I receive quite a few emails from people asking my opinion about the culinary arts schools in Paris, and about the profession. I've been responding individually, and happy to do so....however, this is extremely inefficient!! From all my prior year's experience in the office, with perpetual goals to optimize, to improve processes, to save cost, etc, etc, I know that my current approach just does not cut it! So, I've decided to write a post about it. If you are considering going to culinary arts school, as a career-changer or not, and are considering Paris....maybe you will find this helpful. After reading this, if you still have questions, please don't hesitate to leave a comment on the post. Someone else is probably wondering the same thing...!
Q: I'm considering going to Ecole Ferrandi. What do you think of the program there?
A: Well, Ecole Ferrandi (a school run by the Chamber of Commerce of Paris) offers several programs (covering 13 different professions), so it depends on which program you're considering. There are different programs for boulangerie, patisserie, cuisine (cooking), charcuterie; there are programs for adults, for young kids; programs that are part-time, full-time, etc, etc. See what I mean?
I can only respond about the programs I attended. I attended 2 different full-time programs for cuisine - cooking. The first one is referred to as "the Anglo progam" and then I also participated in one of its french programs, referred to as "the Sup program".
The Anglo program is aimed at adults & is international in profile with a class size of up to ~12 students. The age bracket is from the early 20s to no limit (our class had a 50 year old!). The program is english-based, and provides translations to English if needed.
Let me say upfront that I found the Anglo program to be excellent - the content was excellent & the chefs I learned from are top notch, highly professional, and very demanding. I've described the program that I went through in some detail (below). However, I understand the format has since changed slightly so it's best to contact the school to see how much of what I described below is still contained in the current program.
When I went there in 2006/07, it was full-time Mon-Fri for 9 months followed by a 3 month internship at a restaurant...so 1 year of solid training in total. We were in the kitchen learning cooking techniques 4 days a week and were in the patisserie learning pastry techniques 1 morning (5 hours) per week. We had wine & cheese + food pairing classes 1 morning every 2 weeks. We also spent some limited time learning theory in a classroom. Once every 2 weeks we ran the production kitchen (meaning we ran the kitchen for the school's restaurant) which enabled us to see first-hand how a restaurant kitchen works. The weeks we weren't in the production kitchen, we had a day where we prepared a "regional menu" for our own class. This gave us an opportunity to, as a class, prepare a 6-7 course tasting menu for our class that focused on a different region of France. This gave us a chance to learn about the specialty dishes & products that come from the markedly different regions of France. On top of that, we went on a few "field trips" to such places as Rungis (one of the world's biggest markets), to the Champagne region, etc., to Brittany, etc. What else? Oh yeah, a guest chef was brought in to show us some of his favorite recipes (we were very fortunate to have Pascale Barbot be our guest chef!)
This program is intended to prepare students to earn the school's certificate that is given after passing the school's written and practical exams. The testing was a bit stressful, but everyone passed & got their certificates at an award ceremony. The "Anglo program" can also prepare you well enough to pass the national C.A.P exam (see question below about C.A.P), although that's not a requirement of the Anglo program. A few of us took this additional test anyway. Some of the other programs at Ferrandi require the student to pass the C.A.P exam.
To do this program it is highly recommended that you understand french. Many cooking terms are french to begin with, and plus, you would be living in France....so if you had a little french under your belt, you could enjoy life outside of school more, and you could absorb as much culture as possible.
The Sup program (at Ecole Supériure de Cuisine Francaise) is a 2-year full-time program intended for students less than 25 years old and its class size is up to ~12 students. Other requirements: it's only in french, it requires that you have passed the C.A.P testing, and you have to pass an entrance exam. It's mostly french students, although it attracts a few international students as well. This program alternates between learning at school for 6 months & learning in a restaurant for 6 months as an intern. While at school, students spend half their time in the classroom learning about hygiene, law, marketing, etc, and that prepares them for their project plan which they must develop & present as a sort of dissertation at the end of the program. The other half of the school time is spent in the kitchen to hone the skills (starting at a review of base techniques and developing into advanced ones). The thing that's especially unique about this program is that students are responsible for creating and realizing their own recipes at the school's production kitchen. This makes it comprehensive hands-on learning about ordering & receiving ingredients, inventory control, running production as a chef de partie, training the commis on your recipes, and analyzing the cost of production. Each week there are three consecutive days of production at the school's restaurant with new, never-before-done recipes each day (created by the students, as I already said). So you learn a great deal about flexibility & speed, and it requires creativity. And there are weekly "debriefings" where each service at the restaurant is analyzed, critiqued & customer feedback is provided (for the food & service). I should have mentioned another very important aspect of this program: you work hand-in-hand with the front-of-the-house crew. The students learning the art of service are "partners" with the students learning the cuisine. It's definitely a cross-functional, team approach to service. There are even rotational assignments (where a kitchen student will work as a server & vice versa.). Finally, in the Sup program, the student class (cuisine) receives at least 2 demos from some of France's top and most interesting chefs (from Ze Kitchen Gallery, Le Bristol, Le Meurice, L'epi dupain, just to list a few off the top of my head...). We also went on a few field trips (food festival in Deauville, etc).
I think this program is also top-notch. It's very rich and extremely demanding. Talented & demanding chefs are also running this program. You cannot however, even consider this if you are not able to speak french. My level was intermediate at the time I took this....and let me tell you, it was a killer! But I'm glad I did it. I learned alot. (By the way, I did the kitchen part only.)
Q: Which program is better?
A: The answer is "it depends". It depends on what your ultimate goal is. As you can see, the programs differ vastly. The Anglo program is going to teach you what you need to know to get launched into this profession. It's the starting point. With this training, you will generally find a job as a commis. The Sup program will help get you moving in the direction of working for yourself, or on your own project if that's what you want. But more likely, the next step is working in a restaurant to gain more experience. Students from this program are generally hired at the demi-chef de partie or chef de partie level. (These are my views of what happens after each program....obviously there are some brilliant people from the Anglo program who can be hired as chef de parties, and some in the Sup program who could be hired as commis....) Because there's simply more practical time spent learning in the Sup program, the kitchen skills you pick up there are simply more (logical, isn't it?). You can't do the Sup program without prior training or experience in the field. As a career changer, I could not have considered registering straight away for the Sup program because my baseline was not yet there. You can, however, do the Anglo program with no prior experience (which is why I did this one!)
Both programs are very, very intense, rigorous, and physically demanding. Equal in that regard!
Q: What is the C.A.P & do I need it?
A: CAP is an acronym for le Certifcat d'aptitude professionelle (Certificate of Professional Aptitude). This is something very specific to France. It represents a certain level of qualification that a worker has in a determined profession. There exists around 200 specialties for the C.A.P. in the industrial, commercial & service sectors. It's a french national certification. For Cuisine, there is a practical exam & written exam (math, history, literature, etc).
Some professions, like boulangerie, require that you have a C.A.P - Boulangerie it in order to operate a boulangerie in France. (Oddly enough, other professions, like cuisine, do not require the chef to have this certificate in order to prepare & sell food!) Outside of France, I don't think this certification means much. Inside of France, it's clearly more important (and mandatory depending on the work sector). For working in a kitchen, some employers require that you have this and others won't ask.
This is getting entirely too long, so I'll continue it some other day...