Culinary school not always what it's cooked up to be
SAN FRANCISCO -- Cameron Cuisinier's dreams of a catering career led him to culinary school. Now he's unemployed and $43,000 in debt -- and he's not alone.
From TV chefs to reality shows where the winners get their own restaurants, it's a hot time to be in the kitchen. Record numbers of would-be chefs are enrolling in culinary schools, some of which charge $20,000 a year or more. But the restaurant business has always been a tough way to make a living, and many graduates find themselves saddled with debt and working long hours at low-paying, entry-level jobs.
"When they're trying to get you enrolled in these programs, they tell you you're going to come out making top dollar," said Cuisinier, a recent graduate of the
Industry observers say celebrity chefs like Rachael Ray and Emeril Lagasse -- with his trademark exclamation, "Bam!" -- helped launch the craze. The popularity of cable TV's The Food Network and reality shows like "Top Chef" and "Hell's Kitchen" are fueling it.
"It looks really fun on TV," said Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., one of the country's premier training grounds for chefs. "You've got an audience adoring you. You say 'Bam!' and throw some stuff on a plate and everyone goes nuts. That's not what happens. The work is long and hard. There's a lot of pressure."
In 1996, there were 269 US career cooking schools and 154 recreational cooking schools, according to ShawGuide's "The Guide to Cooking Schools." By 2006, those numbers had risen to 446 and 503, respectively.
Attendance also is rising. At CIA, 2,757 students were enrolled last year in a full-time, degree-seeking program. That's up from 2,012 in 2001, Ryan said.
The number of food service jobs in America rose from 9.9 million in 2001 to 10.8 million in 2005, according to the US Department of Labor. But a fraction of those jobs, roughly 115,000, are for chefs or head cooks, and that number did not change significantly during the five-year span. The vast majority of food service jobs are held by fast-food workers and wait staff; the industry's average hourly wage was $7.73 in 2005.
Ryan is careful to intercept prospective students who seem more interested in hosting a TV show or writing a cookbook than running a restaurant. "We spend a lot of time before we admit students to make sure they understand the realities of the industry and don't come in all starry-eyed with unrealistic expectations," Ryan said.
Sociologist Krishnendu Ray said the elevated profile of the culinary arts has made cooking careers seem more glamorous than they really are. "It's becoming rarer to cook amongst young, urban professionals," he said. "We're watching TV and reading books about beautiful food."
Creating beautiful food was part of the attraction for Heather West, a 26-year-old New York native who recently won the second season of "Hell's Kitchen" on the Fox network. When her mother got breast cancer a few years ago, she started cooking for her mother and creating her own recipes.
"If you like free time and if you like holidays with your families and time with your friends and . . you like your feet not hurting, this is the wrong business for you," said West, who's now senior chef at Terra Rossa, an Italian restaurant in Las Vegas. "When you see that plate go out and you see that person smile when they eat your food, it's totally worth it."
But few culinary school graduates find themselves in West's enviable position. It's increasingly likely they'll end up like Cuisinier, who recently got his $857 monthly loan payment deferred because he's unemployed.
Ida Eng, 28, wanted to design wedding cakes and spent two years training at California Culinary Academy. She worked at two of San Francisco's top restaurants during school but couldn't find a job after graduation that paid enough for her to stay in her adopted hometown. Now she works as a cocktail waitress and isn't even sure she wants a kitchen job anymore. "They work people to death," she said.
Michael Ruhlman, who attended CIA in 1996 and wrote about the experience in the book "The Soul of the Chef," says the boom in culinary school enrollment is a byproduct of an increasing emphasis on the bottom line. Restaurants and chefs are finding new ways to make money -- through cookbooks, live appearances and television -- and that's raising the profile of the industry.
"It's become fashion, rather than art now," Ruhlman said. "It's become commerce."