Does Culinary School Matter?

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Welcome to Chow Bella's Bites & Dishes, where each week Valley chefs and restaurateurs respond to a question or topic New Times food critic Laura Hahnefeld has on her mind. Have a question you'd like to ask? E-mail laura.hahnefeld@newtimes.com. Miss a question? Go here.

With the rise of celebrity chefs and TV cooking shows, it seems more people want to become gourmet chefs like never before. In fact, the Association of Private Sector Colleges & Universities, a group that represents for-profit schools nationwide, says enrollment at for-profit trade schools, which include culinary schools, has expanded by around 20 percent a year for the past two years.

So is it worth it? Here's what Valley chefs and restaurateurs had to say on the subject.

Silvana Salcido Esparza Chef and owner, Barrio Cafe

Culinary school was worth it for me. I was in my early 30s and needed a strong culinary foundation so I could play catch-up with others in my field. I walked out of culinary school an executive chef at ASU's University Club. There, I got to play restaurant!

My kid just turned 19 and is in his last week in culinary school. If he is smart (and he is), he will use his experience in my kitchen with his new knowledge and foundation learned at ACI to go out and have a beautiful career.

I'm all for culinary schools. Expensive as hell, but worth it. It all depends on you.

Chef James Porter Petite Maison, Big Earl's BBQ

No trade should cost $45,000 to review books. On-the-job experience is critical. Quickness, cleanliness, accuracy, and imagination get you the job, not a piece of paper. A great apprenticeship is priceless.

Pavle Milic Owner, FnB

Work in a restaurant first, then decide if you still want to pursue culinary school. No one should get into debt for thousands of dollars to learn how to make chicken stock. Get paid to learn. Go work in places you love and respect. Start at the bottom if you need to. If this industry is really for you, you'll know it. Get your feet wet in your local community, then fly away and work in different regions of the country. Go to Napa for a year, then go to Chicago or New York.

Craig DeMarco, Owner Postino, Windsor, Churn

Culinary school is worth it if you're not adventurous enough to pack up and move to a big city, humble enough to take a job at the bottom, and tough enough to stick with it to work your way up.

Akos Szabo, Chef de Cuisine Top of the Rock Restaurant at the Buttes Resort

Culinary students have an unrealistic impression that once they graduate with the piece of paper it officially makes them a chef. Although I went to culinary school, I feel I could have used that money to travel to Europe to work with different chefs and learn new techniques. There are plenty of chefs that have done very well for themselves and have not attended culinary school. It's sad to see kids coming out of school with thousands of dollars of debt that don't know how to make a good chicken stock or understand the importance of a sharp knife.

Eric Flatt, Co-owner Tonto Bar & Grill and Cartwright's Sonoran Ranch House

There was a time for culinary school, but I believe it's passed. Our linen delivery guy told me, "I love to cook and I just graduated from culinary school." I asked why he was delivering laundry and not cooking. He said after graduating, his student loan, with interest, was $80,000 and he can't afford to pay it at $12 an hour as a cook. Yikes! I could have taught him everything he needs to know in two years or less on the job.

Aaron May Chef and restaurateur

It depends what you want from it and where your level of experience lies. If you've never worked in the industry and think you want to be a chef, culinary school is probably not the best place to test the waters, but I had some work experience, knew I wanted to be a chef, and went to an affordable program at SCC and definitely got my money's worth.

Dana Mule GM and partner, Hula's Modern Tiki

These kids [culinary students] might be better off getting a job in a good kitchen, putting their noses to the grindstone for a few years, and saving themselves the $40,000+. Culinary schools can graduate arrogant youngsters, many of whom come out thinking they're Gordon Ramsay but have almost no practical experience or knowledge of the business. In many cases, they'll end up disillusioned, unemployed, and saddled with a massive debt load.

Julie Kossak Owner, The Pink Spot, Z Pizza

We get a lot of folks applying after graduation, and we're a quick casual restaurant that isn't able to have many salaried employees. I would think interning or on-the-job training at high-level restaurants with high-level chefs would be more beneficial. I'm reading a book right now about Mario Battali, and he spent years in small-town restaurants in Italy learning how to cook.

Art Doloresco, Operations director Roka Akor/JNK Concepts

Culinary school provides the basic knowledge and skills to start a career. Anyone can attend and graduate -- it's what you decide to do afterwards. When you first step foot into the Roka Akor kitchen, the only thing you might recognize is the raw product. Working here is about how well you can adapt and learn a new culture, different techniques, unique ingredients, and how an East-meets-West presentation brings them all together.

Bill Sandweg Owner, Copperstar Coffee

I tell people to get an education. Read some books on the subject. If you're still motivated, get a certificate from the community college district. Get a job in a kitchen. Then talk to me about going to culinary school and paying for what somebody else is willing to pay you to learn. My answer 10 years ago would have been "yes, go." Now, a culinary degree looks like a bartending certificate or a law degree. Just because you have it, doesn't mean that you're gonna be good at it. Short answer, save the $40,000. Invest it while working a series of jobs, and in 15 years, you will have enough to open a small restaurant and the skills to do it.

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