Can You Really Learn to Cook Professionally Online?

Illustration by 731. Photograph by Getty.

The Escoffier School for Culinary Arts has one heck of a namesake to live up to. Auguste Escoffier is the closest thing the cooking world has to a deity. He established the brigade system that governs all modern-day professional kitchens. His pivotal Le Guide Culinaire codified French cuisine’s five mother sauces, from which all other sauces derive. The Escoffier School’s owners believe they can now impart some of the grand master’s wisdom to a new generation of cooks through an intensive online course.

Triumph Higher Education, which licenses the school’s name from the Escoffier Foundation, already has two brick-and-mortar professional cooking schools in Austin, Tex., and Boulder, Colo. It just launched its online curriculum, modeling it after the online degree programs such as those offered by the University of Phoenix. The course costs $5,000. While half its new enrollment comprises enthusiasts looking to learn the basics of cooking, the school’s core objective is to train the professional cooks that make up the rank and file of every restaurant kitchen.

At this point I should mention that I worked as a prep and line cook for several years in college. I had no formal training and I’m certainly no chef, but I make a decent vinaigrette, can debone a chicken, and have developed an unhealthy indifference toward open flame. I also carry the baggage accrued by anyone who has learned to cook in a restaurant.

Sure, your grandma can teach you to cook, but to learn how to cook professionally, there is no substitute for a hairy man in sweat-drenched chef whites bellowing in your ear, demanding to know how you could foul up a carrot brunoise.

I expressed my skepticism to Jeffrey Larson, Triumph’s director of admissions marketing, and Brian Sherrill, its vice president of technology, and they say they get that response a lot. Sherrill says cooking is such a hands-on profession that an entirely online curriculum seems counterintuitive.

Sherrill says no one is going to graduate from the school’s two-to-four-month program and open a restaurant. The idea is to teach the rudiments of cooking, along with a healthy dose of French culinary theory and kitchen science to students who want to embark on a restaurant career, he says. Triumph expects its Escoffier graduates to develop the basic knowledge needed to land an entry-level position in a restaurant or caterer’s kitchen and go on to continue their education on the job.

“You’re not going to complete the class and become a sous-chef,” Sherrill says. “You’re going to learn knife skills, to learn your mother sauces, to learn the fundamentals.”

That’s a fair point. There is a word for a new kitchen worker who doesn’t know how to cut an onion: dishwasher.

Triumph gave me access to the program’s first few modules, and I spent two hours one night skimming through the course work. I must admit I was surprised at the level of detail. For instance there’s a whole module dedicated to egg cookery. Not only is it replete with diagrams and videos detailing the proper techniques in hard-boiling, soft-boiling, frying, scrambling, and poaching eggs, the curriculum goes into minute detail about the chemical reactions that cause whites and yolks to coagulate when heated. It then demonstrates how those reactions can be manipulated through applying different levels of heat.

There are little quizzes spread throughout the modules, but they are a bit superficial—for example, matching a picture of paring knife with the words “paring knife.” The challenges, however, come in the form of 36 cooking assessments, in which students must actually cook what they have learned.

For instance, in the egg module students have to cook a French herbed omelette. You’re given a recipe and several videos demonstrating the technique as well as detailed instructions on prep and plating. The student is expected to document his work from beginning to end with a digital camera. Those photos are then viewed by the student’s chef-mentor, who is available throughout the course to answer questions and give advice. That mentor rates the dish; if it proves acceptable, the photo is included in the student’s portfolio and submitted to prospective employers when the student graduates.

The most obvious flaw in the school’s online system is that no instructor is eating the dishes these students create. No matter how good a meal looks, you’ve made an unacceptable dish if it tastes poorly. I share this criticism with Sherrill and Larson, expecting them to cringe in fear at my astute observations. I get the impression I’m not the first person to have raised this point.

You can divine a lot about how a dish will taste just by looking at it, Sherrill says. You can tell if a scallop has been seared properly by noting the level of caramelization on its exterior. You can see if a steak has been cooked properly by cutting it up and observing the redness of juices. You can tell if eggs have been scrambled properly by the size of their curds and the sheen of moisture on their surface.

In addition, each student is expected to taste his dish and describe in detail the flavors and textures, Sherrill says. This not only gives the chef-mentor an idea as to whether the dish came together properly, he adds, but is also a useful tool in developing a student’s palette.

Those are valid arguments, but I’m highly skeptical. One of the most difficult things to learn in cooking is seasoning: knowing how much salt to apply and when to apply it. It took me years—and many ruined or bland dishes—to learn how to properly season food. I’m still working on it (and screwing up meals) to this day. If a new cook is salting everything like a McDonald’s French fry, he won’t last long in any kitchen.

Sherrill says cooks ultimately will learn those kind of refinements when they leave school and start working. Moreover, every chef has his or her own approach to seasoning, just as every chef has his or her own approach to making Escoffier’s mother sauces, Sherrill says. The school can’t teach an individual’s kitchen’s technique.

“All of the employers we talked to said we have to teach them the basics,” Sherrill says. “What they want to know is if they hand the [prospective hire] a knife, they know what do with it. They can teach the rest.”

I’m still not persuaded you can learn cook online. However, I think anyone who wants to become a cook could learn plenty from this class, giving them a big leg up when applying for that kitchen job. The alternative would be slaving away in front of a sink and picking up prep tasks here or there until you can beg or cajole your way onto the line.

And I’m not too proud to admit I learned something. I saw a few things in the egg module that I plan to try out this weekend.

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