You want to be a chef? Who wouldn’t, these days. So what’s the best way to reach whatever your cookery target might be? Cooking school will give you a big leg up. It’s not the only way, by any means. Hard work and experience will get you there as well. But think of it like the army. Start at the bottom, Private First Class, and sure, you might make General. But it will be a long, hard slog, with much reliance on good fortune smiling upon you, to ascend the ranks.
For aspiring chefs, the most prestigious “boot camps” are France’s Le Cordon Bleu, the Culinary Institute of America (the “other” CIA), and Italy’s Alma (La Scuola Internazionale della Cucina Italiana). I got interested in what chefs learn at culinary academy by reading Michael Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef in which, already middle-aged, he dropped everything, work included, and moved, with his young family, to upstate New York so he could train at the CIA. The book documents, in minute detail, just what he did and how he learned. This got me wondering how the other two most famous cooking academies, Le Cordon Bleu and Alma, differ in terms of what graduates learn. The answer is that they are strikingly similar, with a focus not on learning sensational recipes (which is what you might imagine), but rather on technique and the logistics, mechanics, even mathematics of being a chef and running a restaurant.
USA: Culinary Institute of America
Founded back in 1946 and with around 50,000 alumni, this is the premiere cooking academy in North America. Its home is in upstate New York though, like Le Cordon Bleu, it has extended its reach to other cities (including Singapore). Boasting several restaurants featuring different cuisines on its campus, each of which is a training ground for students. In the classroom, the focus is on technique, but there are some recipes that provide the basis on which technique may be built. For example, there is an early focus on stock: a killer veal stock is prepared by the ton, to be used in all manner of dishes. Tasty stock makes for tasty food, just like a solid foundation is key to a solid house. There are also courses in the business of the food business.
Just like a creative writing major could benefit from lessons on how to get an agent and how to read a book contract, so chefs should be well-prepared to run a kitchen from the logistics standpoint (how many veal bones are needed for 500 gallons of stock, how many peppers for 30 portions of ratatouille), and even for ownership duties (negotiating rent, kitchen size as it relates to output, and so on). A course called “Kitchen Calculations” features “edible portion cost,” “yield percentage” and “trim” (the amount of waste versus useful portions of a food product, like broccoli florets vs stalk)—it all sounds a bit like a mathematics course, and it is. There’s more to running a kitchen the preparing inventive dishes well.
Italy: Alma, International School of Italian Cuisine
Of the three big academies, Alma is distinctive because its focus is primarily on Italian cooking, with only a glance at other regional cuisines. Whether studying as pastry chef, sommelier or “master of Italian cuisine,” this education is far more specific than the one afforded at the other academies. Located in the culinary heartland of Parma province (Colorno), you learn not only cooking but also Italian culture, history and the language. If you want to cook Italian, this is the place to be.
Of course nothing prepares you for life in a kitchen as well as experience in a working kitchen. It’s a world of difference to cook under pressure, odd hours, and repeating the same recipes over and over, each time striving for timely perfection, than it is to enjoy cooking at home. But these legendary academies will give you an intensive, technique-based leg up on the competition, as you strive to become the next celebrity chef—or just an honorable, very fine cook.
Alma is also the academy in charge to evaluate the S.Pellegrino Young Chef applications and select ten finalists for each region of the world.
France: Le Cordon Bleu
The most famous name in culinary academies (meaning “the Blue Ribbon”) was founded in Paris in 1895, and understandably focuses on Auguste Escoffier and the rich tradition of French cooking. But you’ll get your French classical cooking chops at the CIA as well. It also makes all other academies look very small indeed, with around 20,000 students per year in over fifty schools on five continents - however, the school's name did take a bit of a hit recently with the news that all 16 of their licensed schools in the U.S will close in the next few years.
The original story dates back to 1576, when a chivalric order of knights were awarded a Cross of the Holy Spirit. But while not fighting evildoers, they had wild banquets, and their blue crosses became associated with excellent and abundant cooking. A 19th century cooking magazine bore this name as a result, and this magazine’s occasional cookery courses morphed into the academy itself. The focus is on French cooking, though international cuisines are also examined. Graduate from here and you’ll be in good company: Julia Child is just one of its illustrious graduates. Traditional techniques, emerging from Escoffier, provide a rigorous foundation on your way to your first Michelin star.