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This Class Is Cooking : L.A. Program Fills Niche for Chef Wannabes

July 21, 1996|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the great days of Michele Schlitt's life was the day she strolled into the office of her boss at the clothing store where she worked and proudly announced, "I quit. I'm going to be a chef."

"I went out dancing and drinking that night," recalled Schlitt, 31, who now runs her own catering and event-coordinating company. "I could finally tell everyone I was a chef, not 'I'm studying to be a chef.'

"Now I have a closet full of chef clothes and aprons," she said. "I'm a chef!"

Schlitt says she owes her new career to the Epicurean School of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles.

Like Schlitt, many people dream of owning a catering company or running the kitchen in a fancy restaurant. But most of them languish in other jobs during the week, then celebrate the weekends preparing sophisticated menus for friends, always to rave reviews.

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For these budding chefs, cooking school seems out of reach; they are too busy earning a living to be able to live their dreams.

Now, however, the Epicurean School of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles has a solution to this dilemma: A cooking program that is convenient for working people, because the 20-week class meets once a week for four hours on evenings or Saturdays.

The series of classes, Professional Chef's Training I, is patterned after the highly regarded two-year program of the Culinary Institute of America in New York.

The course, which features instructors from the institute and the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, costs $1,600.

The Epicurean School of Culinary Arts was started in 1985 by Shelly Gruman, who says it was her absolute naivete that enabled her to fearlessly fling herself into the project.

"I knew nothing about the business. So I basically just jumped in the pool and learned to swim while I was there," Gruman said.

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She started the school because it was the type she had wanted to attend but couldn't find.

She had taken some cooking classes that taught her how to make certain dishes, but she wanted to learn about food theory and technique. That was, evidently, also the type of culinary training many others had been looking for; for several years, classes at her school have been about 90% full.

Like many Epicurean students, Amy Yetter would often cook for her friends to superlative reviews, dazzling them with dishes such as porcini, chanterelle and oyster mushroom lasagna.

They encouraged her to become a professional chef, but it was a movie--"Babette's Feast," about a French refugee who wins 10,000 francs in a lottery and spends it all preparing a sumptuous banquet for her friends--that sparked her interest in cooking courses.

"I loved that movie," said Yetter, now an assistant chef at the school. "It made me want to be a chef."

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Yetter, 30, was working in a publishing office when she saw the movie and set out on her quest to find the right chef training program. She visited San Francisco to check out the California Culinary Academy, but realized she couldn't afford to leave work for the 18 months it would take to complete the program there.

Then she heard about the Epicurean, enrolled and was quickly hooked.

Within minutes of the first class, which dealt with knives, Yetter was impressed. "I thought I was pretty good with a knife," she said, "but after seeing these people chop and dice, I knew I was nowhere close to being a professional chef."

Yetter says some people come home from work and relax with a drink or by watching television. She relaxes by chopping up vegetables.

"I'll never go back to a desk job again," she said.

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Most students who graduate from the Epicurean do not have to go back to their desk jobs. Although the school does not guarantee job placement, it has such a good reputation that restaurants are eager to hire graduates.

While some get the desire to become a chef at a young age, others come more gradually to the realization that cooking is their metier.

With degrees in Italian and Spanish, Randi Landriz, 44, became a professor of Romance languages at UCLA. But, she said, "after many semesters of teaching, it began to dawn on me that though I was teaching language studies, I was really talking about the food."

Several trips to Italy and Spain turbocharged her passion, and she began to cook more seriously. So when she decided on a career change, she chose the food route. After perusing a book about cooking schools, she selected the Epicurean. And in two months at the school, Landriz says, her culinary skills have improved dramatically.

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But the school isn't just for those new to the food business. One of its most enthusiastic students is 66-year-old Ivan Coso, a native of Croatia who came to the United States in 1956.

He has been in working in restaurant dining rooms since 1968, including a stint as a captain at the legendary Perino's on Wilshire Boulevard and the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

When the Beverly Hills Hotel closed in 1992 for remodeling, Coso opened his own catering business. He hired a cook, but recently decided he needed to know more about the food he served. So Coso enrolled in a four-hour, $60 soup class at Epicurean.

"I learned to make six soups," he said, adding that he found the training so interesting "I decided to take the professional chef's course."

"I thought I could prepare a good meal before I went to school," Coso said, "but I was amazed how much I have learned."

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