So, you want to learn to cook? Here's a menu of seven schools where you can trade your suit and tie or T-shirt and jeans for a toque and white jacket.
1. Culinary Institute of America
The nation's other CIA, which has branches in Hyde Park, the Napa Valley, and San Antonio, bills itself as the world's premier culinary college. The label is well deserved, as the list of CIA graduates reads like a who's who of the best restaurateurs, chefs, and food writers. The CIA offers degrees in Culinary Arts and Baking and Pastry Arts Management. While the CIA does not require applicants to submit SAT scores, it does require six months of experience in a professional kitchen, banquet facility, hospital kitchen, soup kitchen, or other non-fast-food facility. Students spend more than 1,300 hours in the kitchen while working toward their degree.
History: The CIA opened in 1946 as the New Haven Restaurant Institute, a vocational training school offering a 16-week program for World War II veterans. It became known as the Culinary Institute of America in 1951 and opened its Hyde Park facility in 1972. One year later, the school opened the Epicurean Room, a public restaurant where students gained hands-on experience in the kitchen. In 1995, the CIA opened a second campus in Napa Valley to accommodate the growing number of chef wannabes. After receiving a donation of $35 million from David Pace, the salsa mogul, in 2007, the school opened a campus in San Antonio to promote Latin American cuisines.
Tasty Tidbit: The college employs more than 130 chefs and instructors, including the largest concentration of chefs certified through the American Culinary Federation's 10-day master chef certification exam. A 2000 survey revealed that the average starting salary for graduates is $25,000 to $35,000 depending on whether they earned an associate's or bachelor's degree.
Famous Alum: Like deciding on an entrÃ©e at a five-star restaurant, it's difficult to pick just one. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, traveler, and author, graduated from the CIA in 1978 after attending Vassar College.
2. Le Cordon Bleu
Le Cordon Bleu began as a single school in Paris and has evolved into a worldwide training institution with eight official campuses and 29 affiliate programs. Roughly 20,000 students are enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu programs each year. Students at the Paris campus can earn diplomas in Culinary Arts or Pastry. For about $50,000, they take classes in both disciplines and work toward a Grand Diplome. One of the best schools that offers Le Cordon Bleu program outside of its eight main campuses is the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
History: Le Cordon Bleu, meaning "blue ribbon," derives its name from the symbol of L'Ordre du Saint-Esprit, an order of nobles created by King Henry III in the 16th century that regularly enjoyed magnificent feasts. The culinary arts school was founded in Paris in 1895 by Marthe Distel, a journalist and publisher of a cooking magazine. In 1896, the first cooking demonstration ever to be held on an electric stove was staged at Le Cordon Bleu in an effort to promote Distel's magazine and his new school. The publicity stunt worked, and Le Cordon Bleu established a reputation as one of the premier culinary arts programs in the world.
Tasty Tidbit: For an insider's account of life as a student at Le Cordon Bleu, check out Kathleen Flinn's memoir of her experience at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. The memoir includes recipes, as well as anecdotes about Flinn's competitive classmates.
Famous Alum: Cooking icon Julia Child, who helped popularize French cuisine in the United States after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu and published best-selling cookbooks until her death in 2004, was the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institute Hall of Fame.
3. New England Culinary Institute
The New England Culinary Institute, which has two campuses in Vermont, operates under the mantra that students should "learn it by living it." To that end, students have the opportunity to work in a for-profit restaurant as part of their curriculum at NECI, where the student-to-instructor ratio is 10:1. NECI has a total enrollment of more than 500 full-time students, 76 percent of whom are 18 to 25 years old, and offers degrees in Culinary Arts, Baking and Pastry Arts, and Hospitality and Restaurant Management.
History: NECI was founded in 1980 by Fran Voigt and John Dranow, who made the learn-by-doing model the hallmark of the NECI education. When it opened, NECI was one of the first culinary arts schools to require physical education credits for graduation. "You know the saying, "˜Never trust a skinny cook?'" Dranow asked a New York Times reporter in 1987. "We decided to turn that saying on its head." The school offered free memberships to a nearby health club and students held quadrathalons, which involved running, biking, cooking, and foodservice.
Tasty Tidbit: Laureen Gauthier, the Director of Curriculum & Education at NECI, baked a 6-foot-long chocolate replica of the Smithsonian Castle for the Smithsonian Institution's 150th anniversary celebration in 1996.
Famous Alum: Alton Brown began his career as a cinematographer before switching paths and moving to Vermont to attend the NECI. He graduated in 1995, worked briefly in a restaurant, and started his popular cooking show, Good Eats, in 1998.
4. French Culinary Institute
The French Culinary Institute boasts a world-class faculty, including award-winning French chef Jacques Pepin, and an impressive list of alumni. The roughly 600 students enrolled in the FCI's 600-hour Culinary Arts program have the opportunity to practice their skills by preparing four- and five-course meals at L'Ecole, the school's student-run restaurant in Manhattan. In addition to its full-time Culinary Arts and Baking and Pastry programs, the FCI offers specialized courses, such as the Art of International Bread Baking, and other workshops. Unlike the CIA, students don't need any culinary experience to apply. They will need $35,000 if they're admitted, however.
History: The French Culinary Institute was founded in 1984 by Dorothy Cann, who had served as director of the Apex Technical School, one of the country's largest trade schools, since 1978. Cann loved good food and believed that cooking should be taught like other trades. "The discipline that goes into learning cooking is the same as that for learning welding," Cann told the New York Times in 1985. "I don't want to put down cooking in any way because, of course, it is very much a creative profession. But at the same time it is a trade, and that's how you should learn it."
Tasty Tidbit: The Italian Culinary Academy, a sister school of the FCI, opened in 2007. Students enrolled in the 29-week program learn to prepare authentic Italian cuisine by spending 18 weeks in some of Italy's top restaurants. While students spend the other 11 weeks of the course in New York, classes are taught in Italian in keeping with the "total immersion" method.
Famous Alum: Celebrity chef Bobby Flay graduated from FCI in 1984. He opened his first restaurant, Mesa, to critical acclaim in 1991 and earned the FCI's first "Outstanding Graduate Award" in 1993. In addition to serving as an instructor at his alma mater, Flay publishes cookbooks, contributes to The CBS Early Show, and stars in multiple shows on the Food Network.
5. Kendall College
While it doesn't have quite the same name recognition as some of the other schools on this list, Kendall College is respected among people in the food industry. Nearly 600 students are enrolled in the downtown Chicago school's Culinary Arts program. Students refine their skills during a required three-month internship and the school's Culinary Advisory Board, made up predominantly of foodservice professionals in the Chicago area, helps instructors develop the curriculum and students find jobs after graduation. Kendall College features a student-run restaurant called The Dining Room.
History: Kendall College was founded in 1934 by two Scandinavian Methodist seminaries, who hoped to provide students with the tools they would need to become competent professionals. Those tools didn't include knives and spoons until 1985, when the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts first opened its kitchen doors to students. At first, the school offered an Associate Degree in Applied Sciences, but has since added a Bachelor of Arts in Culinary Arts and other degrees that are accredited by the American Culinary Federation. Kendall College was located in Evanston, Ill., from its founding until 2004. The campus is now on the Chicago River and provides students easy access to Chicago's many restaurants.
Tasty Tidbit: Kendall College is devoted to going green and became the first culinary-training program to receive the Green Award from the Foodservice Consultants Society International in 2007. The school created an educational video with tips on how to make foodservice operations more eco-friendly in 2008.
Famous Alum: Shawn McClain, a 1990 graduate, is the executive chef and partner of Spring, Green Zebra, and Custom House, three of the most popular restaurants in Chicago. McClain was a 2006 James Beard Award Winner as the best chef in the Midwest.
6. Tante Marie's Cooking School
Not to be confused with the Tante Marie School of Cookery in England that was recently purchased by Gordon Ramsay, Tante Marie's Cooking School is a small, private school in San Francisco that offers short-term courses in culinary and pastry arts. In addition to professional courses, the well respected school also offers various workshops for the more casual chef. Tante Marie's facility has two kitchens, one of which can be converted into a demonstration kitchen that seats up to 35 students. Enrollment for the professional, 22-week Culinary Arts course is limited to 16 students; tuition is $19,500.
History: Tante Marie's was founded by Mary Risley in 1979. Risley, who taught herself to cook by reading Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, worked in the investment business for 8 years before deciding that her true passion was cooking, eating, and writing. When she realized her dream and opened Tante Marie's, it was one of the first culinary schools in the county to offer all-day, year-round classes. The school has produced more than 3,000 graduates in the 30 years since. Risley is the founder of Food Runners, a nonprofit that delivers 10 tons of donated restaurant leftovers to soup kitchens, shelters, and needy residents throughout San Francisco each week.
Tasty Tidbit: The school offers "Party Classes" every Friday and Saturday. For $150 a person, a group of 20-30 friends or coworkers can use Tante Marie's kitchen to cook a three-course meal under the guidance of the school's chefs.
Famous Alum: Tori Ritchie, a cookbook author and regular contributor to Bon AppÃ©tit, produces 5-minute cooking segments for The CBS Early Show. She also teaches cooking and food writing at Tante Marie's and is a volunteer with Food Runners.
7. Johnson and Wales University
Johnson and Wales is a private school with more than 16,000 students enrolled in programs at its campuses in Denver, Miami, Charlotte, and Providence, R.I. For nearly a century, the school has been dedicated to producing employment-ready graduates in a number of fields through two- and four-year programs. Students in the Culinary Arts program receive hands-on training in university-owned or affiliated commercial facilities, such as a Radisson hotel and the Johnson & Wales Inn near the Providence campus.
History: Known as "America's Career University," Johnson and Wales was founded as a business school in 1914. A culinary arts curriculum wasn't offered at JWU until 1973, but the program quickly took off from there. In 1992, Johnson and Wales opened its Miami campus and formally established the College of Culinary Arts. The Denver campus opened in 2000, while the Charlotte campus opened in 2004.
Tasty Tidbit: The Center for Culinary Excellence, an 82,000-square foot facility with nine hot kitchens, seven pastry and chocolate labs, and a slew of features, is scheduled to open at Johnson and Wales' Providence campus this fall.
Famous Alum: Food Network regular Emeril Lagasse turned down a full scholarship at the New England Conservatory of Music to attend Johnson and Wales. He graduated in 1978 and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1990, the same year that Esquire named Emeril's Restaurant "Restaurant of the Year." Lagasse has authored 12 cookbooks and is the chef/proprietor of 10 restaurants.