What Can You Do With a Culinary Arts Degree?

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So much of human interaction revolves around food. Brunch meetings, luncheons, dinner parties. It seems like we’re always on the way to or from a meal. This is great news if you’re looking for a career in the culinary arts because it means that opportunities abound in nearly every sector of the job market. From event catering, kitchen management, and hospitality to nutrition consulting, cafeteria administration, and restaurant ownership, you can go almost anywhere with a culinary arts degree. It all depends on how you want to apply it. If you’re asking yourself “what can I do with a culinary degree?” read on to learn more about pursuing education and work in this tasty field.

A culinary arts degree focuses on the skills you need to excel as a professional in the food industry, including topics like food safety, hospitality, baking, restaurant service, nutrition, world cuisine, wine, beverages, and more. There are numerous types of cooking degrees out there. Consider your goals, passions, and skills as you choose a culinary degree that best suits you.

Whether you hope to one day compete for Top Chef or you’d simply like to be good enough to not be featured on Kitchen Nightmares, there’s a degree program that makes sense for you. If you’re looking for a quick path into the kitchen and a set of entry–level skills, you could do quite well with a reputable diploma, certificate, or associate degree in culinary arts. If you see yourself ultimately becoming a restaurateur, an executive chef, a kitchen manager, or an administrator in a larger food services organization, you should consider acquiring a graduate or advanced culinary degree.

Which culinary arts degree is best for you? We’ll do our best to answer that question and any others you might have.

The “What Can You Do With This Degree?” Series

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What Kind of Accreditation Should My Degree Program Have?

Accreditation is the process by which colleges and universities are evaluated and validated. Colleges and universities that have earned accreditation have met the standards set by accrediting organizations. These organizations are comprised of faculty from various accredited colleges and universities. Legitimate regional and national accrediting organizations are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Typically, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognizes the same institutions, although CHEA recognition isn’t mandatory. A college or university must be accredited by a Department of Education-recognized accreditor in order for its students to receive federal financial aid.

For a detailed look at the differences between regional and national accreditation, check out What Do I Need to Know About College Accreditation?

What is Regional Accreditation?
Regional accreditation is the signifier of quality education; this includes the currency of curriculum, credentials of educators, and credibility of degrees. Regional accrediting agencies only accredit institutions in their geographical area.
The Six Regional Accrediting Agencies

To find out if a college or university on your list is regionally accredited, check the Department of Education’s Database of Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

What Is National Accreditation?
National accreditation is often perceived as a less rigorous standard than regional accreditation and is governed by educational accreditors agencies that are not restricted by region or geography. This means that one such agency can provide accreditation to any college or university in the U.S. that meets its criteria. National accreditation is commonplace among trade schools, religious schools, and for–profit colleges.
 
Most regionally–accredited colleges do not accept or recognize credits or degrees earned from colleges that lack regional accreditation. However, national accreditation may be a useful indicator of quality for students pursuing vocational training, competency-based education, or other education models that operate under a for-profit model.

To learn more about National Accreditation, check out Understanding National Accreditation.

For help safely navigating the For–Profit Sector, check out our Guide to For–Profit Colleges: What You Need to Know.

What is Programmatic Accreditation?
Programmatic accreditation certifies that an institution’s program, department, or college has met the standards of the programmatic accrediting agency. While programmatic accreditation agencies often have national jurisdiction, programmatic accreditation is not institutional national accreditation. In fact, programmatic accreditation often coexists with regional accreditation. In some disciplines, a degree with programmatic accreditation may even be required to earn a license or enter professional practice.
 
Because a culinary arts degree program provides practical skills education, certification and diploma programs enjoy meaningful credibility in this field. This means that credible certifications are issued by institutions that are not regionally accredited. This makes national programmatic accreditation important in the field of culinary arts.
 
The American Culinary Federation (ACF) exists to ensure quality and standardized cooking and safety practices among chefs, bakers, and educators in the culinary industry. In order to become a certified chef, you must sit for and pass the ACF’s certification exam. The ACF is the most widely recognized institution granting Chef and Master Chef status.
 
Many diploma programs will seek and boast the ACF stamp of approval. Some degree programs will also boast this accreditation, though in cases where you pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree, a regional accreditation is sufficient on its own.
 
In fact, the ACF accreditation, while meaningful, is not mandatory. It is one of numerous factors that you can consider while seeking a culinary certification or degree, alongside cost, accessibility, and career trajectory. Indeed, you don’t need a diploma or degree from an ACF certified program to sit for your ACF certification. You need only two years of experience in the field. That said, as you seek a culinary program from the array of options out there, ACF certification is at least one solid indicator of programmatic quality.

The easiest way to determine accreditation status is to contact your school of choice. You can also look at the Department of Education’s database of all recognized accreditors within its purview.

To learn a little more about navigating the tricky accreditation landscape, check out Accreditation of Colleges and Universities: Who’s Accrediting the Accreditors?

What Kinds of Culinary Arts Degrees Are There?

Diploma or Certificate in Culinary Arts

A diploma or certificate program in culinary arts could be a great way to dive right into the field. Typically, the most affordable and accessible way to gain entry–level skills for kitchen work, a reputable diploma program will provide you with basic instruction in knife skills, cooking methods, and food safety, as well as a credential that will get your foot into the door of a lot of kitchens. When seeking a diploma or certificate from an independent culinary arts program, conduct your due diligence to ensure that the curriculum, instruction, and reputation of the institution are of high quality.

Accreditation from the American Culinary Federation (ACF) is often a positive indicator. Once you’ve received your certification, you are eligible to begin working as an entry–level cook or food services professional in a wide array of settings. If you aspire to a leadership role as a kitchen manager, chef, or restaurateur, you will need to continue in a culinary arts degree program. Otherwise, this is your fastest ticket to full–time work in the field.

What Courses Will I Take in a Diploma’s Program?

  • Breakfast, Brunch, and Lunch
  • Culinary Fundamentals
  • Dry–Heat Cooking Methods
  • Introduction to Meat, Fish, and Poultry
  • Moist–Heat Cooking Methods
  • Soups and Sauces

Associate in Culinary Arts

An associate degree in culinary arts can be a great way to dive right into a food services profession or a building block toward greater opportunities. This is a great way to gain entry–level skills and a reputable degree for work in a wide range of settings from restaurants and cafeterias to healthcare facilities and hotel kitchens. This 60–70 credit degree—typically completed over the duration of two years—will provide you with introductory food, beverage, pastry, prep, and safety skills as well as basic instruction in management and business, particularly in the context of food services. An associate degree in culinary arts from a regionally accredited program will give you the tools and qualifications to begin working right away in a food preparation or distribution context. This degree can also place you well on your way to eventually earning a bachelor’s degree, meaning that you can more easily pursue further education while already working in the field.

What Courses Will I Take in an Associate Program?

  • Baking and Pastry Skill Development
  • Culinary Math
  • Food Safety
  • Formal Restaurant Cooking
  • Intro to Gastronomy
  • Intro to Hospitality and Customer Service
  • Seafood Identification and Fabrication
  • Wine Studies

Bachelor’s in Culinary Arts

You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to get into a kitchen, but it’s pretty important if you ever want to be in charge of that kitchen, or even the establishment containing that kitchen. If you’re advancing from a diploma or associate degree program, this is your opportunity to choose an area of specialization. If you’re just getting started, this four–year, 120–credit program will begin with introductory food, beverage, dessert, prep, and safety courses before advancing to your specialization. All bachelor’s degree students have the chance to find an area of concentration, from pastries, wine pairings, and seafood to regional cuisine traditions the world over. In addition to helping you find focus, a bachelor’s culinary arts degree will prepare you for leadership in the field. Many culinary arts students also double–major or minor in fields like business and organizational leadership. This can provide you with the skills to ultimately become a head chef, restaurateur, or administrator in a food services organization.

What Courses Will I Take in a Bachelor’s Program?

  • Breakfast Production
  • Cost Control
  • Fine Dining Service
  • Global Flavors
  • Human Nutrition
  • Menu to Plate Concepts
  • Methods of Cooking
  • Storeroom Operations and Purchasing

Master’s in Culinary Arts

A master’s in culinary arts degree is specifically reserved for those who aspire to a position of leadership in the field that extends beyond the kitchen walls. This is a great path if you wish to become an executive chef with the qualifications both to oversee your kitchen and a successful restaurant. In this case, you may have the chance to study directly with a master chef. If your concentration is on a cuisine from another part of the world, this could also be your chance to study abroad. The master’s in culinary arts is also a good path for those interested in administrative leadership of food services either in large–scale distribution, event catering, hotel management, or corporate restaurant chains. Typically, a 30–60 credit program requiring between one and two years for completion, a master’s culinary degree could give you a significant advantage in achieving upward mobility in a crowded field.

What Courses Will I Take in a Master’s Program?

  • Baking and Pastry Theory
  • Beverage Operations Management
  • Classical Techniques
  • Latin Cuisine
  • Pastry Techniques and Artistry
  • Sanitation and Safety
  • Traditional Techniques
  • World Cuisines

What Kind of Licensing or Certification Do I Need?

The title of “certified chef” usually indicates that somebody has passed the certification exam issued by the American Culinary Federation (ACF). Also the leading programmatic accreditation association in the culinary arts field, the ACF grants certification for Chefs, Master Chefs and other specialized titles in the field. You can sit for your ACF exam with either a basic two–year degree in culinary arts or with a minimum of two years working in the field. If you hope to achieve any kind of upward mobility as a kitchen chef, ACF certification is a necessary starting point.

Other certifications will depend on the sector you work in and the capacity in which you work there. If you’ll be working directly in a kitchen, for instance, you’ll need to obtain a food handler’s license or the equivalent based on your area of operation. Other common certifications will depend on the type of business in question and your role within. As a food services entrepreneur, you may need to acquire a catering license, food safety license, liquor license, or various additional business permits. Requirements for these certifications will differ by state or locale, as well as your role and responsibilities.

Before enter a licensing or certification program, be sure that it is awarded by a reputable association or group. Most associations or groups will require you to complete an education program or workshop to earn your certification.

What Can You Do With a Culinary Arts Degree?

Your culinary arts degree or certificate can open the door to a wide range of opportunities, not just in food services but in hospitality, tourism, and a host of other fields. Check out these popular Food Preparation/Hospitality and Tourism Careers to learn more:

If you’d like to learn more from a true leader in the field, check out our interview with hospitality expert John Murtha, the Area Managing Director & General Manager for Omni Hotels.

What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With a Culinary Arts Degree?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides some basic information on the salaries associated with various careers in the food service, preparation, and hospitality industries, with median annual salaries as of 2018:

Career Median Salary
Waiter/Waitress $21,780
Bartender $22,550
Food Preparation Worker $23,730
Baker $26,520
Chef and Head Cook $48,460
Food Service Manager $54,240
Nutritionist $60,370

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Are There Professional Culinary Arts Associations or Societies I Should Join?

Professional associations are a fantastic way to make connections in your field, learn about valuable seminars or certifications, and improve your own credentials. The association or associations you choose to join will depend to an extent on the career path you take. Look for culinary arts associations that correspond with your academic or professional concentration.

American Culinary Federation
The American Culinary Federation was established in 1929. The Federation’s goal is to promote the professional image of chefs across the globe through all levels of education.
The American Institute of Food and Wine
This non–profit professional organization was established in 1981 and is affiliated with names such as Julia Child, Richard Graff, and Robert Mondavi. Both wine and food connoisseurs are encouraged to attend numerous social and educational functions for the promotion of the trade.
James Beard Foundation
Founded in honor of the late James Beard, this association educates and celebrates professional chefs through scholarships, publications, advocacy training, and more.
National Restaurant Association
One of the largest food service associations across the globe, the National Restaurant Association works to support restaurant owners and operators in a variety of capacities.
North American Sommelier Association
Focusing on wine professionals, this association provides education, training, and recognition for its members.

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