Going to school for a culinary arts degree can evoke visions of Julia Child and French cuisine. However, today’s students are learning much more than how to prepare coq au vin. They have to know about international ingredients, global politics and fancy point-of-sale computer systems. They have to be part sommelier, part nutritionist and part food specialist. In addition, they have to learn to run a business, from purchasing to pricing.
Nevertheless, that’s not scaring people away. Careers in the culinary arts field are growing in popularity. People are leaving other fields in the down economy, perhaps harboring dreams of being the next Bobby Flay or Rachael Ray.
To help them prepare, culinary arts schools are rushing to expand their programs. Historically, the food and beverage industry has been one of the easiest to get into. But employers expect more advanced skills now.
Why the increased interest in culinary arts degrees?
People are more and more interested in food. The media attention on food has just increased the interest in the population at large. Simply put, chefs were not celebrities 10 or 15 years ago – now they are. Of course, not everyone will become a celebrated television chef. Still, that’s not stopping people from jumping on the culinary bandwagon.
The dramatic rise in interest can be attributed in large part to the glamorization of food jobs, thanks to popular cooking shows and media coverage of food careers. But the culinary arts have also experienced a surge of interest because of the growing number of people quitting 9-to-5 desk jobs to follow their dreams.
Culinary arts programs teach more than just cooking.
Today’s culinary arts programs provide a well-rounded education in business and management as well as the technical aspects of cooking. Things like how to determine how many people you should have on staff in relation to how much business you are getting, or how to price out menus are taught. A chef may cook a tasty meal, but if he prices it out wrong, he won’t make money. Those skills are increasingly important, and many college programs are being revamped to meet this need. There is more of an emphasis on entrepreneurial subject matter, since most students at some point want to own their own bakery or restaurant.
With 60 percent of restaurants failing within the first three years of operation, equipping students with the skills to cook and operate a business is increasingly important.
Is it worth it?
Of course, a big degree to follow your big dream can cost big bucks. Most culinary programs take at least two years to complete. Some take longer.
The career potential is solid. Demand for chefs, head cooks and other similar workers is on the rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of chefs and head cooks nationally would grow from 115,000 to 124,000 between 2006 and 2016. For food service managers, that figure will grow from 350,000 to 368,000 in the same period.
With interest in such jobs and competition for them growing, some students say the degrees are worth it for the skills they learn and the edge it gives them. While many restaurant owners don’t see the degrees as necessities, there’s no denying a degree can help you get your foot in the door. Most fine-dining restaurants are looking for you to have experience and also have the degree.