A bowl of tofu and bok choy

A Guide to Culinary School for Vegetarians

When it comes to consumer dining preferences, health and sustainability, vegetarian and plant-based cooking skills are important. Many people are opting to incorporate more plant-based approaches into their regular eating habits regardless of whether they identify as vegetarian or vegan. Chefs who specialize in vegetarian cooking have a unique set of skills to build a career.

Related: What’s the Difference Between Plant-Based and Vegan?

Scott Larson, Lead Chef-Instructor of Plant-Based Culinary Arts at ICE New York believes that culinary education is important regardless of the type of food being prepared.

“The skills and techniques learned at culinary school are universal,” he says.

Chef Scott and two more Chef-Instructors from ICE's Plant-Based Culinary Arts Program share insights for vegetarians considering attending culinary school.

What is ICE’s Plant-Based Culinary Arts Program?

Plant-Based Culinary Arts at the Institute of Culinary Education is a predominantly vegetarian program, where lessons not only support cooking techniques but also nutrition, specialty diets and sustainable food practices. The art and theory of cooking and the foundational skills taught in the plant-based program are the same as ICE's Culinary Arts program but they are applied to plant-based foods. 

“It not only presents the same techniques as the classic culinary program such as grilling, searing, sous vide, charcuterie and fermentation, but plants are its medium to execute these techniques,” Chef-Instructor Olivia Roszkowski says. “From mushrooms to hearts of palm, jackfruit, tempeh, tofu and seitan, these are all vehicles to employ flavor and a protein component for the diner without the inclusion of animal products.”

“The Plant-Based Culinary Arts Program is very much a vegetarian program,” Chef-Instructor Stephen Chavez adds. “We do still use eggs and dairy throughout the program, however, it leans towards cooking vegetables, whole grains, legumes, sea vegetables and plant-based proteins. Our program also accommodates many culinary lifestyles such as vegetarian, vegan, omnivore, gluten-free and other diets,” as well as those who require a flexitarian diet for a variety of health issues. 

“It’s the ideal Culinary Arts program for individuals planning on entering the rapidly growing, plant-based food service industry,” Chef Scott says.

Can Vegetarians Attend a Traditional Culinary School Program?

Regardless of the availability of vegetarian culinary schools, vegetarians have often been among those who choose to pursue a classic culinary curriculum, which could still be a viable option for certain students, even if they maintain a mostly vegetarian lifestyle. There are some potential upsides to this approach, depending on your career goals as a vegetarian chef.

“If someone isn’t opposed to handling animal products and preparing the recipes, classmates and instructors can be called upon for tasting,” Chef Scott says. “Depending on the individual’s career goals, they may be called upon in a professional kitchen to work with meat-based ingredients.”

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“It is also important to understand the difference between personal and professional life when it comes to cooking,” Chef Stephen says. “There are plenty of chefs that practice a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle while still being able to cook using animal protein because they have learned the techniques of cooking with animal proteins and what they should look and taste like. It is not impossible for a vegetarian to navigate the culinary program, but it will certainly be more difficult.” 

Chef Stephen also points out that developing your own palate is an important part of any culinary school curriculum, however, and shouldn’t be disregarded.

“Culinary school is designed for students to learn techniques and basic skills for preparation, cooking and presentation,” he says, “but maybe largest of all, is the skill and ability to discern tastes and develop your flavor palate. If someone is choosing a vegetarian lifestyle and does not taste animal proteins, it may limit their success in the program.”

What are the Benefits of Choosing a Vegetarian Curriculum at a Culinary School?

In addition to being able to fully embrace a vegetarian lifestyle while attending culinary school and not being asked to handle meat, there are broader benefits to choosing a vegetarian culinary program, including an in-depth survey of vegetable cookery, plus specialized ingredients not typically found in regular cooking classes. (This includes seaweed, nut milks and cheeses.)

“Students also learn an in-depth strategy on how to navigate a plant-based kitchen in terms of seasoning, plating and menu planning, which are all essential skills when working or running a professional kitchen,” Chef Olivia says. “Classes include improvisational cooking sessions, as well as a seasonal dinner project,” she says, where skills must be translated into real-world, plant-based food service situations.

Finally, “the program also includes education of nutrition, healing through food and food philosophy from around the world, such as macrobiotics and ayurveda,” Chef Stephen says. “Our plant-based program fills a much-needed space in the modern culinary world.”

Read more: Seven Principles of a Sustainable Plant-Based Food System

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