Updated on Friday 1 March 2013
If learning about cooking, baking, and the restaurant industry is your passion, coming to America to study culinary arts in the United States may be for you. To prepare for starting your culinary adventure, you'll need to prepare yourself to be the perfect international student candidate. Check out our helpful section on studying cuisine!
Becoming a skilled chef requires years of experience, but does not require any specific university degree before going to culinary school because the training you receive at a school of culinary arts is considered to be hands on. To get into a culinary arts school as an international student you'll need the following:
To gain entrance into a culinary arts school, you will need proof that you've attained the required minimum education level. Normally, this involves completing High School, or the equivalent of secondary education in your home country. As international students may have different levels of education or different structures of schooling, it's best to contact the admissions representative of your culinary arts school to confirm that you meet their minimum standards. To do this, you will need your official transcript that indicates your previous coursework. You may not need to do advanced calculus or define Latin terms in culinary school, but you'll definitely need to be able to do math well, communicate clearly, write professionally, and understand measurements in the metric and standard (US) system. In addition to this requirement, you will likely need to have a proficiency in English, and depending on the culinary style you choose, additional languages may come in handy. Many culinary schools that teach pastry or classical French cuisine for example will require that you have at least some proficiency in speaking and reading French. If you happen to have taken culinary arts classes in your home country, you will need to speak with the school you wish to attend to see if your credits will transfer.
Some high schools and secondary education centers have cooking programs where you work in a restaurant style environment while completing your education. These types of programs prepare students to go to culinary school or work in restaurants following graduation. It is not required that students go through a program like this. If you completed a regular secondary education, or concentrated on academics at your college or school, you can still go to culinary school. If you have participated in a similar program in your home country, check with the school you wish to attend to make sure this experience counts.
Other than these specialized programs, there is little in the way of pre-culinary education done in the United States. Many people enter culinary school after falling in love with their work in kitchens, cafes, or bakeries. Still others choose being a chef as a second career, something they want to do after retiring or after they've already started another career. This leads to broad differences of life experience, age, and kitchen experience in the student population at culinary schools. Whether a student is a long time food service worker or fresh out of high school, studying culinary arts at a formal school can make the difference between being a good cook and a great chef.
Like any school in the United States, as a foreign national you'll need to have a valid F-1 student visa and your passport from your home country. A step by step guide on what you'll need to get your student visa appears here: Application Process. In addition to your F-1, you'll need to fill out an I-20 immigration form and financial documentation proving you or your family can support you while you study. The only exception to this rule is if you happen to be Canadian, in which case you'll only need your passport and to have filed out an I-20 form and your financial documentation at the border.
You will also need to prove that your English skills are good enough to attend classes where everyone speaks English. Most culinary arts schools accept the TOEFL test, but whether they accept the internet or paper based test and what score you must have to attend may vary among schools. If you've grown up speaking English, or your schooling included many years of formal English classes, you may have the testing requirement waived, again depending on the school you want to study with.
In addition to the legal documents you'll need, there are several other things you'll need to get before you apply. Most culinary schools want you to have experience working in a restaurant or formal kitchen. Working at a fast food restaurant like McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken may not be enough for the experience you need. The reason for this is that you'll be studying the preparation of fine foods in a professional environment—they may expect you to know the difference between a julienne and diced onion. It's a good idea to ask the admissions director what sort of work experience they require, and how long you should be working before you consider culinary school. The requirements are often half a year or more. Being an amazing chef comes first and foremost from having a passion for food! If you've never worked in a formal kitchen, how can you be sure that being a chef is something you're committed to?
In addition to your work experience, you will also need letters of recommendation from people who have seen your work in an academic or culinary environment. A teacher or manager who is familiar with the quality of your work would be the best choice. You should make sure that the person who is writing your letter of recommendation is skilled enough in English that their letter is easily understood by the people who will be reading it.
There is no rule as to how many letters you should have, but generally three letters from people familiar with your work will be enough. Schools can be particular about having a sealed letter from the person you've asked for a recommendation so be sure to check with your school.
Lastly, you'll need to ensure that the school you want to attend has the sort of programs and classes that you're interested in pursuing. Just because a school has a degree program in culinary arts doesn't mean that you'll get to study everything you'd like such as classical French or Italian cuisine. Another good idea is to try to contact chefs whose work you admire and ask them what they think of the program you're looking to attend.
These are only a few recommendations for what you'll need to think about when attending culinary school. You should discuss the specifics with your admission representative to ensure that nothing stops you from pursuing the career of your dreams. Studying culinary arts in the United States is a great step towards having a wonderful international culinary career! Good luck and bon appetite!