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To School or Not to School…
Guest Post by Benjamin Bishop, Executive Pastry Chef Entrepreneur
Many aspiring bakers, pastry chefs, and culinary chefs alike consider going to culinary school to improve their skills and knowledge in the hospitality field. Those who want to further their culinary expertise, change careers, or want to expand their hobby or bake-at-home business also ponder this very question. Yet, education comes in many forms, so the question of whether or not to attend a formalized culinary program or to learn through more informal means of training is not as easy to answer as some might believe.
Education is designed to improve the student but the student’s success is only as effective as the amount of effort they put in to the education itself. While technical skills develop over time, there are also personal characteristics that help to garner success in the field. It is not easy, however, to teach the development of such qualities, but they can improve when faced with real-world situations.
Several examples of these fundamental, but not necessarily mandatory, skills include:
- Communication skills—to effectively convey information to others
- Detail oriented—to follow recipes and instructions, and to create intricate decorations
- Math skills—to modify recipes, weigh ingredients, or adjust mixes
- Physical strength and endurance—to stand extended periods and to move heavy items
- Business skills— to budget for supplies, set prices, and manage others
- Creativity—to develop and produce interesting and innovative products
- Dexterity—to handle knives and other tools properly
- Leadership skills—to develop constructive and cooperative working relationships
- Sense of taste and smell—to design new combinations and inspect food quality
- Time-management skills—to ensure efficiency preparation and service
For some, choosing to attend a culinary program at a community college, technical school, culinary arts school, or 4-year college is the most appropriate for them. Students attending these institutions spend most of their time in kitchens learning various aspects of kitchen work. Among other courses, students learn various types of food preparation, menu planning, kitchen sanitation procedures, as well as purchasing and inventory methods. Most of these same programs also require students to take part in an internship or apprenticeship in order to gain experience in a commercial kitchen before graduating. This type of formularized higher education can be prohibitive due to the investment in both time and money. Moreover, graduating from a culinary school does not necessarily advance your position when applying for a job in a kitchen; that comes with real world, real time experiences.
For others, an education by means of on-the-job training, a mentorship or apprenticeship program, or even the Armed Forces is a more suitable way to gain the skills needed to prepare them for a culinary career. Additionally, the internet and the availability of online classes, watch clips, and learn from how-to videos has undoubtedly increased our ability to learn from others on a global proportion. These forms of education still enable students to work and gain practical skills. Instruction can encompass many of the same aspects that schools offer, but provides real-world experiences at the time of learning. Whereas schools have a set parameter of time, these kinds of education can take as little as a few months with more advanced proficiency taking several years to complete depending on what the student is looking to gain and the investment of time they are willing to take.
In my case, I had an assorted mix of educational experiences throughout my career. I wanted to be a pastry chef since I was very young, and I was hired as a baker’s assistant at a local farmer’s market when I was 14 years old. I remained at this job for several years before becoming a prep cook at a fine dining restaurant during my senior year of high school and throughout the following summer after I graduated. To further pursue my dream, I chose to attend the Baltimore International Culinary College, a 2-year Associates degree program, majoring in Professional Baking and Pastry Arts.
While I chose to advance at a culinary school, what I learned there did not compare to what I learned on the job both before and after I graduated culinary school. School taught me theory, the how’s and why’s, and proper technique, but that did not make me a pastry chef. Even after graduating culinary school with a 4.0 average, I started, like anyone else, in an entry-level position. It took time, dedication, perseverance, and constant on-the-job learning to build my career to become a Pastry Chef.
Whichever path (or combination thereof) is taken, education and learning is largely determined by the amount of effort one puts into their education—there is no substitution for hard work and determination. Over the years in my own culinary career I worked with and learned from incredibly talented people with formal schooling and more informal (but equally important) training.
From my perspective, the answer to attend a culinary program comes down to individual choice, which is ultimately informed by any given number of variables in the student’s life. In the end, no matter which path is taken just remember to be the best you can be, find your voice, and never stop learning!
Executive Pastry Chef Benjamin Bishop
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