The lure of fame and fortune has made the chef profession a first choice for a growing number of people. Culinary schools can help to separate the serious chefs from wanna-be restaurant rock stars. FSR has selected America’s Top 20 culinary schools based on a number of criteria. First and foremost, the schools on our list offer programs that combine comprehensive classroom theory with a solid dose of hands-on work in well-equipped, on-campus kitchen classrooms and labs. Some of the schools on the list also have highly regarded full-service restaurants that are staffed by culinary program students and open to the public. The Dining Room at Kendall College in Chicago, for example, is both Zagat- and Michelin-recommended. So is L’Ecole, the on-campus fine-dining restaurant at the International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York. During their final two months of study, students at ICC’s New York campus work every station on the line in the restaurant.
Intensive off-campus experience through internships and externships is also part of the career preparation provided by the top-ranked schools. Externships are generally shorter in duration than internships. The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), for example, offers a 16- to 18-week worldwide externship program. At the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colorado, the Culinary Arts curriculum includes a three-week, off-site “Farm-to-Table Experience,” working directly with local farmers, ranchers, and artisans to learn sustainable practices.
El Centro College, in Dallas, requires its students to acquire at least 640 hours of field experience prior to graduation; Florida State College at Jacksonville requires completion of two internships of 300 hours each. Excelling students at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, are offered the opportunity to travel to Spain for two weeks of study and competition during their program, and the school can arrange for internships in Spain and France.
Aside from working with restaurants to secure externship/internship opportunities and post-graduate job placement, the top schools constantly reach out to culinary professionals beyond their own campuses to keep up with the skills, techniques, and knowledge that are necessary and relevant in kitchens across America. The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York, for example, invites established chefs to share their insights and needs as part of a program advisory council, according to Maureen Drum Fagin, the school’s director of career services and administration. Through its externship program—the school placed 499 externs in 292 establishments across the country last year—ICE is also able to maintain a “constant feedback loop” connecting the chef-mentors and the school staff.
“The chefs tell us where our students’ strengths are and areas that could use some more work—for example, more focus on knife skills or time trials,” Drum Fagin says.
At the CIA, surveys are sent to employers and alumni to make sure the school’s core curriculum remains on target, says Jennifer Purcell, associate dean of restaurant education and operations. Alumni are asked to rate how the school prepared them for positions in the field and employers are asked which core competencies they look for in employees.
“In this manner, we can better understand what has worked well for our grads’ success in the industry, and cross this data with what employers are saying they want and need in order to better meet the needs of both [groups] in further developing the curriculum,” Purcell explains.
Class size and instructor accessibility were also considered when choosing the top schools. Although some of the lecture classes at the schools may have as many as 25–30 students in attendance, much smaller kitchen labs assure that there is plenty of one-on-one instructor time with students in a working environment. In most cases, the ratio of instructor to students in these labs is fewer than 1:20, and at the New England Culinary Institute the ratio is 1:10.
National Names and Regional Leaders
Some of the schools on FSR’s Top 20 list are the culinary-industry equivalent of household names, having long been acknowledged nationwide for their excellence in producing graduates with solid foundations in technical skills and professionalism. Others are considered strong, reliable resources within their regional culinary communities.
A growing number of community colleges are now offering associate degrees or other programs in the culinary arts. For the FSR Top 20 list, we selected the schools that offer degrees, diplomas, and certificates in multiple disciplines—such as Culinary Arts, Baking and Pastry Arts, and Food, Beverage, and Hospitality Management—and that received an “Exemplary” rating for three or more programs from the American Culinary Federation (ACF), the largest professional chefs’ organization in North America and the organization responsible for regulatory oversight of many culinary schools.
While many great chefs and restaurant owners received their culinary education at the school of hard knocks, working their way on the line and up the ranks, culinary schools prepare graduates to hit the ground running, reducing the need for basic training and new-hire downtime, says Chris Koetke, ACF’s accreditation commission chair.
The importance of a classical background was also echoed by Brian Patterson, culinary chef-instructor at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Patterson notes, “A classically trained student will be universally conversant in any kitchen—across cuisines and across cultures—while a junior cook hired from another chef really leaves you at the mercy of what his previous employer taught him.”
The Food Network and other media exposure have brought a lot of attention to the culinary field and have given people some idea of the level of professionalism that is necessary to succeed. While that’s a good thing, what aspiring chefs often do not realize is that it takes years of work to achieve an executive position, just like in most professions. The best culinary schools are the ones that establish realistic post-graduation expectations for their students, says Ben Pollinger, executive chef at Oceana Restaurant in New York City. Oceana works regularly with several culinary schools in the New York area.
Today, executive chefs and other high-level restaurant personnel must have developed business and management skills as well honed as their kitchen skills. Areas of expertise must include such essentials as strategic planning, budgeting, computer skills, how to groom employees, conflict resolution, and other communication skills, says Robby Kukler, founder and partner of Fifth Group Restaurants, which operates seven full-service restaurants in the Atlanta area.
As a result, more of the top schools are offering well-rounded educational experiences that encompass a multi-disciplinary approach. A number of FSR’s top schools offer four-year Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts programs, with majors such as Culinary Arts, Culinary Arts Management, Culinary Science, Culinary Nutrition, Baking and Pastry Arts, and Hospitality Management.
Brian Hinshaw, vice president and corporate chef for Columbus, Ohio–based Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, which has 11 full-service restaurant brands across the U.S, recommends that restaurant owners and executive chefs build relationships with culinary schools in their home areas so they have a constant flow of qualified candidates for staff positions.
“We regularly do externship and apprentice programs,” Hinshaw says. “By the time they graduate, many of the best students are already working for us and they stay with us.”
Hinshaw also coaches a team at Columbus State Community College for culinary competitions, giving him a chance to get to know the college’s best and brightest students, and introducing Cameron Mitchell to them as a prospective employer. Working with regional and local culinary schools has also made it easier for the company to staff restaurants outside of its home area. When Cameron Mitchell opened a restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, for example, the company successfully worked with a local culinary school for staffing assistance.
“I got the referral from a chef who works in the Scottsdale area,” Hinshaw says. “Your chef network can be your most-reliable resource for identifying the best schools in areas that are new to you.”
Koetke points out that when restaurants are looking to establish relationships with culinary schools, there are a number of considerations to keep in mind. The first is the qualification of the faculty. Are the instructors industry professionals who have had years of field work? Is the faculty diverse, representing an array of international, disciplinary, and experiential perspectives?
“You want to see instructors with experience in all types of cuisines and working environments, such as catering and hotels as well as restaurants,” he says. “This adds richness to the students’ experience.”
Look at the facility itself, he adds: Is it designed for maximum learning? Is the equipment up to date with what is being used in today’s restaurant kitchens? Is there enough equipment for the class?
“If too many students are sharing a single stove, that indicates a problem,” he says. “Students should have easy access to the equipment so they can do more hands-on training rather than just standing around.”
In 2008, Indian Hills Community College implemented a $2 million remodel of its culinary arts education facility, including the addition of all-new station set-ups with sous vide equipment, similar to the set-ups found in modern restaurants and hotels, says Gordon Rader, the school’s department chair for Culinary Arts.
Cleanliness is also a good indicator of the quality of a school, Koetke advises. “The work environment should not be dirty, dingy, or disorganized, or [those habits] could carry over to your kitchen,” he explains.
Another thing to consider is whether the school kitchen’s environment is intense and demanding or laid-back and lazy.
“Are students being pushed and challenged, or are they standing around joking in a loosey-goosey kind of environment?” Koetke asks. “Students should be moving with a sense of urgency; they should be multi-tasking because that’s how it is in the real culinary world.”
Non-interactive instructors should also raise a major red flag, according to Koetke, who suggests observing to see if the instructors interact with the students or sit and observe.
Finally, he recommends not being shy about inquiring into alumni success. Ask the school for examples of where graduates are working and in what positions.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the American Culinary Federation as the Culinary Federation of America.
Campuses: Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado
Founded: Austin (formerly Culinary Academy of Austin) was founded in 2001; Boulder (formerly Culinary School of the Rockies) was founded in 1994. Both became Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts campuses in 2010.
Degrees/Programs: Certificates in Culinary Arts and in Baking and Pastry.
Campus: Columbus, Ohio
Degrees/Programs: Associate of Applied Science Degree in Baking and Pastry, Culinary Apprenticeship, and Restaurant and Foodservices Management.
Campuses: Hyde Park, New York; St. Helena (Greystone), California; San Antonio, Texas
Degrees/Programs: Bachelor’s Degrees in Culinary Arts Management, Baking and Pastry Arts Management, or Culinary Science; Associate Degrees in Culinary Arts or Baking and Pastry Arts.
Campus: Dallas, Texas
Degrees/Programs: Applied Associate Degrees in Baking and Pastry, Culinary Arts, or Food and Hospitality Service.
Campuses: Gulf Shores, Alabama
Degrees/Programs: Associate in Applied Science Degrees, Certificate Programs, and Training Certificates in Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts, Pastry and Baking, Hospitality Management, and Events Planning.
Campuses: Jacksonville, Florida
Degrees/Programs: Associate of Science Degree in Hospitality or Culinary Management, Certificate in Food and Beverage Management; Certificate in Culinary Arts.
Campus: Ottumwa, Iowa
Degrees/Programs: Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts; Diploma in Bakery Program and in Chef Program.
Campus: New York, New York
Degrees/Programs: Seven- to 13-month career-training Diploma programs in Culinary Arts, Pastry and Baking, Culinary Management, and Hospitality Management.
Campuses: New York, New York; Campbell, California
Degrees/Programs: Six- to nine-month “Total Immersion” programs with award Diplomas in Professional Culinary Arts and Professional Pastry Arts; Career Courses in International Bread Baking, Cake Techniques and Design, and Intensive Sommelier.
Campuses: Culinary programs are offered at 40 schools throughout North America.
Degrees/Programs: Bachelor’s Degree, Associate Degree, or Diploma/Certificate in Culinary Arts; Bachelor’s Degree in Culinary Management; Bachelor’s Degree in Food and Beverage Management; Associate Degree or Diploma/Certificate in Baking and Pastry; Diploma/Certificate Art of Cooking.
Campuses: Charlotte, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; North Miami, Florida; Providence, Rhode Island
Degrees/Programs: Bachelor of Science Degrees in Baking and Pastry Arts, Culinary Arts and Foodservice Management, Culinary Nutrition, Foodservice Entrepreneurship, Baking and Pastry Arts, and Foodservice Management; Associate Degrees in Baking and Pastry Arts and in Culinary Arts.
Campus: Honolulu, Hawaii
Degrees/Programs: Associate in Science Degree in Culinary Arts and Patisserie; Certificate of Achievement in Culinary Arts; Certificates of Competence in Culinary Arts and Patisserie.
Campus: Chicago, Illinois
Founded: School of Culinary Arts 1985
Degrees/Programs: Bachelor of Arts Degree in Culinary Arts; Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts and in Baking and Pastry; Culinary Certificate.
Campuses: Gaithersburg, Maryland
Degrees/Programs: One-year program consisting of hands-on kitchen-classroom studies and training, which includes a six-month, mandatory paid apprenticeship in restaurants in and around the D.C. area.
Campuses: Seventeen in 12 U.S. states
Founded: 1895 in Paris, 1998 New York
Degrees/Programs: Associate Degrees or Certificates in Culinary Arts or Baking and Pastry Arts.
Campuses: West Palm Beach, Florida
Degrees/Programs: Bachelor of Science Degree in Culinary Management; Associate of Occupational Studies Degree in Culinary Arts or in International Pastry and Baking; Diploma in Culinary Arts or in International Pastry and Baking.
Campuses: Montpelier, Vermont
Degrees/Programs: Bachelor of Arts or Associate of Occupational Studies in Culinary Arts; Bachelor of Arts or Associate of Occupational Studies in Food and Beverage Business Management; Associate of Occupational Studies in Professional Baking; Certificate in Professional Cooking or in Professional Baking and Pastry.
Campuses: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Degrees/Programs: Associate of Applied Arts and Sciences Degrees in Culinary Arts and Culinary Management; Certificate in Baking and Pastry.
Campus: San Antonio, Texas
Degrees/Programs: Associate of Applied Science Degrees in Culinary Arts, Baking and Pastry Arts, and Restaurant Management.
Campuses: Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky
Degrees/Programs: Bachelor of Science in Hospitality Management; Associate of Science in Culinary Arts, Baking, and Pastry Arts; Associate of Science in Hotel and Restaurant Management or in Beverage Management; Professional Baker Diploma.