Thursday, February 22, 2018

Should You Go to Cooking School?

Every once in a while, someone asks me if I'd advise them to go to culinary school. I'm obviously not a chef (though I'm a good cook), but I can offer a helpful answer because culinary school is exactly like music school, so I know what's what. I'll post this here so I can point to it for future reference.


First and foremost: understand the economic proposition: Pay us $$$$$ and we'll turn even the whiniest, most rudderless and talentless kid into a competent entry-level pro. These schools aren't about giving talented students the extra boost and inspiration to bloom into greatness. There's very little greatness in such places. Hang around a culinary school, and you'll eat some decent, fair, and lousy food, but nothing fantastic. And nary a note in a music conservatory is going to move anyone. That's not what they're aiming for. It's about turning every mopey slob into an uninspired pro who can get the job done. It's an economic instrument, not a creative one. It's frickin' trade school.

In fact, if you enter with talent and momentum, the institution will do everything possible to snuff all that. The craggy, emotional, opinionated, unique creative qualities that make your pasta so wonderful will only get in the way of the process, which is not to foster your uniqueness but to make the most miserable slob competent. When you're in the business of elevating slobs to competency, you've got no choice but to crush the inspired. Welcome to the slob-molding machine!

You may already make superb lasagna. That's irrelevant. You're there to learn to make conventional, uninspiring lasagna, because that's the syllabus. Your quirky brainstorms will amuse and delight no one. You're being trained to throw down boring, unexciting, conventional lasagna, because the mission is to teach you to throw down boring, unexciting, conventional everything, because that's what chef robots do, and the school turns out chef robots. Your preexisting notions, your personal touch, your creativity are like sand in this soufflĂ©. You must be leveled and conformed into a standardized, predictable product. Because if it was about delicate creativity and fickle inspiration, only a few students, touched by the Muse, would graduate ready to roll, and the families of all those other students would be demanding their money back. This is vocational school, not an arty Shangri-La.

School administrators would point out that training for any trade involves learning the standard ways first, and then, once you've mastered it all, you are free to apply your creativity, your touch, your spark. Sure, they produce standardized cook-robots, but they're equipped with skills and knowledge, free to go off and pursue their dreams.

Bullshit. Submitting to a standardized, institutional training process for years is dream-killing and soul-snuffing. Truly creative talented people cannot possibly emerge with spark fully intact.

Deliciousness and competence are very different things. In any given moment, mountains of competent food are being cooked - much of it by culinary school grads - that you or I would never want to eat. That drab hotel breakfast buffet is competent. That mediocre fund-raiser chicken dinner is competent. The expensive "gourmet" catering store where everything's precious but nothing has a lick of flavor? Competent! All the grim non-deliciousness out there, comprising 98% of food service, is prepared by competent robo-chefs who literally can't remember what deliciousness is. They believe they're nailing it, because they're doing the moves they were taught, and they're doing it all correctly.

All these hacky, uninspired chefs cook drab, spiritually neutral food that is, from a technical perspective, right on the money. It's hard to stock that breakfast buffet with ninety zillion individual items! It requires the logistical and execution skills of a small army, and the chefs can be rightfully proud of pulling it off day after day. But they may never register the fact that no customer has ever clenched eyes shut, pounded table with fist, and hollered "Holy CRAP that's great!". Such an outcome is not even on their radar.

Only the kookiest plumber would try to leave customers' pipes delightful, rather than merely functional. Same for the second horn player in your regional symphony or the bassist on some pop recording. There's skill and pride, and the tasks may be challenging. But the mission is to 1. not fuck up, and 2. serve competently as a widget in some machine. Nothing wrong with that, but you absolutely must understand what you're working towards! Never climb a ladder without a clear-eyed notion of where it leads! (I myself made that mistake twice, in both music and writing).

Just like culinary schools, music schools turn out competent musicians, not inspired ones. And the former is not the larval stage for the latter. Competent musicians do not hatch into grandeur. Greatness is a separate track. Talented people are difficult, spotty, opinionated, and inherently non-uniform. They are a poor fit in institutions. Imagine if Tom Waits had spent four years studying opera and bel canto with some pompous prof at Julliard. Would he have packed anywhere near the same power and emotional intimacy after such sustained trauma? Would he still have been, like, Tom Waits?

If you're genuinely talented or creative, and want to do something genuinely good, you must not submit to the assembly line. It's not for you. It will wring all the character and inspiration out of you, and replace it with mere competence.

But if you're from a disadvantaged background, mildly enjoy working with food, and the notion of working 13 hour days in a hot, angry kitchen for pennies appeals to you, by all means, learn to make humdrum risotto in a consistent and efficient way. Use your diploma to get a job cooking on the banquet staff of some hotel, or peeling turnips for the Ecuadorian top chef in a fine dining restaurant fronted by some name dude who spends his days with image consultants. Just don't imagine that you're on a track to become the dude with the media fluffers. You'll never exceed the commitment and visceral drive of the Ecuadorian hero blocking your way...and even he will never, ever get proper credit (much less stardom), though he's to thank for every drop of quality.

If you want to fit into a pre-existing slot - e.g. play third trumpet with a symphony, or be salad bar manager for a shiny midtown cafe - go to the best school that will have you. But if you want to be a musician capable of playing a note that will make people’s hearts flutter, or a chef who can make customers moan like porn stars, that’s not teachable. To the contrary, any natural proclivity for such result will be wrung out of you.

The very fact that you're even considering culinary school is a bad sign. It shows a lack of ingenuity and drive. It's possible to learn stuff without pricy teacher-servants pushing it all at you. What sort of spoiled, passive person resorts to institutions to learn to do creative stuff? It demonstrates a lack of....creativity!

If you're not creative enough to figure out how to learn cooking technique under your own initiative, then you're not creative enough to cook anything personal, or to make any impact with that cooking. You probably ought to be turned into a robot! It’s the same with music school. If you dutifully shlep into “Swing Feel” class every Wednesday morning, three things are for certain: 1. you’re probably never going to really swing, 2. you don’t really love swinging, and 3. you don’t possess the ballsiness to get done any of the things you’re eventually going to need to get done to be great.

The problem is that our education system is so damned linear. Kids are led down a track - via punishment and empty reward - for so many years that they fall into a stupor, failing to recognize that there's no pot of gold at the end. If you remain tenaciously on the educational track to the bitter end, and head off to culinary school, you might, if you're lucky, make a decent living helping run the juicing operation at some spa for rich ladies in Minneapolis. But this isn't North Korea. You're promised nothing. At some point, you'll need to step off the treadmill, ready to apply some heavy self-propulsion. Don't look to school for that. School is non-propulsive!

If you want to do something real, something good, get eager to kiss the educational track goodbye, and maybe scorch the bejesus out of it with your exit burn, to boot. Go forth and grow and boldly make stuff happen. Shake off the educational/institutional stupor and grow some balls! Concentrate on these four things:

1. Get Good
However good you are now, get way way better, and then, when you're certain you're good enough, get way way better still. And then get better. Finally, realize you absolutely suck and triple it. Don't wait for an authority figure to goad you into improvement. Make it happen as a matter of survival.

Not that this requires further clarification, but don’t stop improving when people around you start telling you you’re awesome. That happens at the beginning of this cycle. When friends and family start gasping in admiration, that means you’re like one single notch above completely sucking.

2. Actively Acquire Knowledge/Experience
Schools will drill all the necessary skills, to instill versatility. On your own, you'll need to work hard to develop that versatility, but you don't necessarily need it. Tom Waits can't sing Mozart, and that's okay. But don't risk ever being hampered by lack of knowledge, skill, or experience. Read books, ask around, take a class or two here or there. Apprentice somewhere, or befriend someone talented and retired. Be thirsty for knowledge, and pull it toward you, rather than passively waiting for Mama Bird to regurgitate it down your throat. Take charge of your own development! Hustle for it and then practice like crazy (see #1)!

3. Scheme
I used to play in a band with a singer who baked pies in her apartment each week, which she sold wholesale to high-end restaurants. She earned good money from this, and made connections. Finally, she opened Magnolia Bakery, and is now a multimillionaire. That all required a self-starting, creative attitude, and nobody at any point asked to see her culinary diploma. She taught herself how to bake, and didn’t stop relentlessly improving until she was so awesome no one could deny it. She had her own touch, and her own ideas, and she made it happen. Eye on the prize!

4. Network
One advantage of a school is the support system you'd develop among fellow students. You can make connections on your own out in the world, but you'll need to hustle. If you're an introvert, learn to pretend you're not. Shyness is not an affordable indulgence. Remember that 90% of all pursuits is politics - unless you just want to keep your head down and peel turnips!

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