For most of this year, I have been on an amazing journey…and, while it’s not quite over yet, the end is drawing very near. And that makes me pretty darn excited, but pretty darn sad at the same time. That journey is called culinary school, and it all started when a crazy idea popped into my head about a year ago.
On an otherwise normal weekday, I found myself perusing the recreational class schedule on the SF Cooking School website. I’d visited their site a number of times in the past and, admittedly, daydreamed about entering their professional program. But, given my full-time work schedule, I always filed that fantasy away under “maybe someday”. But this time, an update to their website caught my eye with the announcement of their first ever part-time culinary program. And, thus, a seed was firmly planted…I could finally pursue my dream of culinary school, while still holding down my day job.
That was August of last year, and by this January, I had entered a whole new world of professional culinary training…a world that, in so many ways, was exactly what I’d hoped for, but also full of surprises. I thought I’d share a little bit about my experience to answer many of the questions friends and family have asked along the way and also to help those that may be considering a similar journey of their own. (Warning: it’s a long one…)
The Application Process
At SF Cooking School, there is an application process to be accepted into the program, and one of the key qualifiers is having genuine interest in pursuing career interests in the culinary realm. That’s not to say, you must pursue the “traditional” chef path working in a restaurant kitchen; it can also include peripheral interests such as recipe testing, cookbook development, food styling, or my personal favorite (of course) food blogging! The bottom line is, it’s not the place for bored housewives to just hone their dinner party-hosting skills.
After requesting an application through their website, not only did I receive the application via email, but also a personal call from the founder of the school herself, Jodi Liano. We had a great chat about the application process, the format of the program, expectations of students, and what many alumni had gone on to do. Feeling very excited, I quickly turned in my application (which included two letters of reference and a short essay), and was thrilled when I was invited to the next stage of the process: the interview. That sounds like something that could be very intimidating, but in actuality was a lovely chat with Jodi and the Director of Admissions, Caroline, who are both genuinely interested in ensuring the school is a mutual fit for potential students. Shortly after the interview (a day or two), I was notified of my acceptance via an anxiously awaited call from Jodi.
If you’re someone who has ever looked into attending culinary school, then it won’t be news to you that it’s an expensive endeavor. In fact, cost is pretty much what kept me from pursuing other culinary programs when I first looked into them about 10 years ago. Thankfully, while by no means would I call it inexpensive, SF Cooking School has a much better price tag than some of the larger, “traditional” culinary schools I had looked into before (as much as 50% less). Plus, the part-time program allows the ability to maintain a day job (ie. keep the cash flow coming in) while attending school. After all, as became my mantra this year “culinary school isn’t going to pay for itself.”
For the part-time program, your tuition gets you eight months (14 hours per week) of classroom education, two uniforms, a tool kit (which includes a set of Wusthof knives), your student recipe binder, and a few reference books, including this tome, which is as close as we got to a textbook. The only required additional out-of-pocket expense is the purchase of black kitchen-appropriate shoes of your choice (I sprung for these puppies and have been very pleased). For additional information and specifics on tuition, I would recommend reaching out SF Cooking School directly for the current rates.
The Classroom Format
One of the first things that drew me to SF Cooking School was the small class size. My part-time class had just a dozen students, which meant plenty of personal attention in the classroom. Our 14 hours of class time per week were broken up as Tuesday/Thursday nights from 6:30pm to 10:30pm and Saturdays from 9:00am to 3:00pm over an eight-month period (full time students do about double the weekly hours in just four months). In addition to the regular coursework, students must also complete 30 “elective” hours, which may consist of culinary volunteer work outside of the classroom or assisting/attending some of the recreational classes publicly offered at the school. For example, I did things like assist a Macaron Baking class, volunteer at a La Cocina gala, and take a Candy & Confections Making class to contribute toward my hours.
A typical day in class looks like this…arrive about 15-20 minutes before class starts to change into your uniform and set up your station, which involves laying out your cutting board and whatever tools you’ll be using that day (typically a chef’s knife, paring knife, and a peeler). You also collect any new recipes that “Chef” (our instructor) has laid out, and then class starts promptly on time. The first 20-30 minutes or so are typically quasi-lecture format where recipes are reviewed and any new techniques are explained or demoed. Depending on difficulty level, lecture/demo lengths will vary. (For example, the chicken de-boning demo is a heck of a lot longer than the whipping egg whites demo). Then we break into teams (usually teams of two, sometimes four) and spend the next few hours cranking out recipes, pausing for any necessary help or ad hoc demos from Chef along the way. Once all the cooking is done, the table is set, and we sit down to feast together. Tasting of the food is an important (and required) aspect of the cooking process, and meal time is a chance to disucuss how certain ingredients or cooking methods effect the finished product. After the meal comes clean-up, where all surfaces are sanitized and the kitchen is left sparkling for the next day’s class. Then it’s back into street clothes and time to head home. (Important to note, with the exception of meal time, every minute spent in class is done on your feet, which prepares you for life in a real kitchen. It’s tough at first, but you definitely adjust to it quickly).
There are three exams over the course of the term, which are broken up into written and practical sections. While there isn’t necessarily a formal grading process for the class, the results of these tests are a good way for both you and Chef to guage your progress, identify areas of weakness, and just generally make sure you’re not totally clueless and/or a hazard in the kitchen. My classmates and I always got unnecessarily stressed over exams, but each scored just fine (if not, excellent) on all of them.
One of my my favorite aspects of the curriculum and what makes SF Cooking School such a unique place is the roster of guest instructors, industry panels, and field trips that are sprinkled throughout the course. Aside from learning the practical applications of cooking alone, we were exposed to industry professionals on a regular basis, who could tell us directly what they expect of new cooks, the decisions they made to build successful careers, and what kinds of opportunities await beyond culinary school, both in and out of the kitchen. One day we might be making pizzas with the Delfina team or hearing from a panel of local food writers, while next we may be getting a behind the scenes look at Greenleaf, touring the Williams Sonoma test kitchen, or foraging with a James Beard Award winner.
The speakers each possessed diverse experiences, yet all shared a common thread of relentless passion for what they do and, beyond that, a desire to share that passion to inspire the next crop of culinarians. Not a single person left without sharing their personal email address with us and encouraging us to reach out in the future (and we’re talking about seriously busy people running some of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco). One thing is for certain, when you leave SF Cooking School, you do so with a well established network of contacts throughout the Bay Area that includes the school administrators, your classmates, and all of the guest speakers…and, in my opinion, those interactions and relationships are a great deal of what your tuition pays for.
Near the end of the eight-month “classroom portion” of school, preparations begin for an exciting two nights of farewell dinners hosted for friends and family. Aptly titled “Restuarant Week”, the school is converted into a faux restuarant where new skills are put into action. Although the dinners occur over just two nights, preparation takes about two weeks leading up to the event as menu ideas are tossed around, tested, and finalized. The final offering is a three course meal with four options guests may choose from per starter, entree, and dessert course. The class is split up into two groups, with each group manning front of house one night and back of house the other.
Restaurant Week is such an exciting time to see all of your hard work and ideas cranking out of the kitchen in the form of actual food being eaten by actual guests. But it’s bittersweet as well, knowing you’ll soon be seeing far less of all the amazing classmates you’ve grown close to.
One of the biggest details not to be overlooked in pursuing a culinary education, is the completion of an externship. From what I’ve heard, externships are required by most culinary schools, and SF Cooking School is no exception. With our classroom education finished, we must complete 240 hours of unpaid work in a real-life professional kitchen, and that’s where I am now – about halfway through my hours, working at Prospect, a fine dining restaurant in downtown San Francisco. And let me tell you…it is no joke. While kitchen life can definitely be exciting, interesting, and fun, it is also very hard work, long hours, and fast paced. Oh, and you’re on your feet the whole time. (Not to mention, most of us part-time students are carrying on full-time day jobs in addition to externing 20 or more hours per week…and did I mentioned I’m 28 weeks pregnant? Ya, minor detail…)
For students that plan to continue down the restaurant path, these externships often turn into paid positions, once the gratuitous extern hours are complete. Personally, I’ve known from day one that the culinary school end game for me was never to work full-time in restaurants as my interests lie on the food media side. However, I’m so appreciative for the opportunity to round out my education with this professional kitchen experience. It’s been very eye opening for me to step away from my computer and away from the comfort zone of the classroom. There’s simply no substitute for the learn by doing approach, and, working the line during a busy dinner service, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
Externing deserves a whole post of its own, and I plan to share much more when I’m all finished. I would just stress now, when considering a culinary education, don’t underestimate the importance of the externship and your school’s ability to help you get placed at a respectable establishment. At SF Cooking School, they partner with some really amazing restaurants throughout San Francisco (and some of the nearby suburbs), and I would have been thrilled to work at any of them. In terms of choice, you don’t have final say on the exact restaurant you are placed at, but you are able to provide input as to cuisine and geographical preference, and they do their best to meet your requests. My classmates and I were all really happy with our placements, which included the likes of Frances, A16, Commonwealth, Locanda, Spruce, and many more.
The Case for Culinary School
There is ongoing debate across the industry as to whether culinary school is “necessary”, and it really depends on each individual. The reality is, sure, there are some kitchens out there that are willing to hire inexperienced cooks, particularly as most jobs start with a trial period or “stage”, which allows both the restaurant and cook to test each other out to determine if it’s a fit. If you work hard, pay attention, and show progress, chances are that restaurants will keep you on. Over time, you could certainly gain much of the knowledge that is picked up through culinary school and grow into a successful and experienced cook. (This approach works particularly well, if you have youth on your side).
However, given the choice, I personally think there is a huge advantage to “learning the ropes” in a condensed format via culinary school prior to setting foot in a professional kitchen, partularly if you’re getting a late start in the game (like me and most of my classmates). Externing in a professional kitchen today truly makes me appreciate the ability to have first cut my teeth learning in the calm, controlled, and relatively stress-free environment of the classroom, with the ability to ask lots of “dumb” questions (and trust me, I had like a million of them). While by no means did I learn nearly everything I need to know in school, I did learn a ton about kitchen equipment, ettiquette, terminololgy, technique, culture, safety, organization, cleanliness, food quality, ingredients, prep…and all of this made me a thousand times more comfortable the day I first walked into a professional kitchen than I otherwise would have been.
Additionally, since my end goal wasn’t simply to secure a cooking job in a restaurant, I really went into this hungry for the technical cooking foundation. My whole motivation was to become a more knowledgeable, credible cooking authority for the benefit of my blog and whatever opportunities may arise from my blog, and I do feel that I’m on the path to accomplishing that. So in my case, yes, I give a resounding thumbs up to culinary schoool! (And, actually, most of the cooks I’ve met in the professional kitchen so far have all been to culinary school as well).
So Now What?
My main focus now is full steam ahead to crank through my remaining externship hours. I jokingly call it “the race against the belly” to finish up before my pregnant belly inhibits me from navigating safely and comfortably in the kitchen. So far, I’ve been handling it pretty well, but also allowing myself ample down time to recouperate between shifts. If all goes according to plan, I should be finished around the end of October, when I’ll be about 33 weeks along.
After that, we’re on to the home stretch, with the baby due mid December. I’m planning to take it as easy as possible in my final weeks of pregnancy, and I’m sure I’ll be buried in new motherhood fog over the holidays and early next year. After that, I’m hoping/planning/preparing to get back on track with regular posting and figuring out the long term plan for Serving Seconds or other food media avenues I may want to explore.
I’m also really looking forward to the final culinary school wrap up when I reunite with all of my classmates at our graduation ceremony in January…crazy to think I will be a mother by that time, and my little one will be attending with me!
Needless to say, it’s been a whirlwind of a year full of interesting experiences, tons of new lessons learned, and, like so many new challenges in life, plenty of hard work. I’m grateful for the chance to have embarked on this journey and so excited for what’s yet to come…
If any readers out there have questions about SF Cooking School or culinary school in general, please feel free to reach out. I’m happy to share any additional info that you may find helpful. Good luck and happy cooking to all!!.
PS…thanks to Nancy, Bettyann, and SF Cooking School for a few of the borrowed pics.