This is a slightly altered version of a real email that I wrote to a young man who found my blog and is considering culinary school, but had no real experience cooking. He wrote me that he was intrigued by cooking, and I thought it pertinent to share this advice with a wider audience. I get the "should I go to culinary school?" question all the time, and I think it really depends on your situation, but the following is the advice I give to anyone who is considering culinary school without some background in restaurants.
I can definitely relate, as it took me about 5 years of waffling back and forth before I finally decided to go to culinary school. I checked out FCI, ICE, CIA Hyde, J&W in various locations, AI in various locations, CCA, CSCA, and Western Culinary before deciding on OCI. Let me go ahead and squash your concerns about not being good enough for culinary school, because I didn't know shit about cooking besides what I had learned as a hobbyist cook and food geek, and most of the people around me at school knew even less. Now that I'm on the other side of it and have been cooking professionally for about 6 years, I feel that if I had to do it all over again, I would still go to culinary school, but I'm glad I had some restaurant experience before I went, and that's my advice to you if you want to know whether or not your cut out for this industry: GET SOME RESTAURANT EXPERIENCE.
Books/magazines/websites can supplement your education, but real learning comes from doing, and doing things over and over and over and over again until it's muscle memory and/or intuition. You will do this at culinary school to an extent, but I think it's best to know before you make that career move and investment. Is there a place in your town you can go in and do prep when you're not in school? Even a little family-run diner that does things from scratch will be able to show you the inner workings of a restaurant. If you're lucky and there's a nice-ish restaurant nearby, see if you can get a weekly stage (stage= French word for unpaid trial period). A lot of cooks and chefs do stages in other restaurants to expand their horizons. If you can go into a restaurant, offer your services one or two days a week for free (Saturday mornings/afternoons are great, as most restaurants need extra hands for prepping Saturday night service), and just be their yes man for a few weeks/months, you will learn A LOT. Even if it's just for one night. Most of all, you will see what it's like in real life, and whether or not you're really cut out for this line of work/life. And also whether or not you want to invest in culinary school.
Cooking in a professional kitchen is nothing at all like cooking for your family or what you see in cooking shows; For the first few years of pro cooking especially, it's a lot of hard work for little pay, not seeing your non-restaurant friends or family, not getting "normal" days off, and simply following orders ("Yes Chef!"). You're cooking other people's recipes and menus, and you're doing it their way, and your doing the same thing over and over, night after night. You're paying your dues and building your foundation. You're not exercising your creativity, and you're not writing menus and coming up with dishes. You're lucky to have an idea of yours show up on a menu in your first three to five years of cooking--I still remember the day I got an oyster mignonette on the menu, almost a year into my first job. I felt like I climbed a mountain. I didn't get anything else on a menu for another 2 years, when my chef was stuck in NY during a snowstorm and the sous asked me to come up with a pasta special for just that night. One menu item and one sauce in my first three years, out of hundreds of menu items I cooked. You're burning/cutting/breaking yourself in new and weird ways, and you're eating irregularly at best. You burn shit and your chef gets pissed and you feel worse than you ever have, until you fuck up that other thing and your sous almost beats your ass. You're really tired and you eat Hot Pockets for dinner after service at 1AM because you don't have the energy to cook for yourself after cooking all day.
BUT! If you have the "it", the X-factor, the thing that lives in us crazy cooks and chefs that forces you night after night to work your ass off and do better than you did before and want to be better for your Chef and want to be better for all your coworkers, you will thrive in this environment. You will soak it up like a sponge, and question every technique and every step, even as you're doing things the way you've been taught. You want to know the "why" of it all, and you'll start to figure out the "why" that makes the most sense to you. You're okay knowing that your cooking job will not make you wealthy, unless you luck into a high-paying corporate gig that somehow doesn't suck your soul. All this said, I really loved and cherished my time at OCI, and I would definitely do it all over again if I had the chance. So much of your success in culinary school is dependent on the work you put into it-- you get out of it what you put into it, really and truly. I showed up early and stayed late every day; I turned in every assignment on time; I did all the extra credit and volunteered for all the off-site events; I asked every single instructor every stupid question I could think of. It's a really safe and fun place to learn, and of all the culinary schools out there, OCI does the best job of putting the "real world" of cooking into perspective--you're doing tons of knife work and kitchen techniques daily. But there's also a ton of culinary math and exams and book knowledge that you must know to pass, and I swear it's vital further down the line. As a chef currently I'm constantly swimming in spreadsheets and numbers, and my Harold McGee is never too far away.
Speaking of which, I know you asked for some book/reading recommendations, to which I will recommend:
- On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee. This is the driest reading of all time but it's a great reference when you want to know why meat turns brown and crispy, and what the difference is exactly between a poach and a sear.
- Any cookbook by James Peterson. He does a great job with explaining history of food, and his basics are always solid.
- Joe Beef cookbook. One of my favorites in the last year, reads like a novel in some ways.
- Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home. This was the first cookbook I ever read that really imprinted in me the idea that there's more than one way to do things "right" when it comes to cooking.
God there are so many other cookbooks I could recommend... The French Laundry, River Cottage, Zuni Cafe, Baking Illustrated, Fat Duck, even Joy of Cooking. Get thee to a bookstore and sit your ass in the cookbooks section for a good long while.
-http://linecook415.blogspot.com/The blog of Richie Nakano, current chef of Hapa Ramen in SF. Specifically his blog entries from 2007-2009, while he was sous chef at NoPa. They're gut-wrenchingly accurate tales from line cooking, and really rung true to me in my first few years of cooking.
- Lucky Peach Magazine. The only paper magazine I subscribe to.
So that's probably either way too much information or not at all the answer you were hoping for, but I hope I was able to help in some small way. Good luck with whatever you decide, and there's a great farmer's market at the PSU park blocks every Saturday from March-December :). Let me know if you have other questions.