I'm also a frequent lurker and first poster. I've worked in a large casino bakery for 7 years, and have done pastry for our fine dining restaurant for the last 4, and seeing many culinary grads and many more non culinary school graduates working in the kitchens. I also know many culinary grads who are now in crippling debt due to culinary schools that brainwash students into believing they'll be .... chefs upon graduation... really?! But that's a whole other topic.
Honestly, degrees don't matter. 9.9 times out of ten a chef will hire someone: recommended by a trusted employee or fellow chef OR with significant experience OR someone who has staged for free and seems to be a hard worker.
A combination of very hard work, reliability, and a dash of luck (right place right time) usually lead to getting higher up positions. Of course good technique and pastry/culinary knowledge are a given requirement.
I don't have a culinary degree. I worked my way up from Baker Helper- 2 yrs, to Baker ~2 yrs (first decorating cakes, french pastries, etc). "Baker" is still my current title as they don't have any others, but I perform a Lead Pastry Person's job with added tasks that a manager would do: ordering, training new people, handling bakery "emergencies", banquets etc. I've been doing this particular job for about 3-4 yrs, but just started the ordering, etc in the last year. Being at my work place so long, inevitably people leave and then those positions are offered to those already there. That's what happened to me.
Basically, what I'm saying is: work hard even if you think it's going unnoticed, keep learning on your own (research these boards, cookbooks, recipes), stay humble at work, and always be willing to do whatever is needed. Being a generally good employee and human go a LOOONG way in today's work force.
Yes, your situation kind of sucks and is all too typical (not being told about positions and such) BUT the fact that you are trusted with specials is definitely a great sign, added responsibility (without additional pay or recognition usually) is an unfortunate reality and necessary for us to learn and gain experience. In my situation, I'm glad I learned to order because now I can say that I know that skill and gives me a leg up on others.
It is very unlikely you weren't offered that job because you don't have a degree. More than likely, the person had more experience or ... was a friend of a friend recommendation type of thing.
Yes, people will give you a chance without one. Experience speaks much louder than a degree. Aside from extremely high level fine dining restaurants (French Laundry i think has a degree requirement?), very few restaurants have a degree requirement. (maybe any other CT members could chime in on this)
Side note, if culinary school is an absolute must, like when someone doesn't even know the basics (not you, just saying) I highly recommend community colleges, sure it's not a fancy pants as CIA blah blah. But you're also not going to be saddled with $50,000+ in debt ie. $600-1000/month student loan payments, which are impossible to pay on a prep cook or even line cooks wage.
Sorry this is so long, but I'm kind of.... passionate about this.
In your particular situation you are lucky that you get to be creative. Definitely use that to your advantage to show your skills and continue to practice different techniques.
It's a tough industry, but not impossible to work your way up the ladder, slowly and without a degree.