$50K per year for a degree in a low-wage industry − is culinary school worth it?


America’s culinary schools are feeling the heat.

When chef Gordon Ramsay appeared on an episode of the YouTube series “Last Meal” in January 2024, he described U.S. culinary schools as “depressing” places that “sandbag” students with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt before releasing them into a low-wage industry.

He added that graduates are pressured to select jobs that will put them in the best position to pay off their loans, rather than ones that will give them opportunities to learn and grow as chefs. Ramsay singled out the Culinary Institute of America, one of the most prestigious cooking schools in the country, as it sets students at its New York campus back US$52,090 per academic year.

Then, at the end of February, The New York Times published a compilation of interviews from 30 chefs around the U.S. They chimed in on a range of topics, but they were pretty much in lockstep when it came to culinary degrees:

“People ask me, ‘What’s a good culinary school to go to?’” chef Justin Pioche said. “And I always tell them: Don’t go.”

Chef Robynne Maii added, “I always sing the praises of culinary school, but in community colleges only. All the for-profit schools need to go away. They’re completely unnecessary and they’re predatory.”

These sentiments are not unique to culinary schools.

Trade, technical and for-profit schools are routinely criticized for their lopsided cost-to-benefit ratio, with scholars such as Tressie McMillan Cottom and A.J. Angulo arguing that many of them have predatory financial processes baked into their business models. There has been a similar critique – often tinged with political undercurrents – over graduate degrees in the humanities, arts and social sciencesdescribed by the Wall Street Journal as “elite master’s degrees that don’t pay off.”

Yet thousands of aspiring chefs continue to enroll in expensive culinary schools, rather than learn on the job while being paid. And in the research for my book on notions of success in the culinary industry, I found that many graduates from these institutions actually feel their experiences were worth the price of admission.

What might explain this paradox?

Beyond dollars and cents

Cooks and chefs regularly debate the merits of culinary school.

It’s also a question I asked 50 U.S.-based kitchen workers during a study I conducted from 2018 to 2020. Of those 50 workers, 22 had attended culinary school. And of those 22 chefs, 17 believed their education was worth the cost – over three-quarters.

They were clear-eyed about how much they would earn after graduation – very little – and they also grasped that the debt would constrain their future work choices.

Yet, to them, the worth of their schooling didn’t hinge on wages and earning power.

Instead, they found immense value in the friendships and connections they forged – and in learning the culture of commercial kitchens. Social scientists have terms for these benefits: social capital and cultural capital.

Interviewees described being able to meet mentors through school events, gain experience in award-winning kitchens through internships, form relationships with classmates and always have a degree to point to as proof of know-how.

Culinary school was particularly helpful for individuals who felt socially disadvantaged in some way. They may have lacked connections and experience, or they were a minority in an industry where white men are more likely to serve as executive chefs.

“Because I am a female it was harder for me to get a sous-chef job,” one chef explained to me. “I mean, I saw kids who were not nearly as skilled as I was who got sous-chef positions, and I’d always get passed up. But I really feel that that education [from the Culinary Institute of America] – especially as a woman – really helped me. A lot. I would’ve never got the jobs I got without it.”

In her 2015 book “At The Chef’s Table,” sociologist Vanina Leschziner found that elite chefs claim to not weigh academic degrees highly while hiring, a sentiment also found by the food website Eater. At the same time, Leschziner found that 85% of elite chefs in San Francisco and New York were culinary school graduates, with 67% holding degrees from the Culinary Institute of America.

At face value, it’s possible that degrees and certificates are dismissed or overlooked during the hiring process. But social connections are not. So perhaps the networks and friendships formed during schooling are a big reason why most high-status restaurants are staffed by culinary school graduates.

With these industry realities in mind, culinary school doesn’t seem to “sandbag” students; instead, it helps them overcome barriers that they ordinarily couldn’t.

Not all culinary schools are alike

Based on my interviewees’ enthusiasm, culinary school degrees seem like a no-brainer. But there are caveats.

First, these largely positive perceptions of culinary school came primarily from students who had gone to the Culinary Institute of America. Attendees of college or for-profit programs, such as the now-shuttered U.S. Le Cordon Bleu campuses, were less pleased about their experience, with just 66% feeling like their degree was worth it, compared with 90% of those I interviewed with degrees from the Culinary Institute of America. While some of this discontent was due to quality of instruction, a large part was related to schools’ prestige.

There are about 260 culinary programs across the nation. Schools at the top of the hierarchy, such as the Culinary Institute of America and the Institute of Culinary Education, are seen as places where high-status networks can be honed. This is, in part, a result of filtering out those who can’t afford to pay.

A degree from a top school is associated with the high-caliber restaurants and chefs that Leschziner wrote about; a degree from a lesser-known program likely yields far less social and cultural capital.

Second, I spoke only to individuals who still work in the industry, and that’s just a fraction of the culinary school population. Not all who attend remain in the industry. In fact, my interviewees estimated that only one-third of their classmates still cooked professionally.

Those who stick around likely present a more positive take: They had finished school and had found some measure of success in a notoriously brutal industry. Had I spoken to the two-thirds of graduates who had left the industry, this article might read differently.

Finally, because students devote a lot of time and money to an experience that yields little financial return on investment, adopting a rosy outlook on their schooling may smooth over any inner turmoil that might arise as they judge themselves and their past decisions.

A foot in the door

Determining the value of expensive culinary education is tough.

It can also detract from the very real problem of predatory and overpriced schooling, especially as the cost of higher education – in all forms – continues to rise, to the point of excluding large swaths of the population.

What’s clear to me, though, is that finances are not the sole – nor most important – reason why people choose to attend pricey culinary programs. My interviewees viewed culinary school as a social experience, one that provides meaningful networking and cultural opportunities to students and alumni.

As one award-winning chef told me, “If I wouldn’t have gone (to the Culinary Institute of America), I wouldn’t have gotten (my first) job as a personal chef. … Anytime people see (Culinary Institute of America) on the resume – whether it should or shouldn’t – it does open doors. So, I’m really glad I went there.”

Author Bio: Ellen T. Meiser is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Hilo