My Experience at the Culinary Institute of America

culinary institute of america

People ask us all the time whether they should attend culinary school and turn their hobby into a business, often with the idea of wedding cakes and large celebration cakes being at the core of their business. Stephanie Zauderer, a friend of Bakepedia, is about to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and will be sharing her wisdom with you this week, beginning with advice on attending culinary school. As she specializes in wedding cakes – and many of you have had wedding cake questions for us – her upcoming articles will be on choosing cakes to use for weddings, alternatives to fondant, stacking tiers and storing and transporting large cakes. 

Ever since I was a little girl, my heart belonged in the kitchen and I always loved helping my mother prepare for holidays. I never felt as if I belonged growing up; I always knew what I wanted to do and felt as if middle and high school were a waste of my time. So, I applied and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America. After receiving a certificate in culinary arts from the Wilson Technological Center and graduating from the Baking and Pastry Program in May 2012, I’ll soon be graduating from the CIA with a bachelor’s degree. Through all of this, I’ve fallen in love with the kitchen because of the professionalism it represents.

While I was pursuing my culinary arts certificate at Wilson Tech, I became very involved with Skills USA and The American Culinary Federation, in which I won several scholarships and awards. But after starting at the CIA, my entire life changed. I finally felt as if I truly belonged and fit in. It was a mind-blowing and life-changing experience for me.

The CIA has admissions all year round. For the associates program, there is a new start date every three weeks. That means that new people are enrolling every three weeks, but also a class is graduating, which makes it easy for students to come in and out.

For the first six weeks or so, every student – culinary and pastry – takes a few core academic classes, such as culinary math, food safety, product knowledge, gastronomy and writing. After the academics, the baking and pastry students take a design class and Baking Ingredients and Equipment Technology. Finally, we start in the kitchens. Each kitchen class is three weeks long, because of the three-week admission/graduation cycle. Throughout the two-year program, we take everything from a breads class, to chocolates, cakes, baking techniques, plated desserts, dietary restrictions and many others.

The two years in the associates program are split up. After the first year, we are required to complete an 18-week externship, meaning we needed to find a job through the school to work and gain real-life experience. Not only did we have to work, but also we had to complete an externship manual, which consisted of weekly assignments.


After graduating from the CIA Associates program, I moved to Brooklyn and did a four-and-a-half month internship at Sugar Flower Cake Shop in Manhattan. There, I learned to make almost any flower out of gum paste. I also gained tons of experience icing cakes, as the owner never used fondant, preferring buttercream instead. This was the most amazing experience I could have ever hoped for. Although I’ve had many kitchen jobs in the past, this was my favorite because I am so passionate about cakes and decorating and I got to be hands-on.

Stephanie (above the student in the black headband) and her classmates at the Culinary Institute of America.

I graduate with my bachelor’s degree from the CIA this coming January, and my plans for the future are not set in stone quite yet. I plan to move to New York City and hope to find a job making wedding cakes. My ultimate goal in life is to open up my own cake shop. I look forward to having a job where I can be creative, make a living and truly love what I do.

As far as whether culinary school or the CIA is for everybody, I would say this: The Culinary Institute of America is known as the world’s premiere culinary school and focuses not only on state of the art culinary and baking techniques, but also the diligence and professionalism it takes to become a professional in the food industry. Though many lessons can be learned through working in the field, obtaining a culinary degree sets you apart for the simple reason that you were taught the correct technical way of completing tasks.

Though a culinary degree may make you stand out, those who find stressful situations too much to bear may find the fast-paced learning program offered at the CIA to be daunting. For me, the kitchen classes were where I found myself the most inspired with hands-on activities and simulated real-world experiences. I also enjoy the way the school holds its students to high expectations in the area of professionalism, with strict enforcement even down to our dress – we had to always be dressed professionally, whether in our chef’s whites or appropriate day clothes – no jeans! Hair neat, no facial hair for the men, etc. Also, unlike other schools, the CIA is completely dedicated to the food industry, which allows you to be totally immersed in a field that is your true passion.  It’s like Disneyland for chefs – and who wouldn’t love that?

Images: Stephanie Zauderer

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