How to Evaluate a Culinary Arts Program

In the late 1970's and early 1980's there were only a couple of schools available for students interested in a career in Culinary Arts. Today in 2010 there are over 552 programs world wide.

There are many different types and levels of programs.  Many High Schools offer Culinary Arts and there are College level programs that offer AOS, Bachelor and even Masters Degrees.  There are also Certificate programs.  Besides straight school programs there are Apprenticeship programs that combine real work experience with schooling.  I am going to be dealing with the higher education options for culinary programs.  If you are lucky enough to be in a community that offers a High School course or something similar  by all means consider it.  All of the ones I’ve seen are exceptional.

A wide spectrum or organizations offer Culinary arts programs:

  • Not For Profit Privately owned Schools
  • Public Secondary Education Programs
  • Public Junior College Programs
  • Privately Owned Not For Profit Universities
  • For Profit Schools
  • For Profit Networks of Schools
  • And I'm sure more flavors of the above

Quality programs offered by many of these organizations. Don't assume that just because a program is from a "Not For Profit" that it is any better than a "For Profit School". You have to look at ALL the issues. Most programs try their best to give a good education but the quality of programs and facilities varies widely.

To help you evaluate a program there are considerations and questions you should get answers for:

Is the Program Academically Accredited and by whom?

Academic Accreditation means that the college credits you receive from an AOS or Bachelors program can be applied to a non-culinary Bachelors or Masters Degree. This is very important when you realize that only small portions of graduates from culinary programs are actually in the kitchen after 5 years.  
Most schools today are accredited but the big question is by whom. Why does it matter?  There are two general types of accrediting agencies, national and regional. The main issue is the transferability of credits from one institution to another. While nationally accredited institutions will usually accept credit from regionally or nationally accredited institutions, regionally accredited schools often do not accept credit from nationally accredited institutions.
This also means that if you hold an associate's degree from a nationally accredited school, you may have to start over if you later decide to pursue a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited school. Similarly, if you hold a nationally accredited bachelor's degree, you may not be eligible to enter a master's program at some regionally accredited institutions. Considering that state colleges and universities are regionally accredited, and are an inexpensive local option for many students, this is definitely something to keep in mind, the also offer great value for your tuition dollars. Bottom line before you select a program check with any other school to see if the credits you are going to be paying big dollar for are accepted by that school.

Is the program ACF Accredited?

ACF (American Culinary Federation) Accreditation means that the program has gone through a truly exhaustive evaluation process from the ACF. This accreditation process evaluates curriculum, facilities, student teacher ratios, Certification of Chef Instructors and much more. Programs that are ACF Accredited have shown a dedication to top quality culinary education.


What are the facilities and environment like?

Schedule a visit the program you wish to attend during regular school hours. You deserve a tour of all facilities that a program offers. (If they don't let you see the facilities during class RUN don't walk away from the program they are hiding something!)

Things to look for on your visit:

  • Do all students have their own work stations?
  • Is there ample stove or prep space for all students?
  • Are all students actively involved with their class work?
  • Are there enough actual food products (chicken, fish, beef etc) being fabricated in the kitchen so all students get hands on experience?
  • Is the class organized and clean?
  • Is the Chef Instructor actively interacting with the students?

Student Body

  • Ask to talk to some current students, recent graduates and if possible graduates that are established in industry. Get feedback on their experience with the program while there and after graduation. Facebook.com is a great place to do this and we hope to be implementing this into the EOL Community as well.
  • In school do the students have a professional appearance?
  • Are their uniforms clean? Are they wearing them correctly? Are the well groomed?
  • Programs that permit a sloppy appearance while in class can also be lacking in other areas. (NOTE: Schools can only control what happens on their grounds, don't hold schools responsible for what is outside of their control- i.e. off campus behavior.)

Does the program require an Externship?

Most college level programs have an externship component made up of work in a foodservice establishment.
Things to consider about an externship:

  • Is there a formal externship office that is affiliated with top notch local and national restaurants and hotels that have been screened are reviewed for quality.
  • How long is the externship? The externship should compromise no more than 1/3 of the total hours advertised for the program. (NOTE: This does NOT apply to an ACF Certified Apprentice Program)
  • Is it a paid externship? You must be paid at least minimum wage for your internship. The quality of the experience is much more important that the wages paid.
  • Are extern locations screened for a structured learning experience of true value to the student?
  • What is the nature of the establishments affiliated with the extern programs? Ideally extern locations should be in from scratch kitchens (as much as possible), not corporate chains, buffet restaurants or bars/restaurants heating up preprocessed foods and flipping burgers.
  • Is there a Brigade System in place? As a chef you need to know all areas of the kitchen. In an establishment that has a Brigade system you get to spend time getting in depth experience in the different departments and stations.  On that note-
  • Do you get to rotate through different areas? Watch out for hotel, resort or restaurant externships where you are just used for banquet work. Get a schedule in writing spelling out how you will rotate through all of the departments.

Does the program have a restaurant or other outlets that serves the public?

Most of today’s programs have an on site restaurant that serves the public. The experience gained in this environment is in many cases the students' first taste of being in production. It shows that the school is proud of the food and students that it can produce. If a program does not offer this I would suggest looking elsewhere, unless you are already a seasoned line cook.

Faculty

  • How many Chef Instructors are there?
  • How many are ACF certified CCE's (Certified Culinary Educators) or other ACF or professional organization certifications?
  • What are the resumes of the Chef Instructors like?
  • Optimally at least 7 years of industry experience with 5 years of fine dining experience as a Working Chef. (In a specialty area such as Garde Manger, they should have similar experience in that area.)
  • How long is has the average faculty member been on staff?
  • Are student instructors used in place of faculty or does faculty teach all classes?

Other Resources and Issues

  • Is there a good library with a comprehensive collection of culinary resources?
  • Is there a placement office with a good selection of entry-level positions in quality establishments? Do employers also post middle and upper level positions with the office for alumni?
  • Is there an alumni program?
  • Is the school part of the community? Does it participate in local cultural and service events?
  • Is there a computer lab with Internet access?
  • If it is a boarding program are there student activities and fitness facilities available?
  • Do they offer field trips to culinary related facilities?
  • Is there a Financial Aid office that has leads on not only loans but scholarship opportunities for students. (A red flag is a Financial Aid Office that just offers you loan papers from their "special" lender.

Consider an ACF Certified Apprenticeship Program!

Why?-

  • Receive mentoring from an ACF-certified or certifiable chef
  • Participate in an “earn while you learn” approach
  • Develop real-world skills based on job experience
  • Pursue career paths that provide long term financial security
  • Receive nationally recognized credentials upon completion
  • Develop documented culinary skills that are transferable
    Note: Source The ACF Apprenticeship Brochure

I believe that this is by far the best way to get your culinary education.  Not only do you  get the ability to present a resume with real world experience,  instead of just a diploma or certificate you get a degree and get paid as well.  Here is a link to a Map of the ACF Apprenticeship program locations.

Conclusion

I have given you a lot of different issues to investigate and evaluate before you choose a program. Will your program fulfill ALL of these issues?  In the past there were only on or two but now there are many programs that do but today you have many choices. You have to evaluate your own needs, family responsibilities, finances and your ability to travel to a program that fits your needs. Make a check list of the issues that are important to you and compare the different programs that you are able to attend and make your own, now hopefully educated decision.

Do you have a recommendation for a particular school, anything to add that I missed or comments on a program you attended; we’d all love to hear them!

Cheers,

George