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. In 2014 there are literally hundreds if not thousands of programs with new programs opening almost constantly.
There are several categories of programs: AOS (Associates of Occupational Studies Degree), Certificate programs and limited programs with classes on one specific area of Culinary Arts or Foodservice, Bachelors programs and even an increase in Masters programs related to the industry. Interspersed with these are courses with curriculums suited for general public / food enthusiast rather than culinary professionals, that give the impression that they are for food professionals.
Amazingly there are now programs that offer on line only culinary training. (We are in NO WAY affiliated with any of them, nor do we endorse or recommend them)
A wide spectrum or organizations offer these 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 are available from all of the different types of 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 and/or ACF Accredited?
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. There are several organizations that give "Academic Accreditation" and they are not all created equally. This is too big an issue and will be covered here and will be discussed in a separate article.
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.
(Special note: "Endorsed" is a very ambiguous term that can not be equated with Accredited)
AOS or Certificate program?
The reality is that less that 5% of culinary program graduates will be in the kitchen after 5 years. Consider your future, not just your immediate desire to be a Chef. An AOS, especially from an Academically Accredited School, will give you a college degree that you can point to for positions outside of foodservice.
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!)
- Do all student 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?
- 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.
- 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.)
Most 2-year programs have an externship component made up of work in a foodservice establishment.
- 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.
- 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 in writing that you will rotate through all the departments.
Does the program have a restaurant the feeds the public?
Better 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.
- 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. (Unless in a specialty area such as Garde Manger, then 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 active 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 lenders".
I have given you a lot of different issues for you to investigate and evaluate before you choose a program. Will you program fulfill ALL of these issues? Most likely NOT! You have to evaluate your own needs, family responsibilities, finances and your ability to travel to a school. 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.