Top Merit-Based Culinary Scholarships

Merit-based culinary scholarships come from large national organizations and small local companies. Here are some that could help fund your education.

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September 17, 2021 7 min read

Loans are a tool that nearly 70% of students use to pay their way through higher education. But they’re not the only option! Scholarships can minimize what you owe out of pocket, and they never have to be repaid.

Some culinary scholarships are need-based, awarded depending on the applicant’s financial situation. Others are merit-based, rewarding students with a high GPA or with strong culinary skills by helping them take the next step in their career.

Before you commit to loans, assess your eligibility for merit-based scholarships. You may be surprised!

Traditional Merit-Based Culinary Scholarships

Applying for “traditional” merit-based culinary scholarships usually includes filling out an application and proving academic achievement through a GPA and high school transcript. It may also require letters of recommendation from teachers and employers or proof of culinary extracurriculars.

Here are three of the top culinary awards that students may want to consider.

James Beard Foundation Scholarships

The James Beard Foundation is a prestigious nonprofit organization that fosters leadership and culinary excellence. Their annual awards are like the Oscars of food, with nominees and winners earning major clout.

James Beard’s scholarship arm provides merit-based scholarships to culinary school students as well, in areas of study including culinary arts, baking and pastry, and hospitality management. As of 2019, the Foundation had awarded nearly $8 million in financial aid to over 2,000 recipients.

They offer four different types of awards:

  • Friends of James Beard: provides cash grants to put toward students’ tuition
  • James Beard School Scholarships: tuition waivers granted by educational institutions
  • Work/Study Grants: offered to working culinary professionals to cover experiential learning expenses at wineries, farms, fisheries, and more
  • JBF’s National Scholars Program: provides ten scholarships of $20,000 each to food-focused candidates based on academic merit and personal/professional recommendations

Escoffier graduate Wyl Lima received a JBF National Scholar award in 2016 to help with his school expenses. He went on to work for famous Michelin-starred restaurants Grace and Temporis!

Wyl Lima, Sous Chef at Temporis, Austin Culinary Arts Graduate“I received a scholarship from the James Beard Foundation. It helped pay off loans, and it also got me the opportunity to come meet Chef Duffy and work for him [at Grace].”
Wyl Lima, Escoffier Culinary Arts Graduate and JBF National Scholar

National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation Scholarships

The National Restaurant Association is a major giver of culinary scholarships. To date, they’ve given away over $23 million in educational funding! Their awards range from $2,500 to $10,000, so they can make a major dent in your tuition costs.

To be eligible for an NRAEF scholarship, you must be enrolled either full-time or part-time at an accredited post-secondary school or college, majoring in an undergraduate restaurant, foodservice, or hospitality program. The application window is open from mid-January to mid-March each year.

You should also check your state restaurant association websites for more localized scholarship opportunities!

A piece of paper with the words scholarship application printed at the top

American Culinary Federation Education Foundation Scholarships

The American Culinary Federation is the major chef certification body in the U.S. In partnership with the American Academy of Chefs (AAC), they also award three types of scholarships each year to eligible students.

These include:

  • Apprenticeship program awards of up to $1,500
  • Certificate program awards of up to $1,500 for students seeking a culinary diploma
  • Post-secondary degree program awards of up to $2,500 for students seeking an associate or bachelor’s degree

Applications for ACF scholarships are ranked on a point system. Students earn points for their academic grade point average, participation in culinary competitions, involvement in the ACF, essay responses, and culinary volunteer activities.

“You run into situations where students have a funding gap. So one of the first things that we do if a student has a balance, is say, here is a list of all of the institutional scholarships that we have. Let’s go through and see if you qualify for any of those scholarships.”Anthony Williams, Escoffier VP of Student Finance Operations

Escoffier student in chef uniform plating meals in a kitchen with other students

Competition-Based Culinary Scholarships

Not all culinary scholarships are dependent on your grades. Some are more concerned with how you handle yourself in the kitchen. Participation in cooking competitions can earn you scholarship funds at Escoffier or other culinary schools.

Family Career Community Leadership of America

Family Career Community Leadership of America is a nonprofit organization that helps high school students to build skills and forge connections for their future careers, while also focusing on family and community.

FCCLA holds local, regional, and national STAR events (Students Taking Action with Recognition) which let students compete and showcase their skills in specialties like culinary and baking/pastry. The local winners will go on to regional events, and then national.


ProStart is a two-year high school program presented by the National Restaurant Association. Students who complete the program and receive a certificate are eligible for scholarships and may earn course credits at some culinary schools.

ProStart also hosts the annual National ProStart Invitational® (NPSI), which is a competition focused on restaurant management and culinary arts. The culinary competition asks each team to prepare a three-course meal in just 60 minutes, using limited equipment and without access to running water or electricity. This task is tough even for seasoned culinarians!

Judge ranks food at a competition


SkillsUSA is a nonprofit organization designed to help middle school, high school, and post-secondary students who are pursuing careers in trades and skilled work. The group hosts competitions in a variety of disciplines on the district, state, and national levels. For culinary students, the competition requires that they prepare a four-course menu over a full day.

During this time, they will be evaluated on their knife skills, presentation, sanitation, and of course, the flavor of their meals. High school students work from a single menu, but post-secondary students will create their own dishes from a basket of ingredients.

Escoffier Scholarships for Competition Winners

So what can you receive by participating in one of these competitions? In addition to an impressive accolade to put on your resume, many culinary schools offer awards for students who compete and place in these events.

At Escoffier, you don’t even have to win to get a scholarship. You just have to participate in the FCCLA, ProStart, or SkillsUSA competitions to be eligible for one of these rewards:

  • Regional Level
    • Each participant receives $500.00
    • 3rd place: $1,500.00
    • 2nd place: $2,000.00
    • 1st place: $3,000.00
  • State Level
    • Each participant receives $500.00
    • 3rd place: $2,000.00
    • 2nd place: $3,000.00
    • 1st place: $5,000.00
  • National Level
    • Each participant receives $500.00
    • 3rd place: $3,000.00
    • 2nd place: $5,000.00
    • 1st place: $7,000.00

These scholarships reward all of your hard work and can help you to start your culinary education with better financial footing.

Male Escoffier culinary student rolling dough and flour in a kitchen

Don’t Let Finances Stand in the Way of Your Dreams

What if you’ve applied for all the scholarships you could, but you haven’t received any awards? Student loans may also be an option for those who qualify. Contact your financial aid advisor for guidance on what kind of loans could be available. They may also be able to suggest additional sources of funding that you haven’t considered, like work/study.

Between scholarships, loans, and other sources of funding, the culinary career of your dreams can become a reality!

To learn more about financing your culinary education, try these articles next:

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