There are circumstances in my case that made going to school an absolute necessity in order to break into the field. But I learned basic, universal information in school that I doubt I could have picked up as fast had I just gone to work:
- Knife Skills
- Professional techniques, not just trucs
- Management -- financial, organizational, human
- The organization of the professional kitchen
School gave me the groundwork I needed to jump in and move up rapidly.
Yes, if you work in a kitchen, you will learn to do what you need to do IN THAT KITCHEN. But maybe not what you need to know to work in ANY kitchen.
If you are young, I would say DO BOTH: start as soon as possible to get practical experience, but also go to school to learn at least the basics of food science, art, and management. It doesn't have to be CIA. Just a school that opens your mind to the possibilities of food.