I’m bedazzled at the volume of emails I receive from cooking schools promising young people that they can become a chef, or even a master chef, after taking their 9 month course.  Has everyone gone completely nuts?

How stupid is the American public?  Does anyone actually believe that bull?  Come on!  I guess common sense has long since been lost in American education, parenting and society in general.  Heck, they even say “To become a master chef, restaurant owner and millionaire – Click Here”.  Okay, sure!  Anyone believing this should be institutionalized and I don’t mean at a cooking school.

Paul BocuseIn Europe, a master chef is not created overnight.   It takes years, starting usually as a youngster of 11 or 12, working in kitchens owned by a relative or friend of the family.  Paul Bocuse, pictured here has nurtured thousands of Europe’s chefs through his kitchen, yet only a handful are deemed “master” today.  He too rose through the ranks to become one of Europe’s greatest.

From the most menial position, one learns different stations in the kitchen and by the time you’re 20, you’re a prep cook (if you’ve been a good student).  From there, it takes another two years to move to the line, and still longer to make it to the front of the line and if you’re really lucky, sous chef by 26.  Only the most talented will rise even that fast.

At some point, someone will believe in you to give you a job as a chef, where you’ll be in charge of your own kitchen, with your own crew to manage. Another four years and someone will recommend you participate in a culinary event and by 30, you might be deemed a master, provided, of course, people actually love and respect your food style.

The number of Master of Executive Chefs in the world is extremely small compared to cooks, just as the number of successful film stars is merely a miniscule fraction of the number of actors. It takes extreme skill, hard work, and many, many years of dedicated learning and effort.

In America, we’ve shortened some of the process because we’d never let our pampered lazy kids take a job at 11, nor 15, nor even 17 in our kitchens. No, our kids have to go to school, learn very little about the real world and come out expecting to become Chairman of General Foods or Executive Chef at the Waldorf.

The US system is, somewhat faster, but I won’t say better than the European. Here, we’d send an 18 year old to culinary school, and if the kid is lucky, to a minimum 2 year school or one of the best 9 month programs like French Culinary Institute. Even these leave me, as a consultant chef, wanting, as the graduates generally have no clue what they’re doing in the real world. You have only to watch an episode of TOP CHEF! to see what I mean.

Yet in promoting these fictional career opportunities via bombardments of email, some schools really make people believe they can accomplish the impossible. Wake UP! All you’re doing is signing away your credit and paying an unscrupulous school good money for an education that can, at best, start you out as a prep-cook at $20K a year. You’re not going to be an Executive chef, and forget Master, it’s not going to happen.  Be realistic.  You’re going to need much more than a few months of cooking classes.

If someone really wants to be a chef, you have to find a happy medium between the European and American systems. Start work in the restaurants as early as possible and spend four years going to Johnson & Wales, Culinary Institute or even French Culinary (with extended course work). Learn not only how to cook, but also the economics of the kitchen, and how to plan a balanced, financially sound menu. Parents, don’t be such namby-pambies. If your child shows a talent for cooking at 10, get him into commercial kitchens at 15 or 16 and let him work summers instead of sitting in front of the television or guzzling beers behind your back. Take him or her off the skateboard, surfboard or away from the iPod and put the little terror into a good, solid career.

From the time I was six, my grandparents had taught me cooking, how to handle a knife, cook a steak, grill meats and prepare vegetables. I worked in my cousin’s kitchens at 12 and learned from the ground up. I admit I did not work in the restaurant world through secondary school, but I learned, nevertheless. By the time I was 22, I was a prep-cook at Tour d’Argent in Paris, following my formal culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. After years of hard work, at 29, I was a Master and recipient of numerous awards for my skills.  Must add, I also had earned a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree.

Having run a restaurant/hotel consulting firm, published 9 websites, including this one, I have considerable respect in the world of gastronomy. But it took years, lots of learning by doing and a volume of reading that would boggle the mind (10,413 books in my library on food).  I clawed my way into this field, and let me say, it’s not easy.

Don’t be fooled either by shows like TOP CHEF!  Those pretty young faces are in their late 20’s to mid 40’s and all have excellent careers in the industry before going on that show for the prestige.  By the way, I remember the host as a young, brash chef fresh out of cooking school when he didn’t have a clue about food cost or menu engineering.  Today, he’s a chef/restaurateur/entrepreneur and quite successful and I’m proud to have known him way back when.

Ultimately, just think before you respond to one of those stupid emails. Realize that master chefs are generally older,  well-experienced, own their own restaurants and have 20 years in the business behind them.  Do you really think any cooking school is going to get you there in 9 months?

I am reminding young people and parents alike, don’t be fooled by those self-serving completely bull-(you know what) email ads.

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