The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

What should chef school teach?

Pioneer Foodie's picture
Pioneer Foodie

What should chef school teach?

I've looked at some of the culinary programs at local institutes and it seems that their two-year programs don't go very far beyond what one could learn here if one were to give a serious daily effort with practicum. But when I read about old-school bakers it seems that their early training was much more extensive and competitive.

When I have worked at bakeries in the past the "head baker" has been someone with ten years experience and a culinary school certificate. Is the notion of a "Master Baker" not applicable in the U.S.? It seems that if I were to master Reinholt's "Bread Baker's Apprentice" I'd be on par with someone having two years formal training.

What's missing?

G-man's picture

What culinary schools have that we don't have here is mountains of ingredients and several hours every day of repetition. Doing the same thing, over and over, until you can do it without even thinking about it and without any delay is what culinary schools teach. At a culinary school you log several hundred hours of kitchen time over the course of a few weeks. At home, several hundred hours may well take several hundred weeks, depending on how often you bake.

There's also the direct benefit of working right alongside someone who can watch what you're doing. Where on these boards you'll see people posting about how this loaf went wrong and asking why, and others among us will advance several a culinary school the instructor will be able to watch you do it and tell you exactly what went wrong. There's less confusion, and so you learn the same material faster.

You very much can learn to be a chef, a baker, a patissier, etc without culinary training, just like you can learn to be a stock broker, a CEO, a professional driver, or any of countless professions without professional training. Obviously, for someone to know how to do it well enough to teach another, someone would've had to teach them or they would've had to do it themselves. It's just a much longer, much more convoluted process, and there are a lot more pitfalls. School cuts the amount of time, frustration, and waste.

PastryPaul's picture

As far as I know, there really isn't a "Chefs' School" unless maybe someone has combined a cooking program with a business program. Since a B Comm. is three years and culinary school is two, I guess it would be possible to make a four-year program that would combine the two.

The term "chef" is tossed around pretty loosely and is usually simply an honorific for an experienced cook or culinary school grad.

Attending culinary school does not make you a chef, it makes you a cook. Attending pastry school makes you a pastry maker, but since that sounds funny, most people call them "Pastry Chefs". Attending baking school makes you a "baker."

In English, "chef" is often interpreted as being synonymous with "good cook," but the original French word means "chief" or "boss." I guess "Executive Chef" would be the term closest to the original "chef."

A "chef" has an obligation to make product that is not only technically correct, beautiful, and delicious, but profitable as well. He/she sets menus (or product mix), deals with suppliers, monitors both quality and food cost, oversees work safety and food safety, takes care of staffing and scheduling, handles budgeting, etc. etc. etc.

Unless someone has a strong business background or training, that means years of experience working under someone who is a true "chef."

To answer your original question: Option A - Get at least a B.Comm to go with the culinary school degree and you will be well on your way to being a chef. Option B - Work under as many successful chefs as you can for as long as you can. Option C - Open your own place, do the work of a "chef" and if your busness is still around three to five years later, I for one, will call you "chef." Warning: Option C may well be the most expensive.

FYI: Mastering BBA, although an excellent book, would not put you at par. To be at par, more or less, try mastering  Professional Baking 4th edition, by Wayne Gisslen (John Wiley & Sons) which is the seemingly universal textbook for Pastry Schools. For Cooking School, try Professional Cooking 6th edition by the same author and publisher for the same reason.


G-man's picture

In kitchens I've worked in, here's how it tends to break down...
A lead has control of staff. An owner would have ultimate control of the whole place, but really just signs paychecks. A chef has control of menu and control of staff. A chef-owner would own the place and wear the chef hat. Some owners recognize that they don't know what they're doing in the kitchen enough to take a run at being the chef. Some chefs have no desire to own a business. Some of either background have the ability to do both, and some even without formal training. If they're paying me I'll call them whatever they want, but if a guy or a girl calling him/herself chef doesn't have full control of menu and staff they're not a chef to me regardless of what I'm calling them.

I don't care what sort of education they have, what their background is, or anything outside the meals I'm putting in the window and the people I'm working with. None of that matters at all. What matters is...can you do the job? Culinary school gives you an edge when it comes to doing that.

PastryPaul's picture

Admittedly, I get "irked" when everyone is called "chef"

We are, I think, trying to make the same point. A chef does more than cook/bake. I've seen some phenomenal cooks fail miserably as chefs, and mediocre ones succeed.

Culinary school will certainly give a leg up on the production side, and business school will give a leg up on the business side. If you have neither, or only one, it is still possible but will take longer 'cause you have to learn it somewhere.

Proper training is a big help in "being able to do the job."



LindyD's picture

The title of Master Baker most definitely applies in the U.S. Not sure of the exact number, but I think it's a bit over 100. Jeffrey Hamelman of KAF has earned that status, as has Ciril Hitz.

For more info see:

G-man's picture

Quite honestly, local culinary schools might be great for local jobs, but they're generally not a great benchmark for comprehensive training. I don't know what exact classes you have access to, but if you want a better idea of the sort of skills world class chefs are expected to have, take a look at the CIA's course listings.

This is what a 'chef school' should teach.

PastryPaul's picture

A combination business and culinary school does indeed exist. Silly of me to forget CIA.

juli's picture

I recently took two professional level classes  (Advanced Bread and International Pastry) with Jeffrey Hamelman at the KAF facility in Norwich, Vermont.  Among my classmates was one woman who had recently graduated from New England Culinary Institute.  I had been looking into culinary school with an emphasis on baking to polish my technique and to broaden my experience.  After talking to and watching her work I was astounded at how little she was taught at NECI.  She said that she learned more in two weeks with Chef Hamelman than she did in two years in culinary school.  I know this doesn't speak for all culinary schools but this one woman's experience. 


G-man's picture

From what I've seen, most chefs view what bakers do as a sort of magic. Most people, in general, think of baking as a difficult thing. And they're right, as anyone here knows. Producing a loaf of bread that meets and surpasses what you can buy at your local store is very difficult, and it takes a LOT of knowledge. It is all about procedure...and it can be called magic.

Most culinary schools don't have the funding or the local interest in funding a baking program. They need to draw students, ultimately, to be able to pay their staff. How many bakers do you know, outside of this website? How many people do you know who are even interested in the science? My folks are happy with their bread machine. They pour in the ingredients, push the button, and have fresh bread. This is further than most people go. That's the way it is.

imaloafer's picture

As an instructor at a culinary school, the first thing I would ask you is do you want to be a baker or a chef. They are two distinctly different professions. In our program, culinary students get a 5 week basic baking class. This covers discussion and production of yeasted dough products, quickbreads, pastry, custards, ice creams and plated desserts. This is for students who are looking to go into the culinary industry, not as Chefs mind you, but at entry level positions. I am clear to my students, as I also teach the first class they have which is Intro to Food Service and Sanitation, that they are not Chefs when they graduate. That is a title earned through years of industry work and learning. 

We also offer a Baking and Pastry program for students wanting to follow the path to becoming Bakers or Pastry Chefs. This course is vastly different then the basic baking classes taught to culinary students. Where for culinary, they get 5 weeks of basic baking, this program gives 5 weeks to specific subject matter. We have a module of Yeasted dough products, the emphasis on Breads, but cover laminated dough (Croissants) as well. There is then a module for quickbreads, pastry, Cakes and Decorating, Plated Desserts, Confections and Sugar work. 

If you know the baking or pastry track is what you want, I would seek out schools in your area that teach the specific discipline you are seeking. But don't make the mistake that so many do, and often times due to eager sales reps for schools, you will not graduate a Chef, Pastry Chef, Master Baker, etc. You will graduate like you would from any school, a student looking for real life experience to hone their craft and climb the ladder, and thus achieve the titles due. There are no short cuts, books to give you these titles, they are earned, sooner by those truly dedicated to the craft!