Culinary Education: Do You Need a Traditional College Degree?

"Naked Chef" Jamie Oliver did it. Dropped out of high school to attend Catering College. And he's not the only one to get an early start on a culinary education. In fact, high school culinary arts programs today find themselves crowded with aspiring chefs who see early culinary training as the key to a cooking career. More high school grads than ever are going straight into a culinary education, foregoing a more traditional college education.

Teens Get Culinary Training

In top cooking schools, where high school grad age students used to account for about 5% of the culinary student population, now the number of age 17-19 chefs-in-the-making is pushing 40% in some culinary arts programs. "If you're going to make it--start young," says veteran baking and pastry instructor Robert Jorin, who feels that younger students are more likely to stay in a culinary career over the long haul. Culinary work is physical hard work. The long hours a culinary career demands are better suited to youthful chefs, Jorin claims.

Out of School and Into the Kitchen

Call it the new impatience. Today's young chefs-in-training seem particularly attracted to the short-term culinary training, preferring to get in and out of school and get started with hands-on apprenticeships or entry level jobs. In response to this demand to feel the real life heat of the kitchen, even high school chefs are working real jobs in real restaurants run through their culinary arts programs. Having had real working experience before they have their high school degrees in hand, these junior chefs prefer two-year culinary programs or eight-week certificates to bachelor's degrees.

High School/Culinary School--The Bottom Line

Nobody's saying drop out of high school and go for it. That gamble paid off for Jamie Oliver, but Oliver's from a family that cooks. But if you dropped out of school long ago, you certainly can hope for a culinary career. And if you're still in school and your goal is culinary training, you've got far more education options today than at any time in the past.

  • "Cooking up culinary arts at a student-run restaurant," by Dina Berta. Curriculum Review 43.2 (Oct 2003).
  • "Food for Thought," by Michele Orecklin and Laura A. Locke. Time 163.20 (May 17, 2004).