There are professional chefs out there who are self-taught, who learned by cooking on their own and watching others at work, refining their skills in the kitchens of different restaurants. There are also many chefs and bakers who picked up most of their skill set at culinary schools, both at big names like the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and Le Cordon Bleu and at smaller, local schools. The skill set a chef needs to be a really successful top chef can take a lifetime of work to perfect, which is why many people in the food industry are going to recommend cooking school to not only jump start the learning process, but to take a student much farther than he or she would be able to go on his own in the same time period.
The thing is that cooking school is not for everyone. The Reluctant Gourmet recently posted an excellent letter from Chef Leslie Bilderback, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Success as a Chef, discussing why cooking school is not for everyone. She touches on a few of the things you’ll want to keep in mind (“love the sweaty heat, the tired aching feet, the foul language, alcoholism and drug abuse, low pay, no paid vacation or health insurance,” for instance) if you’re considering going into the industry, and mentions a few strategies that will help you in the long run (get a BA or AA in addition to a culinary degree, and work in a kitchen before you even think of enrolling).