Yes, I went to culinary school. I always recommend that people work in restaurants for awhile before going to culinary school. A lot of people in this industry hate their jobs, so its a good idea to find out if you enjoy this type of work before you waste a bunch of money on a culinary education.
Just so you know, it takes a lot more than a passion for cooking to become a chef. A chef is a manager; they help run the business. So, you have to have business skills and people skills. As a chef you'll being doing inventory, cost control, hiring, training, supervising and terminating employees. You'll be responsible for scheduling and purchasing food and supplies. I know some chefs who never get to cook because all their time is spent in the office doing paper work.
This career is also nothing like what you see on TV. Chefs work 50-80 hours per week. They work nights, weekends and holidays. You have to work all day on your feet and its hard to find time to take a break. You'll be working in a hot, fast-paced, chaotic kitchen. Cuts and burns are common place. Cooking in a restaurant is nothing like cooking at home. And since the menu is set, line cooks are not allowed to be creative or to make changes to the menu items. A lot of people can't handle the pressure of working a busy line. Its not uncommon for a busy restaurant to serve 800 - 1000 guests during a Friday night dinner shift.
If you plan on having a family someday, good luck trying to find time to spend with them. I've known several chefs who have gotten divorced because of this.
You really don't need to know anything before going to culinary school. They will teach you what you need to know. Culinary schools are designed to get you started at an entry level position upon graduation. They teach you the bare basics of culinary arts and the basics of how to run a restaurant. If you don't already have restaurant experience, you'll have to work your way up from the bottom as a prep cook or a dishwasher when you graduate.
I had the advantage of working in restaurants for a few years before I attended culinary school. So, it was really easy for me. But, I also learned a lot and it was fun. I actually kind of miss it because every day was different (unlike working in a restaurant).
It will take about, at the very minimum, 5 years of line cooking experience and a culinary degree to land a chef's job. Line cooks don't make much over minimum wage.
I also recommend that people continue with school after their culinary degree. A bachelor's in hospitality management (or business) and maybe an MBA will help you land a good paying job.
If you have any more questions, please feel free to e-mail me!
29 years in the industry