tricks that would help preserve food through service. For example, if you chop parsley up, put it in a paper towel, and then run it under water, the color and taste will last for 6 hours — about how long dinner service lasts in a restaurant. Unless you're having a lot of people over for brunch or dinner, however, this trick probably isn't important to the home cook.
9. You don't have a pantry the size of your apartment.
Being asked to go grab some sea salt at the pantry from my instructor in culinary school was like being asked to visit paradise.
10. You don't have to over-salt everything.
Do you think your food is well seasoned enough? My instructor at culinary school would beg to differ. While salt definitely adds a lot of flavor to any dish, it's up to you to decide how much you want to use at home.
After dreaming about culinary school for the last five years, I finally signed up for a course this summer at the International Culinary Center in New York. The course, Culinary Techniques, is a three month class that meets two nights a week, and focuses on classic culinary traditions and methods like knife skills, stock-making, classic recipes, and some pastry.