As my colleague Marty Stempniak reported last November, Robert Morris College is opening a student-run restaurant, Eyrie, on Oak Park Avenue sometime later this year.

Putting students into a real working environment, cooking for paying customers, seems an excellent way to give them a taste of the very hard work involved in actually being a chef and working in a restaurant.

Lately, I’ve been chatting with a lot of chefs about the value of a culinary education.  Some, like Greg Elliott, the new chef at Lockwood in the Palmer House, is a proud graduate of Kendall College’s culinary program, but others like Jeffrey Hedin of the recently opened Leopold (1450 W. Chicago) seem to be doing quite well without a cooking school degree.

Oak Park’s own John McLean, formerly of the Levy empire and now owner of Burger Bar (1578 N. Clybourn) and neighboring Sono Wood Fired, tells us he became a chef through hands-on experiences in the kitchen. “All of my culinary training was on the job,” McLean told me. “I basically cooked my way through school and trained under some talented chefs early in my career.”

In Life, on the Line, the book by Alinea’s Grant Achatz (due out in March, 2011), the internationally recognized chef makes it clear that his time at the prestigious CIA (Culinary Institute of America) was pretty much an unnecessary waste of time for anyone who, like Achatz, had spent serious time burning his forearms on kitchen stoves.

Mark Mendez, until recently the chef of Carnivale  (702 W. Fulton Market), has some definite feelings about cooking school grads that he expressed in “An Open Letter to a Culinary Student.” In this personal message to a cooking school graduate who walked off the job without notice, Mendez speculated that “They didn’t really prepare you for this in cooking school did they? They didn’t warn you that being a great chef requires first being a great cook. They didn’t tell you about the sacrifices you have to make, the hard work, the hours, the dedication, the commitment, the lack of sleep, the constant abuse of the sous chef, they didn’t warn you.”

No doubt, many culinary students have watched a few too many Food Network programs that make being a chef look a little more glamorous than it actually is. Eyrie seems like an excellent laboratory for young cooks to discover if they have what it takes to run a kitchen.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...

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