As anybody will realize who's spent much time watching Anthony Bourdain's shows or witnessing the rise of “foodie” culture and the celebritization of chefs over the last decade, much has changed since a teenaged Wolfgang Puck went to work peeling potatoes in an Austrian hotel basement. Only a generation ago — maybe less, depending on who you're talking to — people didn't get into the food industry to become the next Bobby Flay. There was no reality television or Iron Chef-like competitions or series of casting calls that seemed more like auditions for soap operas than for actual kitchen jobs. There was also not the explosion of culinary schools, places that often charged more than the annual tuition of Vassar or Yale or USC for a year or two of instruction on how to make veal demi-glace.
Which brings us to a question that I've heard posed many times over the years, mostly by chefs who own or run or work in very highly regarded restaurants, chefs who regularly hire young cooks who've come through those schools remarkably unprepared, or in astonishing debt, or often both: Why don't we institute a restaurant apprentice system?
It's not a question of bringing it back so much as establishing it. This is, after all, not Europe, with its centuries-long guild tradition.
Never mind the student debt crippling this country, or the lawsuits facing culinary schools. What seems to have gotten lost in the explosion of contemporary food culture is actual chef training — and not in classrooms or TV studios, but in actual functional restaurants, hotels and bakeries.
It's in these often deeply hierarchical places that young cooks get the kind of experience that they need, the real-life training that can't be studied in theory or approximation. The expertise that you get after a lot of repetitive grunt work, not in a few knife skills classes. And even if you're not paid for such work, or if you're paid minimally — well, unlike at culinary school, you're also not the one doing the paying.
Jacques Pépin began his culinary life as an apprentice, at the age of 13 in France, as he chronicled in his memoir The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. Wolfgang Puck started out peeling vegetables in a hotel near his Austrian hometown when he was 14. Puck has continued the tradition at his own restaurant, having kids come into Spago in the summertime to apprentice. That's included both his own son and noted chef Govind Armstrong, who began cooking at Spago when he was a teenager.
More recently, Trois Mec's Ludo Lefebvre started working at 14, leaving his home to apprentice with French chef Marc Meneau. “You learned from A to Z, how to peel and clean,” Lefebvre once told me. “When you do your apprenticeship at a 3-star Michelin restaurant, you are not going to be on the line. It was very difficult. I cried in my room at night — but I would do it again.”
Allowing for child labor laws, the point is not so much the age as the methodology — and the pricing model. Even for graduates of fancy culinary schools, entry-level kitchen jobs offer pay that's not much above minimum wage. That's not the kind of salary that's going to pay off a hefty student loan anytime soon, if ever. And even among the very talented, few chefs command the kind of money made by the personalities we see on the Food Network. Spending a fortune on medical school is arguably a good investment; spending tens of thousands of dollars so you can maybe one day work the grill at your neighborhood restaurant is not.
To quote chef and KCRW Good Food host Evan Kleiman from an interview I did with her a few years ago in which we started talking about the merits of an apprenticeship system, both in culinary arts and other professions: “I've never really understood why we feel that going and spending $40,000 to $80,000 for a culinary education which will make you fit for getting a $10/hour job [makes sense]. It's insane.”
So maybe it's time to rehaul yet another American system — the infrastructure of our restaurants is for many people as important as that of our highways — or advocate for something different and more efficient. An organized junior guild system, perhaps, in which applicants can work and train and learn, unpaid but unpaid for, structured and agreed upon by the parties involved.
Maybe one of the chefs who has done so much for other organizations, a Thomas Keller or a Paul Bocuse, could form and oversee such an association. Maybe a respected pre-existing organization that already sponsors lots of things, the James Beard Foundation, say, could oversee something like this too. Or maybe Michelle Obama could expand her work — her garden advocacy, Let's Move! — into a vast apprenticeship system, a domestic corps for young adults who want to be chefs one day.
Because nothing keeps you moving like working on the line at a busy restaurant for hours and hours, fires burning, orders coming in, dishes moving across the pass. Nothing trains you as well as actually working under someone with the real-time skills you want to acquire. Not a Mark Burnett reality show, but the real thing.
Full disclosure: This author graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena some years ago, when it was called CSCA, but is not involved in the lawsuit.