Having a formal education is a wonderful thing to be able to put on a resume. Training under an experienced Chef can also teach you just as much practical information. There are pro and cons to both. Culinary schools are more structured environments. Apprenticeships are more unstructured environments. If you have the opportunity to do both, I would highly recommend it.
Culinary Schools Pros:
* Culinary schools look good on a resume.
* Culinary schools give a more structured environment to learn in.
* Culinary schools give broad examples and teachings that cross different types of cuisines and styles of cooking.
* Culinary schools have valuable resources and the opportunity to research independently.
* Culinary schools give a person the opportunity to make future industry contacts.
* Culinary schools give what you get out of them.
* Culinary schools teach basic skills along with business basics.
Culinary Schools Cons:
* Culinary school classes can be unrealistic. Six or more people working the grill station in a restaurant is not the reality of what it is really like in the industry.
* Culinary schools can be very expensive. Evaluate whether you want to be paying off college bills for many years.
* Culinary schools may give students unrealistic expectations. Not everyone is going to become an Executive Chef after graduating from a school.
* Apprenticeships give a person a taste of what really working in a kitchen is like.
* Apprenticeships can give you the opportunity to work under many different types of Chefs, and work one on one with them.
* During an apprenticeship, you make money while you are learning.
* The lack of formal education may hurt you in some hiring environments.
* As an apprentice you may not learn as much about the business aspects as you will need to in order to become a Chef.
* Apprenticeship may lack fundamentals that a formal education can and will teach you.
My best recommendation would be to work (or when all else fails) volunteer to work unpaid in a professional kitchen for at least a few months if not longer before you decide to go to school. Unfortunately many people who go right into culinary schools out of high school have no idea what working in a “real” kitchen is like. Boy they generally are in for a big shock.
So before you go spending big bucks on a school make sure you are going to like the industry first before you dive right in. Not all culinary graduates get to be Head Chefs and “in the News.” If you look at the statistics, a year after graduation, over 15% of graduates do not stay in the field, over 40% are still line cooks and 15-20 years after graduation, many are burned out and have changed careers. I know that in my graduating class at CIA, approximately 50% plus are no longer cooking, many of us have migrated to other hospitality industry jobs: food sales, purchasing, product development, etc. but we are we are not sweating in our whites any longer.
Half of the chefs and cooks I have worked with over the years have never been to cooking school and they are just as well trained, knowledgeable and talented as ones who have spent the money to be traditionally educated. There is no “wrong way” to get into the field. Regardless of what you decide to do, you get out of it what you put into it.