Culinary schools are a fairly recent invention. Until the 20th century, aspiring chefs were trained by the apprentice system. Apprenticeships in Europe usually began at 13 or 14; initially they were unpaid and open-ended but evolved into a period of three years, after which the young cook could get a real job and begin the process of working his way through the ranks of the kitchen. The system survives today as the stage, a brief stint (again unpaid) in the kitchen or dining room of a top restaurant.
In 1877 the Boston Cooking School became the first culinary school in America, although the students were primarily homemakers (Fanny Farmer was the principal at one point). The Culinary Institute of America, or CIA, was established in 1946 and gave rise to an industry of training students in the culinary arts. Today it’s almost assumed that a young cook will receive a formal culinary education rather than the totally hands-on version of old.
Cooking schools thrived until March, when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered restaurants as well as institutions of higher learning. Colleges and universities are currently struggling with whether to bring students back in the fall or continue with virtual education. Learning by computer may work if you’re studying political science or mathematics, but there’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty in the kitchen. Without practical instruction, culinary schools may be shuttered for a while.
On top of that, the National Restaurant Association estimates that between 20-30% of American restaurants won’t survive the pandemic. For a culinary school graduate, getting a decent job was difficult before COVID-19; now it might be nearly impossible. The NRA projects that independent restaurants will be the major casualty of the virus, while chains will have a better economic foundation to allow them to reopen. The best cooking schools are far from cheap: tuition at the CIA costs $36,000 per year, and Johnson & Wales is nearly as much. The cruel truth is that no one spends that kind of money to become a line cook at Red Lobster.
While restaurants will always exist, no one knows what changes will occur and what the immediate future holds. Culinary schools, along with many other learning institutions, may well be in for a bumpy ride.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first two novels, Friend of the Devil and The American Crusade, are available on Amazon; his third novel, Impeachment, will be released in October.