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9 Metro Phoenix Chefs on The Value of Attending Culinary School

Is culinary school overrated? That's one of the biggest debates within the restaurant industry these days. On one hand, students get a solid culinary foundation before jumping into the kitchen. On the other, culinary school is expensive, and some argue it doesn't necessarily produce top chefs. Here's what nine metro Phoenix chefs have to say about the issue. 

Is culinary school overrated? 

Rory Hewitt, executive chef of Phoenix City Grille

I believe that the best experience is always hands on. My advice to anyone considering attending culinary school is to work in a kitchen first. Culinary school is full of kids right out of high school who never do anything with it. The kitchen takes a certain breed — a hard worker with tough skin who can handle pressure. Culinary school does get your foot in the door. But, it is expensive. Don’t waste your money and time unless you are serious. There are a few great books I would recommend to anyone that’s seriously thinking about culinary school. They are Professional Cooking, The Cottage Meat Cook Book, and Culinary Artistry. These books teach the basics and help readers to learn how to pair ingredients.

Jennifer Russo, chef and owner of The Market by Jennifer’s

Best $25,000 party I've ever been part of.

Charles Wiley, executive chef of Cafe ZuZu at Hotel Valley Ho  

Education in any form is an amazing opportunity in life. A student doesn’t graduate any college or university and take a first job as CEO. It’s not fair that there is a perception that someone graduates culinary school and is automatically a chef. Schools teach the basics; it’s up to the graduate to have the vision, acquire the skills, and set professional goals.

Garrison Whiting, executive chef of Counter Intuitive and sous chef of Cowboy Ciao 

I believe culinary school to be highly overrated and one of the biggest backward steps someone who wants to be a culinary professional can take. You can just get a job washing dishes and start the education there. Then, you can keep the money you make rather than paying it back to the school for the rest of your life. I would rather hire a kid with little to no experience rather than a recent graduate who thinks they know how to do everything because they did it once in meat-fabrication class.

Dina Zappone, co-owner of Zappone’s Italian Bistro

Not even school can teach you hard knocks. What you can learn from an amazing chef and an amazing restaurant can’t be captured in a classroom. Blood, sweat, and tears is the best way.

Michael Rusconi, owner and chef at Rusconi’s American Kitchen

No, it’s not. Culinary school gives most cooks a strong head start and opens doors that would not be open to many. I would not have reached the level of success that I have if it weren’t for the New England Culinary Institute. I’m going to say what I think many chefs will not say publicly. Most culinary schools are way overpriced. The cost of many associate-degree-granting programs is around $40,000 or more. When a cook graduates from culinary school, the starting wage in many cases is between $10 to maybe $14 an hour for an entry-level position in which you can learn and advance your career. Not many will start at the high end of that scale unless they are in a large city with a much higher cost of living. How can a student pay back student loans when they are carrying that much debt and then have to pay rent and the cost of living? They then have to chase a higher hourly rate and give up opportunities to grow and reach a higher level in the business, which caps their long-term earning potential.

Travis King, chef of the Bottled Blonde

I don’t believe culinary schools are overrated. Some have better reputations that help you to be considered for higher positions within a restaurant. Your work will always speak for itself. If the passion and willingness to learn is there. Check your ego at the door and get to work.   

Bob Tam, executive chef of Bitter & Twisted 

I see why a lot of chefs may say it is, but I feel it was a very important part of my growth. Although it may never compete with the real-world education, it helped me realize my path.

Jake Stucky, chef of Topgolf Gilbert

I don’t think culinary school is necessarily overrated; however, it is generally overpriced, and many of the schools produce subpar candidates who were sold the celebrity chef dream. The recent closure of Scottsdale’s Le Cordon Bleu and other for-profit schools [is] due in large part to this entitlement mentality they sold their students. No amount of school will replace the hard work, drive, and sacrifice required to move up in the culinary industry, and many graduates of culinary schools aren’t willing to start at the bottom and actually work to get ahead.

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Teresa is a writer, editor, traveler, and food enthusiast. She loves chocolate, espresso, and Chihuahuas.
Contact: Teresa Traverse