Professional Chefs Talk About How Culinary School Changed Their Careers
Higher Education Eight chefs share insight on entering the professional culinary world.
How did culinary school enhance your career? Do you think you would be where you are today without a culinary education?
Philip Buccieri: Attending culinary school gave me the opportunity to experience things outside of the restaurant. For example, I would never have learned anything about African or Asian cuisine working at the fine dining seafood restaurant I originally worked in or had the opportunity to butcher half cows or pigs. Also, school gave me some great incentive to work in the FOH, taking both wine and serving classes which helped educate me on the other side of the business. Along the same lines, I had three classes focusing on restaurant financial systems, which opened my eyes to the money and business side of the career. I do not believe I would be where I am today without my bachelor’s degree in culinary arts with a focus on business management from Johnson & Wales University.
Will Avelar: Culinary school taught me a lot of fundamentals. Much of the information that I learned in culinary school directly impacted my success at an Emeril Lagasse restaurant. I was able to learn a variety of things from food terminology, different knife cuts and even how to use different measuring tools. This information would have taken me longer to learn if I didn’t attend culinary school. I feel like culinary school has given me the advantage to have a good foundation in my career. I owe my professional success to my education.
Douglas Braselman: I was raised in New Orleans by restaurant and bar owners. I was lucky enough to work for great people who taught me how to apply what I knew and teach me what I didn’t. I was never formally trained and there isn’t a frame large enough to capture the lessons that I learned along the way, and the lessons keep on coming.
Ronnie Rainwater: Believe it or not, I got advice from one instructor that I think about today. He mentioned to our group one day that we needed to work with urgency and efficiency. He stated that there will not be four cooks working on one dish. That sticks with me today. Culinary school gave me a great foundation to move forward with. I am glad I took that foundation and tried to apply a good work ethic to take advantage of the opportunities as they came.
Jeremy Fogg: Culinary school enhanced my career by giving me a solid foundation of cooking principles and kitchen structure. I applied to my first job with no work experience, but having a culinary degree helped me get the job and my foot in the door in this industry.
Anthony Scanio: I’m not certain that I believe in culinary school, at least not in my case anyway. More than a few years ago, I was a semester or so away from an English degree at Tulane when I decided to pursue my passion for cooking. Telling my wife that I intended to drop out of college and become a cook was less appetizing than explaining to her that I simply wanted to change the focus of my college career. Culinary school in my instance added little to who I am as cook and a chef. My passion for food and cooking is within me. I’ve gained my knowledge through travel, personal study and reflection upon life experiences. I’ve developed and honed my technique by working in a number of challenging kitchens. In short, culinary school may be of benefit to many aspiring cooks. People have different ways of learning, but for me, it was just a more palatable way to drop out of Tulane.
Jean Paul Labadie: Culinary school definitely opened my eyes as to what the industry had to offer besides being a cook or owning your own restaurant. Of course, I chose to be a cook with hopes of owning a place eventually, but I knew that having gone to school, I had more opportunities in case the restaurant didn’t happen.
I believe there’s no way I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for the knowledge I received at culinary school. Don’t get me wrong; school in no way guarantees a good career or even a good job. You not only have to do the “homework,” you need to really study on your own time. The basic information only goes so far. I started a bit later than most, so I needed to cram as much info as possible in the shortest time possible.
Frank Szymanski: Culinary school was a great way of learning the foundations in a controlled environment by following a set curriculum. I attended Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, North Carolina and enjoyed my time there. Culinary school is a large investment in a career where young cooks learn more from on the job training. Without it, I think I would be where I am today with a little less debt.
What is one of the most important things you have learned working at Emeril’s restaurants?
PB: One of the most important things I have learned while working at NOLA for Chef Emeril Lagasse is that you have to manage every individual differently. Over the years, I have learned different techniques and different strategies to manage all the different personalities of a kitchen.
WA: I’ve learned from working in Emeril Lagasse restaurants that customer service is vital to the success of our restaurants. From the moment a guest calls to make a reservation to the moment they leave the restaurant, we do our best to give our guests an unforgettable experience. We want every meal with us to feel like our guests are coming into our home. It is very important us to ensure our guests leave our restaurants having enjoyed their experience and knowing they’ll return with the same expectations.
DB: Working for Emeril has given me all the knowledge to be the best at what I do as a chef, professional and a leader in the industry. This great experience has also molded me into the best person I can be in my day-to-day life through applying the constant strive for excellence in everything that I do. The attention to detail, passion and love for food and customer service is what motivates me when I get out of bed in the morning. I`ve learned to be consistent in all of those things.
RR: I have learned to always keep the creative juices flowing. If you are going to sustain a successful business, you must always think of new things. You cannot do the same things we did 20 years ago and expect the same results.
JF: I learned the importance of service standards and enhancing the guest experience, as well as pushing the boundaries of creativity while still staying true to the identity of the restaurant.
AS: I’ve learned many lessons working at Emeril’s restaurants, most of which revolve around focusing upon our guests’ happiness. In other words, being a chef is not about my ego. Watching me perform culinary pirouettes is of little interest to our guests and nor should it be. Rather, I’ve learned to put my talent and ego at the behest of New Orleans cuisine and culture within the context of Chef Emeril’s vision.
JPL: First and foremost, I learned the level of commitment that is necessary if you want to be in the “higher” bracket.
Second, pay attention to your guests. Without people, you can’t have a restaurant. Chef Emeril was amazing at this.
FS: Attention to detail is the most important thing I have learned while working for Emeril’s restaurants. The details are what separates you from your peers, your competitors, and the mundane.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to become a chef?
PB: The most important thing to know when pursuing a culinary career is that you can never stop learning. While I was attending culinary school, I was also working two full time jobs, learning as much as I could about the real-life kitchens as well as getting the education through Johnson & Wales University. Now as a chef de cuisine for Emeril Lagasse at his second restaurant in the heart of the French quarter in New Orleans, I am still learning every day, whether it is from discussions with my peers or researching online or experimenting with new products at the restaurant. You certainly cannot make it with a culinary education alone — get out in the field and work, work at multiple locations and learn as much as you can. Every restaurant is different, and every chef must adapt to his or her surroundings and ever changing trends.
WA: I’d advise aspiring chefs to just immerse themselves in their environment and the culture. Work as many positions as possible: busboy, dishwasher, host, server, line cook. This knowledge provides insight on how to be a successful operator, not just a successful chef. It was important for me to understand all aspects of the restaurant before becoming the chef de cuisine at Meril.
DB: Take it personally. It has to come from the heart. If you don’t love cooking, you probably won`t love the job and the sacrifice that comes along with it. We have a responsibility as chefs and a demand from strangers as well as beloved regulars to keep up tradition and reinvent new ones all at the same time. If you take your job personal you will have a few rough days in between a lot of great ones, the rough ones will make you better and the great ones will keep you coming back.
RR: I usually suggest to anyone who wants to become a chef that they work in the business before going to school. Apply for an entry level restaurant job and see if you love it. You must love doing this. It is not a hobby. You must learn entry-level work like washing dishes, prep work, etc. to understand the backbone of the kitchen. These are people you will be leading one day, so you should understand their roles and the hard work they put in. It will give you a whole different level of respect for them.
JF: Explore your options with culinary school. There are many great programs out there and you don’t need to go to the best school if it doesn’t work for you financially. The most important thing is to focus on what you’re learning and retaining that knowledge and putting it into practice. What will make you successful in this business is perfecting your craft, expanding your palate, and striving to always put out your best work.
AS: I don’t know if I can boil my advice down to one idea. In fact, I know I can’t. All I can offer is my recipe which is equal parts read, travel, eat, cook. Or to put it more simply: just be aware and be open.
JPL: Know the “social” sacrifices that you will need to make to have a happy/successful carrier. You must love what you do, or you won’t last. But I guess this applies to everything worthy in life.
FS: I would say to go to college and do something else.
Just kidding! The most important bit of advice is to love what you do, and to take every task seriously. Dicing shallots should be given the same amount of care and respect as cooking an expensive piece of fish as they are all steps to a finished product.