Culinary Schools: Certificates, Diplomas and Degrees in Cooking

Discover the Education Options Available in Culinary Cooking Programs

Whether they are inspired by the home cooking that they grew up with or the culinary superstars they see on television, many hopeful chefs enter cooking schools in order to get the knowledge and hands-on training they need to prepare for a deliciously rewarding career. This guide provides information on the programs available to prospective chefs, coursework, how to choose the right culinary school, and the crucial tools of the trade.

Interview with a Chef

Head Chef Chris Memme shares his views about the industry and what culinary students need to know.

How did you become interested in working as a chef?

I was brought up in an Italian family and I always loved to help my grandmother cook for our family. I started working with Earls when I was 17 years old while attending college to become a firefighter. I never knew how passionate I was about cooking until I began working with Earls. When I heard about the Earls expansion and well-known development plan, I decided to change career paths and switched my program to culinary management. Earls development and quality of food is what sparked my natural passion for cooking I never knew existed.

How did you choose the culinary school you attended?

I went to a school called Humber College, which is in Toronto, Canada. It is one of the most well-known culinary schools in the country, with master chefs as teachers from all over the world that teach various types and innovating ways to cook. I chose this school because of these reasons.

What was the best part of culinary school?

The best part of culinary school was learning about how and where ingredients came from—old techniques of cooking and seeing the evolution of the ways chefs cook and taught.

What was the most challenging part of culinary school?

During the time I was in school, I was also working full time at Earls as a sous chef. The most difficult part was being able to focus my full attention to both. Working countless hours taught me how to be better at time management.

How did culinary school prepare you for your career?

Working in an environment with so many different people, personalities and talents really taught me how to approach situations and create workability with many different people. In your career, you will work with so many different people, and adapting and growing as a person and with your colleagues will play a major part in your success.

Cooking Schools and Programs

Working in a busy kitchen comes with many responsibilities. Chefs are charged with ensuring that all of the ingredients in the kitchen are fresh, creating menu items, developing recipes, monitoring portion sizes, ordering and maintaining kitchen inventory, and supervising food preparers.

While some chefs can jump into their career without formal training, culinary schools really help give students a look at the realities of working in these demanding jobs. By completing a cooking degree program, prospective chefs can begin their careers with confidence, knowing that they have been well-prepared for the realities of the food service industry. These programs teach students the theories of cooking, while giving them an up-close-and-personal look at how these ideas are applied at an actual job.

Culinary degree programs can be found at several types of schools, including community colleges, vocational schools, culinary schools, and colleges and universities. The length and focus of the degree program can differ depending on what type of school students attend.

Vocational Schools

Students who enroll in culinary programs at vocational schools can expect to receive an intensive cooking education, where they may be required focus on a specialization throughout the duration of the program. As a result, students become experts in a specific aspect of the field, such as a specific type of cuisine or particular job. Vocational school programs also allow students to finish their studies in a short period of time, so they get the educational foundation they need to get employment right after graduation. Depending on the school, students may be able to finish their degree program in as little as six months to a year.

Culinary Schools

Unlike other institutions where students can complete a cooking degree, culinary schools specifically focus their entire educational programs on the culinary arts. Although some programs may require that students take non-culinary courses—such as English, math, or nutrition—the curriculum is developed in such a way that even these classes are ultimately related to cooking. As a result of this solitary cooking focus, students at culinary schools often have access to the latest techniques and technologies, allowing them to enter the workforce with cutting-edge knowledge. In addition, culinary schools often attract world-class master chefs, who have years of experience and a global perspective on the industry to share with their students.

Community Colleges

Like programs that can be found at vocational schools, community college culinary degrees can be completed in a relatively short period of time. Students who enroll in these programs receive an intensive education that combines hands-on training with cooking theory. However, they can also expect to take general education courses that allow them to receive a well-rounded education. While these classes may not specifically relate to cooking, students do benefit from gaining non-cooking skills—like interpersonal communication and math—that can be used when they enter their careers. Students in these programs may also focus their studies on a specific aspect of the culinary arts, so that they get both general knowledge of the field along with specialized expertise in their area of interest.

4-Year Schools

Students who enroll in four-year colleges and universities can expect to get a more in-depth culinary education that the additional time in school affords. These programs can be useful for students who already have experience in the field and want to increase their knowledge and sharpen their skills, as well as those who are preparing for a brand-new career. Students in these programs get a great deal of time in the kitchen, while also learning concepts such as nutrition, food safety, and menu development. In addition, some of the culinary programs that can be found at four-year schools may focus on training students to pursue management positions in the restaurant and hospitality business.

What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to become a chef?

“There are endless amounts of recipes and ingredients in the world. Your creativity is what will achieve greatness, and your learning will never stop. The end result when someone has a bite of your creation will always be priceless and the satisfaction is unexplainable.”

Chris Memme, Culinary Graduate & Head Chef

Cooking School Must-Have List

While there are many culinary programs out there, they’re not all created equally. Choosing the wrong culinary program can be a recipe for disaster, so it’s important that prospective culinary students do their homework before committing to a specific degree program. The following are some considerations that students should keep in mind when they’re evaluating culinary schools.

Accreditation

In order to ensure that they are receiving an education that is a cut above the rest, students should choose schools that have been accredited by the American Culinary Federation (ACF), which regulates the curriculum of culinary programs. Institutions that are accredited by this organization must maintain high educational standards in several areas, including the curriculum, teacher-to-student ratios, and the qualifications of the instructors.

Curriculum

Students should pay special attention to the curriculum of a cooking degree program, with an eye toward targeting schools that offer strong coursework in their areas of interest. If they are interested in a specific type of cooking or role in the kitchen, they should look for a degree program that will give them the most training in these areas.

Faculty

Just as students should pay attention to the curriculum at a culinary school, they should also be sure to do research on the faculty members. Culinary students benefit from the work experience of their professors, so they should look for schools that have teachers with the kind of experience they would like to learn. For example, if a student is interested in Korean cooking, they would benefit from a program that has professors who have operated Korean restaurants more than they would those who have focused on a different type of cuisine.

Some schools might offer diplomas and certificates as well. The diploma/certificate option can either prepare graduates with no prior hospitality background to immediately enter the industry, or it can complement an individual who already has a hospitality background and improve their career prospects and marketability.

Experiential Learning Opportunities

Some culinary degree programs give students the opportunity to actually work in a kitchen as they complete their degrees. Programs that have externships opportunities often partner with local restaurants, hotels, and resorts in order to provide students with practical learning opportunities that cannot be obtained just from the classroom alone.

Facilities

Students cannot be properly trained for the realities of the modern restaurant industry without having access to modern equipment. Prospective students should tour the facilities of each culinary school that they’re interested in, looking at the equipment to ensure it is state-of-the-art and reflective of what they’ll encounter when they get a job after graduation.

Culinary Cooking Degrees and Certificates

Students have several choices of culinary programs, depending on their needs and career goals. On the undergraduate level, students who enroll in cooking schools may earn a certificate, or an associates or bachelor’s degree. In addition, students who would like to receive a culinary education on the graduate level may enroll in a master’s degree program.

The following table provides an overview of the different degree levels that culinary students can choose from.

A culinary certificate program is an intensive experience that prepares students for entry-level positions. These programs heavily focus on hands-on learning and provide an overview of cooking theory. Students are often trained to work in a specific area of the kitchen, such as a grilling station, or a particular kind of cuisine.

An associate’s degree gives students both theoretical knowledge about the culinary arts and experiential learning. These programs can also prepare students for entry-level positions in the kitchen, while providing a foundation that can be used for career growth. Students are taught how to prepare classic dishes in specific categories, like meat or seafood, as well as the traditions of different ethnic cuisines.

Bachelor’s degree students gain a deeper understanding of the culinary arts, and often begin learning about management concepts along with cooking theory. These degrees are designed to prepare students for higher-level careers in restaurants, hotels, or resorts. In addition, students who earn these degrees may use their culinary knowledge to pursue careers outside of the kitchen, such as positions as consultants, food designers, and menu developers.

Culinary master’s degree students are interested in building on the knowledge and experience that they’ve already gained through their education, as well as their job experience. Many of these programs are geared toward those who would like to train for management positions, or become culinary instructors.

Culinary Cooking Certificates

What are the prerequisites for a culinary cooking certificate program?

Prerequisites for certificate programs vary from school to school. Many schools require that students are at least 18 years of age in order to enroll, and have completed their high school diploma. Some programs require that students possess professional kitchen experience.

How many credits must students earn to complete this program?

Students in these programs can complete their certificates within about six months to a year, which generally means they finish about 30 credit hours of study.

Where are culinary cooking certificate programs found?

Culinary certificate programs can be found at vocational schools, community colleges, or culinary institutes.

What courses do students take when they enroll in culinary cooking certificate programs?
Course Description
Culinary Fundamentals This course provides the fundamental culinary education that students can build on. Students learn about seminal theories and techniques, such as knife skills, kitchen station organization, soup preparation, protein cooking techniques, how to use starches and cutting vegetables. In addition, students get the hands-on experience they need to multitask in the kitchen, as well as time the preparation of different dishes.
Food Service Nutrition Students in this course gain an understanding of nutrition as it applies to the restaurant business. Specific class topics may include proteins, vitamins, water, complex carbohydrates, minerals and metabolism.
Meat Preparation This course teaches students how to handle and prepare different types of meat, including pork, lamb, veal and beef. Topics may include how to identify different cuts of meat, determine the right cooking time for a piece of meat, and the different ways to prepare meat from grilling to frying to roasting.
Hot Foods Provides an overview of different types of hot foods and how to prepare them. Students learn topics such as vegetable preparation, butchering, stocks and sauces, and grains. In addition, students may study different plating techniques designed to make dishes look as visually attractive as they are delicious.
Sanitation and Safety Emphasizes the importance of safety in the kitchen. Students learn about sanitation techniques used when preparing meals, foodborne illnesses, and proper food storage. In addition, this course may cover the laws associated with food service safety and sanitation.
What else is required of students in these programs?

In addition to coursework, students in certificate programs may be required to take field trips or attend demonstrations.

Culinary Cooking Associate Degrees

What are the prerequisites for a culinary cooking associate’s degree program?

Associate’s degree students may be required to have professional culinary experience, as well as a recommendation from someone in the field, in order to be admitted into these programs. In addition, schools are generally looking for those who have completed a high school diploma or its equivalent.

How many credits must students earn to complete this program?

Culinary associate’s degree programs generally require that students complete around 70 credit hours of coursework, which can be done in about two years.

Where are culinary cooking associate’s degree programs found?

Culinary associate’s degrees can be found at community colleges, culinary schools, and vocational schools.

What courses do students take when they enroll in culinary cooking associate’s degree programs?
Course Description
Culinary Math Culinary math helps students make calculations for how much of an ingredient should be used in a recipe. This not only ensures that a dish is prepared properly, but also is a cost control measure that allows chefs to purchase only the stock they need. Specific class topics may include units of measure, unit conversion, recipe scaling and yields costs.
Wine Studies Covers wine theory and the role that wine plays in a restaurant meal. Students learn about how to match a wine with specific types of food, tasting wines and strategies for organizing a restaurant’s wine service. The course also introduces students to different types of wine from around the world, as well as the cultural significance of wine.
Wine Studies Covers wine theory and the role that wine plays in a restaurant meal. Students learn about how to match a wine with specific types of food, tasting wines and strategies for organizing a restaurant’s wine service. The course also introduces students to different types of wine from around the world, as well as the cultural significance of wine.
Gastronomy Provides a look at the historical, social and cultural influences on the culinary arts. Students learn about different culinary theories, as well as information that is relevant to the pastry and baking professions.
À la Carte Cooking Students in this course learn about the theories and techniques related to cooking production. Specific course topics may include creating menus for à la carte service, measuring ingredients for these dishes and batch cooking.
Banquet Cooking Introduces students to cooking in a banquet and catering setting. Topics may include food preparation, service techniques, equipment used in these settings, and how to maintain quality when cooking in large batches.
What else is required of students in these programs?

Culinary associate’s degree programs may also require that students complete an internship in order to gain first-hand knowledge of how classroom concepts work in a real kitchen.

Culinary Cooking Bachelor’s Degrees

What are the prerequisites for a culinary cooking bachelor’s degree program?

In order to be admitted into a culinary cooking bachelor’s degree program, applicants may be required to have a high school diploma, a certain grade point average in their coursework, professional restaurant experience, or some college-level classes.

How many credits must students earn to complete this program?

These programs can generally be completed with around 120 to 130 credit hours of study. When students are enrolled on a full-time basis, they can usually complete a bachelor’s degree in about four years.

Where are culinary cooking bachelor’s degree programs found?

Culinary bachelor’s degree programs are found at culinary schools, as well as four-year colleges and universities.

What courses do students take when they enroll in culinary cooking bachelor’s degree programs?
Course Description
Food Service Management This course helps students prepare for management positions in the restaurant and hospitality industries. Some of the topics that are covered in this class include budgeting, how to design a kitchen facility, menu development, inventory control and purchasing. In addition, students may learn the history of the restaurant and hospitality business in order to gain an understanding of the trends in the field.
Beverage Management and Mixology Provides an understanding of alcoholic beverages that are served in restaurants, including wine, beer and spirits. To that end, the course topics may include alcohol promotions, financial concerns of the wine business, the history of different alcoholic beverages and how restaurants stock shelves with different products.
French Cuisine Discusses the evolution of French cuisine and how people in this culture consume food. Students will get hands-on experience preparing classic French dishes, as well as learn about the herbs, spices, and techniques that are common in creating French food.
Human Resource Management Provides information on how to build a restaurant staff. Students learn how to recruit and attract the best workers, train them effectively, and create a productive workplace environment. In addition, the class may cover subjects such as workplace conflict, performance evaluations, disciplinary techniques, collective bargaining contracts, and how to terminate employees.
Marketing This course provides an overview of how restaurants are marketed to the public. Topics include customer service, market research, and techniques for crafting a successful restaurant marketing campaign.
What else is required of students in these programs?

In order to complete a culinary bachelor’s degree, students may also be required to complete internships or group projects in addition to their classroom work.

Cooking Master’s Degrees

What are the prerequisites for a culinary cooking master’s degree program?

A bachelor’s degree is generally required to be admitted into these programs. Schools may also require a certain amount of professional experience, as well as a certain grade point average in completed undergraduate work.

How many credits must students earn to complete this program?

These programs require that students complete about 40 credits, which generally takes two years for students to earn.

Where are culinary cooking master’s degree programs found?

Culinary master’s degree programs can be found at colleges and universities, and culinary schools.

What courses do students take when they enroll in culinary cooking master’s degree programs?
Course Description
Philosophy of Food Explores what food means to people on a cultural and personal level. Students learn about food norms in different cultures, how food and eating contribute to a person’s identity, familial food influences, and moral considerations associated with farming and consumption.
Menu Development Students learn all aspects of menu development, from the dishes that are created to the way the menu actually looks on the table. Topics may including menu layout and design, pricing, and dish descriptions.
Starting a Food Business Provides information on how to run different types of food businesses, from restaurants to bistros to cafés. Students in this class learn how to manage employees, create a business plan, develop a restaurant concept, and perform the day-to-day work necessary to run a food-related business.
Food Research This course teaches students how research on food topics is conducted, from the formulation of the theory to the end result. Students learn how to collect and analyze data, as well as how to present research findings to the culinary community.
Interpersonal Communication This course gives students an understanding of how communication with others can make or break a restaurant business. This course covers how restaurant managers can effectively communicate with employees, peers, customers, and distributors in order to meet their business objectives.
What else is required of students in these programs?

Culinary master’s degree students may also be expected to complete a thesis or an externship.

Culinary Cooking Toolbox/Checklist

In order to be successful in a culinary career, students must acquire certain skills, as well as tools of the professional trade. This section provides information on what culinary students should put in their arsenal as they work on their degree programs.

Skills
  • Communication

    Chefs must be able to effectively communicate with their staff in order to ensure they understand what needs to be done. In addition, chefs should be able to communicate well with their customers, and the companies that supply their products.

  • Creativity

    In order to create menus that will make them stand out from the competition and satisfy customers, chefs must have creative skills and the ability to think outside of the culinary box.

  • Leadership

    Kitchen staffs look to the chef for guidance. Successful chefs must have good leadership skills in order for members of a team to know what they need to do during their shift. Leadership skills allow chefs to provide this direction and delegate tasks.

  • Multitasking

    Kitchens are busy and there are a lot of things going on at once. Chefs must have multitasking skills in order to successfully juggle everything they have on their plates and ensure that every diner has a positive experience.

  • Learning

    The culinary industry is always changing, so chefs need to have learning skills that foster the curiosity and desire for knowledge that is needed to keep skills and knowledge current.

Tools
  • Commercial blenders
  • Knives, including boning, paring, chef’s, and bread knives
  • Spatulas, such as fish, 10-inch, and 8-inch spatulas
  • Plastic bowl scraper
  • Pastry comb
  • Commercial pasta cookers
  • Knife honer
  • Kitchen scale
  • Prep bowls
  • Food safety labeling systems
  • Menu planning software
  • Wooden spoons
  • Locking tongs
  • Tomato crimper
  • Lemon zester
Culinary Credentials

Chefs are not required to earn a certification; however, they can display their dedication to their career by earning a credential from the American Culinary Federation.

Cooking Specializations

With so many different types of cuisine out there to tickle diner’s palates, it’s not surprising that there are several cooking specializations that chefs can pursue in their careers. The following are examples of some of these areas where chefs may develop culinary expertise.

Course Description
Saucier These chefs are also called sauce chefs. They are responsible for preparing soups, stews, and gravies. They may also sauté foods in their station.
Poissonnier These chefs are charged with preparing fish in the kitchen. They may work with local fisherman to acquire the fresh catches of the day, create fish dishes for a restaurant’s menu, and cook all of the fish that is found on the menu.
Grillardin From meats to poultry to vegetables, these chefs are responsible for cooking dishes in the grilling station of the kitchen.
Garde manger These chefs, also called pantry chefs, take charge of the cold dishes in the kitchen, including appetizers and salads.
Patissier These are a restaurant’s pastry chefs. They are responsible for a restaurant’s desserts, as well as breads.

Culinary Resources

American Personal & Private Chef Institute & Association

Personal and private chefs can receive business tips, participate in training programs, and participate in forums through this association.

Chefs and Head Cooks – Bureau of Labor Statistics

Provides information on the work environment, required education, and job outlook of chefs and head cooks. Also includes information on related career paths.

Chef’s Resources – The Professional Chefs Resource

This site provides kitchen management tools, recipes, food cost calculators, and ingredient conversion tools.

Chefsworld

Designed for professional chefs, this site includes job listings, a forum, and culinary news.

Education – American Culinary Federation

Includes information on scholarships for culinary students, apprentice programs, and continuing education.

Professional Chef’s Association

This professional organization offers educational opportunities, a job board, and professional networking events.

Research Chefs Association

This association is for chefs who conduct research in the field.

Starchefs

Includes recipes, instructional cooking videos, and industry news.

United States Personal Chef Association

This is the largest professional association for personal chefs. Provides a blog, educational opportunities, and events designed to help these professionals meet their goals.