Wednesday, May 9, 2007

be careful what you ask for, it may not be real

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


The Foodist said...

Good thoughts.

I think a large part of the problem facing culinary students is the fact that no one is really telling them about the 12 hour shifts, the 7 day work weeks, and the unforgiving relentless b*tch work forced upon you at the start of your "career".

Alot of the warning and words of advice have fallen to the wayside and been replaced with apethetic grunts and sneers when someone in a position to explain the possible-perils of the field hears the words "celebrity chef" come out of a students mouth.

Im reminded of a fellow students response after returning to the CIA for completion of Garde Marger (long story there) when I asked her why she choose culinary school.

The girl was 18 or 19 and was repeating Garde Marger for the 3rd (yes, 3rd) time. It boggled my mind as to how she would survive the rigors of the actual work if she couldnt handle doing 3 canapes in 3 days.

Her response still chills me..
"Cause I want my own tv show"

that was it... I hope mommy and daddy arent spending their nest egg on her, cause god help her when shes working at Home Depot.

You make a great point about accrediation though, as well as pointing out the corporate sector. If you look closely at any really succesful chef youll see most have done some time in a corporate hotel or something of the like.

Alot of students sneer at is like its below them, but to get up high you have to start from down low, right?

I, myself am looking at paying for the whole of school out of my own pocket and the article really makes me cringe at the thought of struggling to pay off these loans.

Scott said...

I think the answer is to go back to my previous life as a lawyer. Did somebody who went to my Alma Mater, the University of Toledo, get as good a legal education as someone who went to Harvard. Perhaps, and with a lot less stress. Could I practice competently, even well, yes. At least here.

But, if my sole desire was to work in the local criminal justice system, might I not be better off with a two year year degree from a community college, or just getting a job in the area and working my way up.

IMHO, a massive culinary education can be a great foundation, but outside of the big cities, it may not pay off!

Don Luis said...

Now that the Food Network has begun to exchange its focus on the celebrity chef for the celebrity buffoon, will the situation change? I can understand wanting to be the next Mario Batali (only, in my case, thinner), but who wants to be the next Guy Fieri?

Of course, Mario did not get where he is through culinary school (he didn't last long), and I doubt that many others did either. I believe Flay, Chiarello, and yes, Emeril, would have made it solely by their will to succeed and love of the craft. Certainly culinary school helped them, but they were the right people at the right time, and they did the work they needed to do to make it as chefs, then celebrities.

Sorcha said...

Dude, I think cooking is like teaching, in that the only "right" reason for choosing it as a career is that you love it. Any other reason will make you absolutely miserable.

The Foodist said...

Scott- I think alot of it has to do with your drive as well as the understanding that when you leave culinary school you really are nothing more then an educated glorified cook. Its negative in one fashion to look at it in that way, but the brutal honesty is that you still start at the bottom like everyone else.

The difference being culinary school gives you information to help speed you along. For someone like me who has never had a upper end place to work or a big city in which to work nearby, culinary school was my way of opening that door. So I can at least attest to that much.

Don- I like Batali, hes well read and very informed on his specialty. He was lucky enough to have it readily at hand growing up. As for as the others.. who knows maybe it was the right place at the right time, but with most TV personalities I think its less ability to do the work then the Charisma to entice the viewer.

Sorcha- Hear Hear! I second that.

Deborah Dowd said...

My son started as a busboy and worked his way up to sous chef and he a seen much of what you (and even Bourdain) described. Restaurant people are a breed unto themselves. The hours are not consistent with a healthy social life. He has had two jobs in a corporate kitchen, but despite the pay, regular hours and benefits, he has chosen to go back to the restaurant, partly because of what you mention... he perception that corporate chef-ing is not "as good" as in a restaurant!

Tyrone B. said...

I read the article myself and here is the only thought I came up with right away....

I know places in Alabama right now, that if you can guarantee to show up the next scheduled day after getting a check, you can make $10 an hour, DISHWASHING!

We have more problems with keeping dependable consistent dishwashers than line cooks that are probably making $7.50 to $8.00 an hour.

kristin said...

I very did think about Culinary school when I returned home after leaving the ex. Then I saw what I would have to take out for loans, and pay back vs. what I would probably make? My thinking was I may as well become a doctor or lawyer, so I became a paralegal. Next best thing, but not so much debt.

Sorcha said...

I used to get $8 an hour washing the lunch dishes at my son's school. And that's in Oregon, which has a really good min. wage. $10 an hour? That's pretty damn good. I'd do it.