Want cooking to be your career? Major in culinary arts

If you want to make a living in the culinary industry, using classical techniques to create innovative dishes, then a culinary arts degree might be the perfect first step. Unlike hospitality management degrees, which typically focus on the administrative side of the industry, degrees in culinary arts prepare you to thrive in the fast-paced environment of a commercial kitchen.

The methods and techniques taught at culinary school have, in some cases, been perfected over centuries. You can learn a lot by practicing on your own, but a solid foundation of professional knowledge can help you get to the top of your game as quickly as possible. But not all culinary school degrees have the same focus or cover the same subjects. From a management track to a degree in pastry arts, there's a lot you can do in the kitchen. Read on for more information about different culinary arts programs and how they work.

Culinary management

It may surprise you that there are degrees at certain culinary schools that don't require students to chop a single onion, but culinary academies understand that well-run kitchen and restaurant operations are important components of an enjoyable dining experience. Culinary management degrees are typically available at the bachelor's or master's level, with culinary arts associate programs often including a few key courses.

Q&A with a master chef

We talked to Patrick Poblete, executive chef at Rancho De Los Caballeros in Wickenburg, Arizona, about culinary training and why he loves his job.

1. What's the most important thing you learned in culinary school?

Culinary school taught me the basics of food handling, food preparation, and safety.

2. What degree did you get and why?

I have a bachelor of science degree in business administration from San Diego State, which afforded me the opportunity to understand the business and human resources side of the culinary field. My associate degree from the California Culinary Academy gave me specific knowledge about working with food.

3. What inspired you to go to culinary school?

I was working in the medical records department of Scripps Clinic, a major hospital in San Diego. I had my business degree at the time and I began thinking, would I be doing this if I wasn't getting paid? Unfortunately, the answer was no. Then I thought, well, if I am going to make a career for myself it had better be one that I enjoy. My loves at the time were surfing, golf and cooking. Let's just say, I'm a better cook than a golfer!

4. What was your favorite thing about your degree program?

We were exposed to a wide variety of cultures and techniques.

5. What's the best thing about working in the culinary industry?

I like the art of it. The creative outlet, solving problems creatively. I also like a fast-paced environment.

6. What advice do you have for students thinking about enrolling in culinary school?

Stretch yourself and take advantage of every opportunity. You never know which aspect of culinary you will end up in. Just because you enjoy baking now, doesn't necessarily mean that you should limit yourself to that one field.

Here's a list of subjects that students in culinary management training programs might study:

  • Cost control
  • Sustainable purchasing
  • Event management
  • Organizational development
  • Managerial accounting
  • International hospitality traditions
  • Legal and ethical issues in the culinary industry

Many students who take the management track are interested more in the business side of things, but there are blended degree options. If you're interested in cooking as well as management, culinary arts bachelor's degrees often cover both sides of the industry.

Culinary arts

The most common degrees at culinary schools are heavily kitchen-focused and designed for students dedicated to the art of the chef. Non-degree certificates in certain specific aspects of the culinary arts may be available, but degrees in the field are primarily available at the following levels:

Culinary arts associate degrees

Associate degrees in culinary arts give students a thorough fundamental education in the tools and techniques of professional chefs. Here are some subjects common to a culinary arts associate degree curriculum:

  • Culinary fundamentals
  • Food safety
  • Nutrition
  • Culinary math
  • Introductory gastronomy
  • Banquet cooking
  • High-volume cooking
  • Global cuisines

Most associate programs take around two years to complete, at least for full-time students, and they focus on kitchen skills and practice. Some administrative courses may be included as well.

Culinary arts bachelor's degrees

Bachelor's degrees in culinary arts differ from associate programs in that they go deeper into history, theory and administration, often pairing cooking skills with management. Here are some courses that begin to show up in culinary programs at the bachelor's level, beyond what associate degrees cover:

  • Food science
  • Menu design
  • Food and beverage pairing
  • French, Italian, Chinese or other language study
  • Ecology of food
  • Consumer behavior
  • Hospitality technology
  • Food writing

Bachelor's degrees in culinary arts can take four years or more to complete, depending on whether students are full- or part-time, but those who have already earned an associate degree can often finish the bachelor's curriculum in two years or less.

Culinary arts specialties and online degrees

It may seem surprising, but advancements in distance education technology have made it possible to earn culinary degrees online. Kitchen skills courses can still only be properly taught in person, but chefs with enough practical experience can grow their management and operations skill set with a culinary arts bachelor's degree online. These online programs can be an excellent choice for working professionals who want to boost their career options, and they can be pursued through a variety of different culinary schools.

In addition, brushing up on certain specialties with non-degree programs can help you stay up-to-date in the industry. Here are a few specialties you might study in these programs:

  • Culinary science
  • Baking and pastry arts
  • Wine and beverages
  • Culinary operations
  • Applied food studies

Culinary arts degrees can also be earned at the master's level, although graduate programs typically shift focus to the management side of things in upper-division courses.

Culinary arts certifications and professional associations

Professional culinary arts certifications can help trained chefs get the most from their careers. The ProChef certification from the Culinary Institute of America is one example, with three levels of increasing expertise available for chefs whose appetite for knowledge is bottomless.

There are also some industry associations that culinary school graduates can join to help grow their professional network:

  • International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP)
  • American Culinary Federation (ACF)
  • American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA)
  • Bread Baker's Guild of America

In addition, your culinary school may also have an alumni association, which can help you stay connected to a primary source of culinary expertise throughout your career.

Sources:

Culinary Management Course List, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh,
http://www.aionline.edu/culinary-management-degree/courses/

Master of Culinary Arts, Atlantic International University,
http://aiu.edu/master%20of%20culinary%20arts.htm

Degrees and Certificates, The Culinary Institute of America,
http://www.ciachef.edu/degree-and-certificate-programs/

Online Culinary Programs, Le Cordon Bleu,
http://www.chefs.edu/programs/le-cordon-bleu-online-programs

Food and Beverage Specialties, Hennepin Technical College,
https://www.hennepintech.edu/program/awards/405

Membership Benefits, National Restaurant Association,
http://www.restaurant.org/Membership/Member-Benefits

Online Bachelor's in Culinary Arts, New England Culinary Institute,
http://www.neci.edu/online/online-education-at-neci/online-ba-culinary-arts

Patrick Poblete, Executive Chef at Rancho De Los Caballeros, Interviewed by the author via email, September 24, 2014

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