When I recently found one of my former students from The CIA working in a local hardware store, it gave me pause to consider something I had not thought about for a long time. Why would someone make the effort to go through a program of study that is extremely narrow in it's scope of subject matter, is expensive to fund but is designed to provide workers to a field that has a surplus of unfilled jobs, end up changing careers so soon after graduation?
I'd always assumed that what drove ambitious chefs-to-be from the kitchen had something to do with the working conditions. I know that as a young cook I was not prepared for the reality of kitchen life (I did not go to culinary school, BTW.) of split shifts, a 6 sometimes 6.5 day work week, 12 hour days on my feet, having to scrub dumpsters crawling with maggots -and worse.
Then there were the co-workers: the drug-addled line cooks who would disappear for days so you had to cover their station and yours; the dishwasher who disappeared for a week only to return beaten-up and smelling like a phone booth because the trick who stomped him had given him a golden shower.
(Ahem!) Anyway, I'm sure the "rigors" of kitchen life are in many instances responsible for why culinary grads decide to leave the profession so early in their careers. But it seems that some significant number of grads are struggling to stay in the business because they are having trouble paying off their student loans. Apparently many of these grads were not aware (or in denial) about the reality of the pay scale for professional cooks. Some blame their schools for not telling them that the typical salary for a line cook is about 10 dollars an hour. Other's claim to have been misled into thinking that they were going to score jobs as chef de cuisine paying 70K right out of school.
An article in yesterday's NY Times (sent to me by The Foodist. Thanks!) suggests that some of these grads were self- deluded into expecting instant success and glamor by media images of successful and highly remunerated chefs. But the creepiest thing that came out of the article is the suggestion that some private culinary schools are willfully misleading students into taking non-government subsidized high-interest loans in order to pay some pretty steep tuitions.
I'll bet this is true.
There are a lot of privately run, for-profit culinary programs out there that do not have to justify their recruitment and retention practices to any oversight agency. I'm not going to name and names, but if I were counseling someone who was thinking of entering a culinary ed. program at the post secondary level, I'd tell them to make sure that the school is accredited by an organization like the Middle States Association. When I was working at the Culinary Institute of America we went through the process of getting accredited by Middle States. It was an extremely rigorous process that involved divulging virtually everything about the institute: financial records; faculty credentials; curricular materials and learning outcomes etc. And, of course, the institute had to justify how it recruited students and how they paid for their tuition.
Do some number of CIA grads become disillusioned with the profession and have trouble paying off their loans? You bet. But I'm not at all comfortable with the idea that this is the CIA's fault.
Actually, I think the CIA does an excellent job of trying to steer students into the sector of the hospitality field where the pay is best and the potential for growth is greatest. I'm referring of course to the corporate sector. Trouble is that this sector of the field is not especially glamorous and a lot of grads instead choose to work in the restaurant business in the hope that they will have greater creative freedom, get recognized for their efforts and score a show on The Food Network. But you can only steer a horse to water. If he doesn't want to drink, that's his choice.
Finally, I'd like to add that while it is largely true that corporate jobs are not the best platform for launching a celebrity chef career, they can offer the opportunity to be creative. I've had many opportunities to stay in some very upscale hotels in Europe and the US, and have been amazed by the quality of the cuisine in some of these places. It's a shame really that FoodTV doesn't publicize the work of chefs who work in places like the Ritz Carlton or the Four Seasons.
Perhaps if corporate chefs enjoyed more media exposure, more culinary grads would choose to listen to their school's job counselors and and choose a job that offered a decent salary, benefits, a clear career path, the potential to be creative and a media darling (Ouch! That sounds tacky.)
Top Chef’ Dreams Crushed by Student Loan Debt - New York Times