Students at the San Francisco branch of Le Cordon Bleu culinary school
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
The idea of becoming a gourmet chef and maybe even owning your own restaurant someday is one of those enduring fantasies that percolate through each generation. And today, with the popularity of starmaking competition shows like Bravo’s Top Chef and Food Network’s Iron Chef, the concept of cooking your way to a new career is even more alluring. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the bottom lines of for-profit education companies in the business of selling those chef’s-hat dreams are soaring.
As the economy continues to limp along, the drive to get a leg up in competitive fields like gourmet cooking is only increasing. Overall enrollment at for-profit trade schools, which include culinary schools, has expanded by about 20% a year for the past two years, according to the Association of Private Sector Colleges & Universities, a group that represents for-profit schools nationwide. For example, one company, the Career Education Corp., which operates 17 culinary schools in the U.S., has seen enrollment increase by more than 46% since 2008, according to company spokesman Mark Spencer.(See “The 20 Best- and Worst-Paid College Majors.”)
And the students flocking to attend culinary schools are paying a pretty penny. According to data recently released by the Department of Education, tuition at a culinary school can run upwards of $30,000. For example, the Orlando branch of Le Cordon Bleu (LCB) charges $35,130 for its 21-month associate’s degree in culinary arts. Thanks in part to that hefty price tag, LCB’s parent company, the Career Education Corp., has seen its profits balloon. Last year the company reported revenue of $1.84 billion, a 63% increase from 2007.
But the numbers aren’t as good for students at culinary schools. Many enroll sold on the idea of being a chef but wake up to the harsh reality of low-paying line-cook jobs and mountains of debt on graduation. About 800 current and former students are involved in a class action in California that alleges that the LCB branch in Pasadena, formerly called the California School of Culinary Arts, “falsely led students to believe they would be able to obtain employment as chefs after graduation — and make a chef’s salary, thereby enabling them to pay off their loans within a reasonable period of time,” according to Michael Louis Kelly, an attorney representing the students.
One of those students, Daniel Vasquez, says he has had difficulty finding work other than as a line cook — a lower-paying job that he likely could have gotten without footing the bill for culinary school. Vasquez became interested in the culinary institute after seeing a commercial on TV that he says led him to believe that if he went to the school he would become a chef. When he enrolled in 2005, he says, he was told by an admissions officer that on graduation it would be “easy” for him to obtain a job as a sous chef (an apprentice chef) for which he could expect to start at $18 an hour. Vasquez was so convinced that he took out $65,018 in loans to cover the tuition for the 18-month program ($45,148), as well as associated fees, supplies, his uniform and living expenses.
In the years since graduation, Vasquez, for the most part, has been unable to find culinary jobs that pay more than $10 to $12 an hour and as a result has been unable to make payments on his loans. And although the school changed its recruitment materials nationwide in July 2009 to make it clear students cannot expect to be chefs on graduation — it now lists more realistic postgraduation career opportunities — that’s cold comfort to Vasquez, who is now nearly $80,000 in debt. “I’m not sure I will ever be able to pay it off,” Vasquez told TIME. “I never would have borrowed the money if I knew I wouldn’t be able to repay it. I went to this school so I could be ahead, jump-start my future, but now, who knows.”(Read about the cult of the celebrity chef.)
That’s the problem, says Eric Greenspan, rising Food Network star and head chef and owner of the Foundry on Melrose, a high-end restaurant in Los Angeles. He thinks students enroll in the programs hoping to skip to the head of the pack, only to find out that they still have to start at the bottom. In entry-level cooking jobs like that of a line cook or work with a caterer, a typical starting wage is $9 to $10 an hour, Greenspan says. “These kids are paying law-school prices, and [culinary schools] are training them for minimum-wage jobs.” He says students would be better off getting their foot in the door with a chef they admire and working very hard to climb their way to the top. “How do rock stars become famous? They work hard. They don’t go to guitar schools,” he says.
That argument taps into the perennial debate over the usefulness of higher education: Are creative careers like cooking, fashion design and even journalism best learned by going to school or by getting your foot in the door and training on the job? One of the largest benefits of going to school is making connections to people in the field. That was true for Jim Hanson, who graduated from LCB’s Minneapolis branch nine months ago. He says the $34,000 or so he paid for his associate’s degree in baking and pastry arts was worth the cost — even though he had to take out student loans — in large part because the school connected him to his current employer. As a student worker at the school while he attended classes, Hanson was introduced to the owner of Chez Arnaud, a French bakery in Minneapolis, where he now works as head baker (and recently won a local award for “Best Baguette”). “It was all worth it,” he told TIME. “Without [Le Cordon Bleu], I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near this job.” Hanson, who estimates that he will be able to pay off his student loans in five to 10 years, says the cost of the program was intimidating at first since he would “be paying for this for a while,” but ultimately he decided it was a financial risk he was willing to take. “This was an investment I wanted to make for myself,” he says.
And it’s true that the onus is on the students to make sure their aspirations are realistic in relation to their budgets and their local job market. “Students are always making an informed decision and should fully understand what is involved,” says Brian Moran, the interim president of the Association of Private Sector Colleges & Universities. “If they are taking loans, they need to understand their responsibilities — the total picture.” And, of course, no degree can guarantee a job. “The education our students receive from experienced chef instructors puts them on a career path,” says spokesman Mark Spencer. “But as with all education, it’s no guarantee of success.”
But as Greenspan notes, culinary schools do a very good job of tapping into the psyches of wannabe chefs. “Culinary schools sell people on their love of cooking,” he says. “They’re selling the dream.” Indeed, a recent advertisement on Google for the Arizona Culinary Institute, a private, for-profit school that charges $25,990 for its nine-month program, read, “Ready to follow your dream?” But if the number of competitors on Top Chef and The Next Iron Chef has proved anything, it’s that while there are a lot of people who want to be chefs, far fewer see those dreams come true.
– Taken from time.com
Let’s start from the beginning. Television shows such as “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef” shouldn’t be blamed for kids having minimal success upon graduation from culinary school. I have never seen a contestant on either of those shows whose job description is “recent culinary school graduate.” The majority of contestants on either show run very successful restaurants around the country and have spent a lot of time honing their skills. I’m sure they started working either washing dishes or prepping for minimum wage. Most of them probably spent a few years working for free and soaking up as much knowledge as they possibly could. On the other hand, all of the contestants on “Hell’s Kitchen” are totally talentless pieces of shit that have no business being in a kitchen. They are the assholes that I spent years firing and reducing to tears.
Next, lets take a look at one of these bullshit culinary school commercials. Let me break it down for you.
-What is that bullshit cream sauce and why is it being poured over a sliced chicken breast with raw tomatoes around the plate. At least the garnish was creative………dried parsley flakes. They always “set it off.”
-“Love to Cook?” It should say “Do you love to make no money while spending your nights in small, insanely hot spaces next to degenerates with sharp knives and direct access to fire?” It takes a lot more than the love of cooking to spend your life in a kitchen. Let me simplify it for you. I’m sure most of you like jacking off, but it’s probably not a smart career choice. For most people at least.
-Little blonde girl in the floppy hat needs a hair net
-“Prepare to become a chef.'” No, this school will not do that. The proper way to prepare would be to work hard, learn and stay humble.
-That cantaloupe bowl full of berries is a complete embarassment
-Ah, there is Blondie again selecting wine pairings for the evenings tasting menu. Wait a second, I totally read that wrong. She is actually an extern from the culinary school and they are drinking in the basement after a hard shift. Mr. Busboy turned sommelier is dropping some bullshit line about the wine being old world and full-bodied. Twenty minutes later the wine is gone and she is being bent over a case of Korbel. That what really happens.
-“This could be your perfect career!” This statement is absolutely true. If you love the rough neck kitchen lifestyle and that is the only thing that makes you happy, then it could be the perfect career. Otherwise, it will break you down and make you cry yourself to sleep at night.
-You don’t need the free brochure to find out how to land a “hot culinary career.” Skip the phone call, find a job working for someone you respect and work hard. That’s really all it takes.
If a commercial like this one really inspires you to fork over the money for culinary school, you more than likely are wasting your money. People who spend the time and become a chef knew that’s what they wanted long before they were sitting on their couch watching Jerry Springer and wondering what to do with their lives. They are passionate about food and that’s all they could ever imagine doing. They go home at the end of the night after working long hours and think about their mise en place for the next day. They dream about new dishes and flavor combinations. Cooking is their life, not something they like to do.
Let’s talk about this lawsuit. 800 students are suing a culinary school because they “falsely led students to believe they would be able to obtain employment as chefs after graduation.” This should be thrown out immediately without wasting anyone’s time or money. You can become a chef upon graduation, if you work hard enough and put your time in. I actually am a graduate of the exact culinary school being sued. I believed I was going to become a chef after I graduated and that I was going to be paid a good salary as soon as I had my diploma in hand. I graduated and spent years working hard for next to nothing. Did I blame the school ? No, I realized I had to work hard if I wanted to eventually become a chef someday. It’s not the schools fault these 800 students are not chefs, it all a reflection upon the students themselves.
Now let’s get to the issue with Daniel Vasquez. He was informed by an admissions officer that he could easily find a Sous Chef gig paying $18/hour upon graduation. First of all , a Sous Chef is not an apprentice chef, but we will blame that fuck up on the author of the article. Secondly, the chances of becoming upper management in any career after completing an 18th month certificate program is slim to none. Do I blame the admissions officer? No way, I blame Mr. Vasquez. He should have researched his career choice a lot more before dropping $65,000. Most people these days are looking for the easy way out, as I believe he is. He is a line cook making shitty money at some bullshit restaurant and saw this lawsuit as a way to make a few extra bucks without having to work for it.
The bottom line is this. Working in restaurants is not easy. Becoming a Chef is even harder. Very few people become successful chefs and even fewer are recognized for their success. It takes a lot of hard work to make it through a night of service in a busy kitchen, and you will not be compensated well for that work. You have to have dreams of becoming a chef because you love the business, not because you want to be rich and famous. Simply “loving to cook” is not nearly enough.