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robert brown

Educated and Uneducated Chefs

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Topic proposed by Jonathan Day and Robert Brown

One respect in which cookery is unlike other arts is that it can be practiced, to high levels of expertise, without much book learning. Yes, it is true that chefs need some facility with numbers, but they can achieve significant mastery of their craft without advanced education.

I am referring here to chefs as cooks, ouvriers, not as businesspeople, although many successful chef-owner succeed in business without being particularly well-read. Perhaps it is the opposite: the language of cooking, after all, is physical and not verbal. Perhaps words and book learning get in the way.

This is not true of classical music, for example, where some exposure to music history and advanced theory seems to be an important element of an artist’s capabilities, and most musicians pursue at least a university degree.

Some chefs go further: Bourdain claims that he prefers hard-working and devoted but unlearned Ecuadorians to college graduates. And, even today, most chefs in France start as apprentices, without much higher education.

Robert argues that a very early start (which essentially precludes formal education) offers the chef a far greater range of experience and develops a more expansive culinary "vocabulary" and hence greater flexibility at the point of conceiving a dish. He suggests that this advantage of starting early explains why so many of the best chefs working outside of France are French.

Does formal education impede or hinder a chef’s ability to produce superb cuisine? Does the ‘unlearned’ character of some of its chief practitioners put cooking into a lower place in the hierarchy of the arts?

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Does formal education impede or hinder a chef's ability to produce superb cuisine?

Does the "unlearned" character of some of its chief practitioners put cooking into a lower place in the hierarchy of the arts?

Interesting questions to ponder - and ultimately subjective I think.

Are we only regarding formal 'culinary' education in this - or are we looking at the broader scope of people moving into cooking in a serious and determined manner from other walks of life who come to cooking with diverse educational and work experience in additional to formal culinary education?

Pros (for formal culinary education)

- Awareness of cooking rules, techniques, practices, kitchen science, ingredients, flavors, etc unrelated to any one kitchen, restaurant, or chef's particular styles or leanings

- Not stuck in tradition or compelled to follow age-old 'rules', free to question and create

- Knowledgable of skills and techniques beyond the limits of potential job limitations

Of course I realize that there are many people in the industry who cite all these as cons very strongly (but why?)

Pros (for formal non-culinary education & training)

- Opportunities to have sampled the work of many chef's around the world

- More accurate assessment of the target consumer market tastes (possibly)

- Ability to incorporate other contextual and cultural influences into cooking

Are there any statistics out there that can demonstrate and compare the success rate of chefs with formal education and training against that of chefs without it? My impression is that this is still very much influenced by European traditions and influences and that anyone coming out of that tradition and culture will insist that it is the best (if not only) way to truly succeed. I think that this (potential) cultural bias is an impediment in clear and honest assessment of chefs who enter the field with formal training. Those chefs from the French/European tradition are possibly strongly biases against accepting fully as an equal chefs who have not followed the tried and true path they had to walk.

Perhaps this is a cultural vestige of the old world that cannot possibly hold on much longer in modern society.

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I think that it might be useful to consider "education" as something that can also take place outside of such institutions as CIA, Cordon Bleu and so on. Many cooks and chefs, whether graduates of university or culinary programs or not, study Larousse Gastronomic, Escoffier, and other classical sources. They read voraciously. Others do not.

So I think that speaking of "formal" or "advanced" education, if understood as merely being a matter of having attended an institution, is not the point and could mislead the discussion.

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For many becoming a chef is a result of being formally uneducable. For the very very few who become well-known and make some money there are millions who don't.

Were a potential chef to have that formal education, and by this I think we mean a university degree, I doubt very much that he'd fancy starting off as commis chef and working his way up over five or so years.

There are a few chefs that do have some "higher" education, and it's interesting that most us probably know who they are and what they studied. The fact that a chef has a degree or better marks him out as something of freak, albeit a freak whose food is taken all the more seriously because of their sheer rarity. Think of Michel Bras, Miguel Sanchez Romera and closer to (my) home Alistair Little. The fact that they are highly educated and dedicated to cooking seems to give their food a status above that of their peers'. It's debatable whether this is always deserved.

On balance it seems that on a personal level a university degree is undoubtedly as useful for a chef as it is for anyone, but where its value really comes into its own is in the restaurant marketing mix to which we middle class diners are all exposed and all susceptible. Like, as they say, attracts like.

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Were a potential chef to have that formal education, and by this I think we mean a university degree, I doubt very much that he'd fancy starting off as commis chef and working his way up over five or so years.

Some would say that the university-educated cook is, all other things equal, worse off because he or she

  • (1) starts cooking later than the apprentice who started at, say, 14, and therefore fails to acquire the culinary "vocabulary" (here referring not to cooking language but to exposure to foods under a huge range of circumstances) and basic manual skill that a younger starter would.
    (2) tends to adopt a privileged, snobbish attitude and therefore never really learned to get along in the environment of a production kitchen (your point about not starting off as a commis)
    (3) cooks too much from the head, overintellectualising everything.

I think Bourdain makes the second claim about formally educated cooks, even though he himself graduated both from one of the top universities and the CIA. Do you know Ferran Adria's educational background?

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You are asking the wrong question. All Chefs, especially the great ones are educated. The question is: How were they educated? There is the time honored informal method. Let's include apprentiship to a master. Then again one may wish to learn in a shorter period of time and choose a formal education. Both Chefs can be found working side by side; If they can cook.

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Adria said on the Gourmet TV program I mentioned in the El Bulli cookbook thread that he studied economics. I also said that he keeps very mysterious about his early or formative years. He may be the biggest exception that proves the rule about Johnny-Come-Latelys to cooking. I also would make a point that is a variation of what Lord Michael Lewis wrote above: that beside marketing, a higher education might make a chef a better restaurateur in terms of insight into and understanding of his clientele.

Now from reading the biographical thumbnail of Adria that Lizziee provides above, there are discrepancies in that. I believe Adria is in his early-mid forties, not 40. I also recall that said on Gourmet TV that he washed dishes in Majorca, not in a town that is on the sea, but south of Barcelona. Perhaps he studied economics in high school. He also told the Esquire writer that he had no memory of his early years.

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Robert Brown and Jonathon Day said:

One respect in which cookery is unlike other arts is that it can be practiced, to high levels of expertise, without much book learning.

Robert/JD, would you also say this true of the visual or theatrical arts?

It seems to me that the level of expertise is achieved by nurturing a kernal of inate talent through some type of rigorous formal training. In the visual arts, some type of design/color theory as well as a proper grounding in technique (prepping canvas properly, cutting brushes, mixing colors etc...). Or an actor studying at the HB Institute directly from high school. Does not formal culinary education(or absent that, apprenticeship in several noted kitchens) serve this same purpose? I might suggest that the culinary student trains within a similar but different paradigm. At the risk of sounding crude, I have met and worked with brilliant, talented and extraordinarily well trained actors that were dumb as fenceposts.

This is not true of classical music, for example, where some exposure to music history and advanced theory seems to be an important element of an artist’s capabilities, and most musicians pursue at least a university degree.

Ah, but context is everything and although not formal training in a traditional sense, would not serving an apprenticeship or journeymans tour at the foot of a Gagnaire, Adria etc...be analogous to and constitute the culinary equivilent of, say, an advanced degree?

Some chefs go further: Bourdain claims that he prefers hard-working and devoted but unlearned Ecuadorians to college graduates. And, even today, most chefs in France start as apprentices, without much higher education.

As do I, but the reasons we have may have far less to do with this topic. *Hardworking and devoted* are key here. That and a fondness for latin cultures. These particular employees are far less hidebound by formal culinary education and not limited to latinos. In my view, it is the lack of formal *culinary* education which makes them valuable rather than the lack of traditional formal higher education.

For example; Chefette said:

Pros (for formal culinary education)

- Not stuck in tradition or compelled to follow age-old 'rules', free to question and create

In light of what I've previously said, I would argue precisely the opposite.

LML said:

For many becoming a chef is a result of being formally uneducable. For the very very few who become well-known and make some money there are millions who don't.

A very astute observation! I have long held the belief that a significant number of American Chefs (formally and informally trained), have come to the business based upon their square peggedness. That the perceived accessability of the business coupled with an underachieving nature provides a draw for many people in this business. That many simply "fall into it" is an anecdotal but, I feel, valid belief. This isn't to say that they are uneducated, merely that, as LML, has put it, *uneducable*.

JD said:

Some would say that the university-educated cook is, all other things equal, worse off because he or she...

(2) tends to adopt a privileged, snobbish attitude and therefore never really learned to get along in the environment of a production kitchen (your point about not starting off as a commis).

I think Bourdain makes the second claim about formally educated cooks, even though he himself graduated both from one of the top universities and the CIA.

I might add that they also will not last long. Particularly if working in a European kitchen or with a Europeon chef. It is, in my experience, an adapt or die situation. But it *is*, as you say, about attitude. I think that a university educated person would have an extraordinary motivation to even consider attempting this type of work. That may make him more resilient. I also think that properly motivated (one can't question the reason for such here), the higher education gives advantage. There is a wider worldview that I believe works in favor of a sincere latecomer to the restaurant business.

Re Bourdain and culinary grads. I speak with all due respect. I only know from his books and a brief passing acquaintance. I strongly suspect that he speaks from personal experience (his own). Much as a recovering alcoholic or ex-smoker would decry the use of said substances to the point of distraction.

Nick

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I think it would help, at this early stage in the discussion, to ask what a chef does.

A chef plays multiple roles. Conceptually, perhaps the following three categories make sense: 1) Cook; 2) Creator; 3) Executive

1) Cook: The materials, ingredients, and techniques of cooking are the chef's equivalent of the basic tools of any art or craft -- the paints, brushes, and strokes. They are, in addition, mostly manipulated by proxy -- a chef in a large restaurant is unlikely to do much actual cooking. Yet mastery of the technical issues is still necessary -- a chef must know what is possible.

2) Creator: This role involves the creation of dishes, the assembly of menus, etc. There is of course some overlap with the technical side of things, but creation is the more abstract intellectual side of things. It is a major factor in distinguishing between those who are chefs and those who are just cooks.

3) Executive: A chef is also often a businessperson. Many chefs are restaurateurs, managers within the structure of a hotel, or at least executives within their kitchens. This has little to do with cooking per se. Nonetheless, it is an important part of what most chefs do.

It seems to me that the value of formal education might vary with respect to each of those roles. For the average person, number 3 would almost demand some sort of coursework (this has already been mentioned), number 1 would probably be served better by apprenticeship, whereas number 2 arguably cannot be taught at a high level. (I assume here we are talking mostly about serious chefs who actually contribute to the endeavor of cuisine.)

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I always find it amusing on eGullet when educated people try to intellectualize the restaurant business. The rich (often white and male) college graduate who takes up the blade and tries his hand at cooking will always have the ability to jump ship and "move on" to a more lucrative or less physically taxing career. He therefore doen't feel the same pressure as his workmates and is unlikely to be as motivated as he is portrayed by some of the posts here. The lack of a college education puts pressure on the average cook to come to terms with his life in the business very quickly. For many rich college kids it is a rebellious move and it is very rare that they will last more than a few years in the business before they burn out, it is truly the exception that can stick it out for years after failing to become famous.

This business is one in which many newcomers believe they are destined for stardom. The internet has facilitated this illusion with cults of personality cropping up everywhere educated foodies gather. Unfortunately, it leaves out of the equation the fact that the vast majority of cooks working the line today don't have access to a computer and their voices cannot be heard. To assume that because they didn't go to college that they are "uneducable" or "underachieving" "square pegs" is to completely overlook the basic tenent of the restaurant business altogether. It is a business and it needs employees, and if you can stand the heat, and stress, and physical demands you must prove it, college degree, high school diploma, or not. You need to stand next to me on a Friday night and not lose your shit when the orders start flying. If an education at an Ivy league school helps you than so be it, but my guess is that you'll see how mind-numbingly stressful it is and quickly decamp.

That said I must add that I have had in my employ, at various times, felons, grad students, fifty-five year old grandfathers, single mothers, seminary students, runaways, drug addicts, illegal aliens, history teachers, and many, many others. It is a cross section of humanity and to only include the employees of the "fine dining" establishments of the world is to miss a very important point. It may be that you need the experience a college degree brings for positions in some of the world's best restaurants but it is such a small percentage of establishments (and has an disproportionately loud voice because of the internet) that it cannot be the basis for a discussion of restaurant employees. My guess is that even at El Bulli or The French Laundry you must not only be well versed in the culinary arts but you must have a head for cooking. These two things are very different and very often confused.

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(I assume here we are talking mostly about serious chefs who actually contribute to the endeavor of cuisine.)

If this is the case, and it would seem sensible, then there are a few points that need to be clarified before moving on into the realm of meaningfulness.

First of all what kind of formation are we talking about? A specialized degree, i.e. Kitchen Management & Food Production, or studies not related to cooking? There are strong arguments for both. I've often thought that a basic grounding in Western Art History taught parallel to the classical French repertoire would serve to further chefs' understanding of the important difference between innovation and the more common invention.

Another problem is the intellectual straitjacket that any formal study forces one to wear. Accepting the value of a degree means accepting academic methods and values. A recent debate here ran up against an impasse over the definition of a priori. Try as I might I can't see that this kind of academic minutiae would trouble Ferran Adria, his creativity wouldn't allow it.

Finally, I'd like to know what percentage of the top 500 chefs have been the recipients of higher education. My instinct tells me that most of them will have found their way to top despite their education rather than because of it. This could be explained by the fact that few academically bright teenagers are attracted to kitchens.


Edited by Lord Michael Lewis (log)

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Let me add a follow-up question.

In today's world, what non-cooking skills are most important if a chef is to be successful -- i.e. to make a lasting contribution to the state of cuisine, to join a list which most would agree is headed by people like Escoffier, Adrian Ferra, Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse?

Assume, for the moment, that our chef-to-be is a brilliant cook and knows that she is -- a sort of modern-day Babette, capable of concocting the most magical of feasts and of doing so under pressure, service after service.

What other skills does she need?

Two recent examples may be useful. First, a radio interview I recently heard (this will soon be reported on in more detail in this forum) with Ducasse. He was surprisingly articulate, and he spoke of the development of his staff in a way that sounded like a leader of a top professional services firm. This guy may be a great cook, but he is also a business executive.

Second, I had a short and lustful glance at the new book and CD-ROM detailing the most recent years of innovation at El Bulli. Both the book and CD-ROM are beautifully designed, and Ferra has analysed the flow of his own work, over the last few years, with thoughtful structure and detail. Adrian Ferra may be a great cook, but he is also a historian of art and ideas.

What other skills (whether conveyed in a university or not) are essential for our hypothetical chef's success?

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I've been in a few professions -- marketing; editorial; freelance photography -- and in all of them there have been They Who Went To School For It And Look Down On They Who Didn't and there have been They Who Learned On The Job And Think They Who Went To School Are Pretentious Spoiled Brats.

Despite the dynamic, though, every experienced person in most any field save for those where government regulation requires education (law, medicine) most likely knows that school does not guarantee excellence, and that lack of "book learning" does not prevent it. So while I will be very interested to examine the question of whether or not school makes a chef more or less likely to be great, ultimately a chef is judged on his food and his restaurant. Perhaps this states the obvious but it is in my opinion an important thing to bear in mind.

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Schools of 'higher learning' and trade schools want a good portion of their students to graduate.They often make it way too easy,in my opinion.Having a degree,versus a real grasp of what you've just supposedly learned,are poles apart.Getting a lot out of your school experience is a lot of work,and those who've had the energy and curiosity to do so are the people who shine,in the long run.I think that being well-traveled is just as important as a formal education.[more so,sometimes].

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I think intelligence is a always a far more important factor than people are likely to give credit in many fields especially one like cooking which for all its glory as an art form, had generally been seen as blue collar work until lately in the US. Arguments for and against a formal education and an education in the craft and art of cooking are separate. There's no question a chef needs the latter and it doesn't matter in the long run whether that education comes from a culinary school or on the job. Who you are exposed to and how you apply yourself will make a far bigger difference between individuals. I also suspect some people will far better one way or the other due to their own nature. I'm not sure a few years spent getting a formal education at that age will slow down a career enough to make any difference by the time one is 35 or so. I think a formal education can be a real help in developing one's mental capacities and would urge anyone to get a liberal arts education if they could afford it. On the other hand, my personal opinion of most colleges and the faculties that reside therein is not very high. Between kindergarten and a college degree more people are turned off to thinking creatively than are inspired. No one is better off for just having spent four years in college.

The argument that a kid with some parental backing and a college degree behind him may jump ship when the going is rough is a good argument. Another argument could be made that the cook who knows he can get an easier job elsewhere is also the one who will be less hidebound in his outlook and the one who feels he can take risks. That in itself is a double-edged sword. At some point it may help his creativity, but it may make chef's less eager to hire him in the beginning. Most employers are looking to hire someone who need that job and will do what he's told to keep it.

Whatever we may decide here, the world is changing and it will change without our permission. That other artists are all formally educated is not true in my opinion. At an early point in jazz, few musicians could read music. Throughout history, plenty of painters learned by working with a master. How many of the abstract expressionists were formally trained. I believe DiKooning was a sign painter in Holland.

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A successful chef needs to be a teacher and manager. Despite what some may think, not one single chef has cooked every component of any meal in the history of fine dining. They have cooks. Some of these cooks are exceptional and will be chefs themselves someday, some are capable, and some are hopeless (bodies we call them). A chef must insure that his vision is being realized through these cooks, or in some cases, despite them. This requires teaching and demands good management.

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Very well put schaem.

I would only add that unlike many professions the chef must also be a parent to his staff. This is not unique to the foodservice world but it is much more similar to a miltary model than private industry. Having said that I must point out that learning how to do this particular task is better undertaken by someone who has learned from a mentor or father figure rather than a college professor. It is not my intention to generalize or sterotype chefs, but having worked with both eduacted and "uneducated" chefs, I must say that hands down, the ones who learned on the job succeded to a much greater degree developing and maintaining a paternal relationship with their staff. In the long run this relationship can make or break a kitchen staff. Often this key ingredient is overlooked by outside observers and occasionally even chefs themsleves.

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