Does your passion for cooking burn brighter than flambé? Do you dream of toques and checkerboard pants? Do you feel recharged after spending hours in the kitchen?
Then a culinary arts major might be right for you.
What you’ll be doing
Culinary arts in the United States is mostly based in European tradition, so chances are you’ll become classically trained in French techniques. That means you’ll learn your julienne from your batonnet, the “mother sauces” and the principles of mise en place. Your class time will likely separate into sections of short lectures followed up by live demonstrations or labs, so be prepared to get your hands dirty. Many programs aren’t set up like a typical four-year degree—depending on your career goals and your specification, you can emerge diploma-in-hand in as little as two years or even just a few months.
Don’t assume that short means easy, though. The journey to mastering culinary arts is a fast-paced, full-time affair. In fact, if you have your eye on more prestigious positions, you might want to gain experience before even starting your degree. Culinary Institute of America alumni Michael Adéolá Elégbèdé suggests “doing at least a year in a fine establishment just to acquaint [yourself] with the expectations of the industry.”
The classes you’ll take
Classes in the culinary arts major tend to build off each other. Students typically start with Culinary Fundamentals, which covers safe food handling practices, sanitation and preparing the basics. Once you’re chopping vegetables like a pro, you’ll sharpen your knives for Meat Fabrication, A.K.A. the procedure of separating proteins into ready-to-cook pieces. Most programs also include courses on the various aspects of restaurant management, and you’re likely to practice on your peers in your school’s own restaurant. You’ll also learn international approaches to cooking in classes like Flavors of the Mediterranean or Cuisines of Asia. And no course is complete without something sweet, so plan to dabble in Baking and Pastry too. Time to put all those hours spent watching Cupcake Wars to use.
Internships for this major
Part of the fun of culinary arts is the huge variety of internships available. Many schools require internship (or externship) programs in which students place into temporary positions in restaurants for a taste of the ramped-up “real world” of professional cooking before graduation. Advisors work with students to find their perfect fit with an industry employer. From cooking for star-studded establishments like Eleven Madison Park to testing recipes for the Food Network or prepping luxurious meals in any hotel you could think of…anywhere there’s food, there’s opportunity. “There’s always going to be a place for chefs no matter what,” Le Cordon Bleu San Francisco alumni Cassi Roots said. Everyone’s gotta eat.
1. Executive Chef
As an exec chef, you act as captain of the kitchen. Your job is making sure everyone and everything is under control as you lead staff, make decisions and solve problems. Executive chefs ensure that everything other chefs cook is top-notch. Without your approval, dishes can’t go out to customers. Another role of exec chefs is preparing special dishes and create mouthwatering menus tailored to specific events or diets. Now is the time to unleash your inner Sookie St. James.
2. Food and beverage manager
Food and beverage managers work in the “front of the house,” meaning they oversee everything that happens in the dining room. F&B managers supervise, recruit other front of the house staff, enforce health and safety standards all while dealing directly with guests. Being the F&B manager means flexing those customer service skills so everyone leaves the restaurant with a smile on their face and recommendations for their friends.
3. Restaurant manager
Many of the responsibilities mentioned before cross over with being a restaurant manager. But as a restaurant manager, get ready for even more interaction with human resources, careful review of budgets and legal codes and having a hand on advertising. Culinary arts majors who become managers often own their restaurant too, meaning they collaborate with the head chef on planning the menu. And having knowledge of what spices blend best together automatically gives your restaurant five stars.
4. Food stylist
If your Instagram feed looks like a #foodporn meal diary, then food styling might be in your future. The job of a food stylist is to “pretty up” dishes for photographs until they look too perfect to eat. A great food stylist lies behind every colorful Martha Stewart magazine cover and combines the artistry of arranging meals like bouquets with the science of actually making the food look believably drool-worthy.
In public, nutritionists get the word out about healthy eating and research the effects of food on the body. In private, nutritionists work with clients to figure out their specific dietary needs and how to meet them best. Majoring in culinary arts gives nutritionists a major boost in the field: After all, it’s way easier to hype up healthy food when you know how to make it tasty. Yes, apparently green juices don’t have to taste like grass.
“Culinary school helps you appreciate ingredients so much more because you understand every step that it takes, from being in the ground to being on the plate and everything in-between…Culinary school helped me shape the way I think of food.”—Michael Adéolá Elégbèdé, owner of ÌTÀN restaurant and former chef de partie at NoMad
“For cooking, there’s literally over 100 ways to do one thing, like to roast a carrot…In culinary school you use one of those ways. And in the industry, everyone will do something different…Culinary school gave me a base of what I should know, I need to know and the science behind things.“—Steven Che, chef at Domu
“It’s been two years, and I still use the same techniques from my…foundations class. I still use those every day at home when I’m cooking for my family, and I use them at work when I’m cooking for my customers. Those foundations stand pretty much over everything that I cook and serve.”—Cassi Roots, home-based baker and Fremont Senior Center volunteer chef