Mary Risley has been teaching cooking for almost 40 years in San Francisco. She opened Tante Marie’s Cooking School in 1979, and although Risley no longer teaches at her school, she supervises the school’s 10 chefs and cooking teachers.
Risley is also the founder and director of Food Runners, a volunteer organization that picks up excess food from businesses in San Francisco and delivers it to the neighborhood feeding programs.
Food Runners is currently delivering over 10 tons of food a week that would otherwise be thrown away.
Since 1979, Risley says the business has grown so that there is a so-called culinary school practically in every city.
Risley notes that there are a lot of culinary schools that either make the students wash the dishes and clean the stoves, or make students work in the culinary school’s restaurant, which is a huge waste of time.
“In fact, many schools have the students spend way too much time researching in the library or sitting in class listening to lectures.”
The best way to learn to cook as a professional is to learn the theory and techniques from a well-qualified teacher with years of experience, and then go to work in a well-run and well-respected kitchen.
“I have always said that people with learning disabilities often make the best cooks. They are totally not suited to sitting still and reading books, but are great at running around and multi-tasking,” Risley said.
There is no better teacher than experience, says Risley, who adds that in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is hard to live on a cook’s salary.
“That is why students need to see their first four years working in a professional kitchen as extended learning. Learning from the mistakes of others is the best, before branching out and opening your own business.”
Risley believes you cannot really be successful at a small or big business unless you do the cooking yourself, and says if you’re starting something like a small restaurant or a food truck, the business will only work if the owner is prepared to cook.
When considering a culinary school, Risley suggests asking yourself how much time students spend actually cooking? What have the graduates gone on to do?
And Risley warns that any school that promises that they will teach you to be a chef is misleading, especially when they don’t teach you how to work quickly and efficiently.
The culinary industry is indeed harsh and demanding. For Chefs there are no Thanksgivings, no Christmas or weekends.
Most successful chefs have worked their way up the ladder in kitchens and started off by peeling potatoes, lifting heavy pots, working long, hot sweaty hours.
While a culinary education may help, most graduates will end up working for very low wages that may not pay off their student loans.
Work in a few kitchens and get to know the field. If you still love it, then it is definitely for you.
There are a few culinary schools that stand out and are considered top culinary institutions. Check them out here.