At Bulrush, Self-taught chef Rob Connoley serves fine-dining fare like the german pancake with summer vegetables and sorghum butter.

At Bulrush, self-taught chef Rob Connoley serves fine-dining fare like the German pancake with summer vegetables and sorghum butter.

Is Culinary School Still Worth the Cost?

Two chefs discuss the merits of a formal education—and the advantages of learning on the job.

The debate over whether culinary school is the right path to jumpstart a career in restaurants is almost as old as the institutions themselves. Unlike some professions, the culinary arts require no degree or certification to join the ranks. In fact, some F&B veterans might argue that on-the-job training is more practical than a formal education—plus, it’s free.

On the other hand, culinary school can accelerate the process while also ensuring students receive the time and guidance they need to master skills and build their knowledge base.

Both approaches have their own advantages and drawbacks. To parse out the differences—and similarities—between the two routes, we asked two chefs to share their perspectives.

With more than 20 years of experience as an educator and culinary school leader, Kathleen Vossenberg is the vice president of academic affairs at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder, Colorado. She was recently awarded the American Culinary Federation’s Cutting Edge Award.

Rob Connoley is the chef and owner behind Bulrush in St. Louis. A self-taught chef, Connoley worked in nonprofits before entering the restaurant world at age 40. He’s now a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist.


Rob Connoley

Rob Connoley | Chef and Owner: Bulrush

I’ve hired and interviewed a lot of people and have been able to see both sides of the equation—as a cook or chef, but also as someone who hires cooks and chefs. I completely believe in the value of culinary schools. It shortens the path to the outcome in many cases. Folks who have gone to culinary school understand the food science better, whereas I might have to look things up and do some studying on my own.

But is that worth the time and the money for culinary school? I think in some cases it can be. I tell all young professionals who come in to either work for me or interview, if you don’t have any experience, go work at a restaurant.

There’s this idealized vision of what being a chef is. No one envisions themselves as a cook; they all see themselves leading the army at some point and creating this magnificent restaurant. But the reality is the vast majority—just like someone entering the NFL—are going to be entry-level players and not have that leadership role. Still, there’s so much value walking into a kitchen, and being humble and patient and learning from the people around you.

If you have that culinary degree and walk in for an interview with me, I will absolutely give you quite a bit of time in my interview because I know you bring assets to the table. But, I’ve seen so many people with culinary degrees who still don’t have basic food-safety knowledge or have never exhibited autonomy in the creative process.

If I say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this zucchini; make me something with it,’ many people just stop right there and they can’t take it any further. They need someone to tell them what to do, or if it’s something that they did in culinary school, they go straight to what they’ve learned.

I think people who are self-taught—in my experience—have already been forced to figure things out. So if you’re having trouble creating a dish or plating a dish, you have to find resources to make it happen. They are bringing a different level of creativity that doesn’t have the same shackles on them because they were told this is how to do it. I also find people who don’t have culinary school backgrounds will question authority and standards and rules and kitchen expectations. To me, that’s a good thing. I want novelty and innovation. I want to run a kitchen that excites and challenges people. To do that, you have to give them some creative control with that nurturing hand.

I really value culinary school training, but so many people think it’s this golden ticket. Regardless of your experience, you should go in and say, ‘I’m here to learn from the people around me. Whether I think I know anything or not is irrelevant.’ Go to learn, and when there’s nothing left to learn, move on and that’s whether you’re in culinary school or a kitchen.

Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts

Chef Kathleen Vossenberg

Chef Kathleen Vossenberg | Vice President of Academic Affairs: Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts

Attending culinary school can be one of the best investments future chefs can make. It prepares students for jobs after graduation and sets them on long-term career paths.

Most culinary schools include a baseline curriculum covering cooking fundamentals. What differentiates one school from another can help potential students select the best program for them. For example, schools like Auguste Escoffier focus not solely on cooking techniques and food science, but also offer business-related courses and more. Culinary school often goes beyond knife skills and the basics; instead, it emphasizes the scaffolding of skills, allowing students to advance to complex techniques in later coursework.

Some culinary programs include industry externships with employer partners. Internships, externships, and apprenticeships can give students an opportunity to put their skills into practice in a real-life work setting under the guidance of an industry chef who values the student’s education experience.

Chefs that are culinary school grads may be more likely to hire current culinary students or recent graduates and help further their education during the externship.

While it is possible to work as a cook without a formal culinary education, future success greatly depends on the mentorship a cook receives. Cooks without a culinary degree are often quite good at producing the menu of the establishment where they work. Their challenge sometimes lies in understanding the “why” behind the cooking process, and they may have difficulty transferring those skills to a new recipe, food, or business establishment. Without a mentor to show them the way, change can be hard.

By contrast, culinary students focus on becoming adept at techniques and understanding cooking as a process. A cook might be able to execute the grilled chicken dish at their restaurant. But with a proper understanding of technique, the culinary graduate can successfully grill chicken, steak, vegetables, fish, etc. Plus, they will have learned which cuts should be considered for grilling, which sauces are meant to accompany grilled foods, and alternative cooking techniques if grilling is not suitable for a specific foodstuff. This level of understanding may make grads higher performers in the workplace, leading to higher wages, more responsibility and faster promotions.

Culinary school encourages multiple mentorships, instead of a one-on-one relationship on the job. Students interact with several faculty members, each of whom has walked a different career path.

The faculty-student relationships along with career services teams can help students explore various types of jobs available, from a restaurant line cook to institutional dining to resorts and other hospitality venues. This is the foundation of a solid network of like-minded professionals, which will benefit the student for years to come.

I encourage prospective students to reach out to understand more about how “worth it” culinary school is.