It might seem a mystery why anyone would give up a lucrative occupation as a lawyer, accountant or salesperson to enter the notoriously low-paying field of food service, in the slim hope of becoming the next Wolfgang Puck.
Yet career-shifters are fueling strong growth in dozens of culinary arts programs at community colleges and private schools statewide.
Take Maritza Muscarolas, 33, a onetime hairdresser and seller of beauty products who last fall received her associate of arts degree from Los Angeles Trade-Technical College's culinary arts program. She is now general manager and chef at the Curator's Cafe at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, owned by chef Joachim Splichal.
"This was always my passion," she said, adding somewhat ruefully: "I made a lot more money before."
With the robust economy fueling a rise in restaurant sales--to a projected $28.5 billion this year in California, up from $22.2 billion 10 years ago--the push is on to find qualified workers who not only know how to chop tomatoes, but also are schooled in sanitation and hygiene, restaurant bookkeeping and management skills. Understaffed restaurants are clamoring for workers in both front-of-the-house customer service and back-of-the-house food prep.
At L.A. Trade-Tech, programs yield an associate's degree and certificate in culinary arts or baking. Tuition and fees per semester are $210, with books and supplies costing an additional $400.
The programs are filled every year and have grown tremendously, said Sharon Tate, the school's dean of academic affairs. This year's classes include 200 full-time culinary arts students and 75 aspiring bakers. After graduation, Tate said, most will go to work in hotel, restaurant or country club kitchens.
Entry level workers will make just $7 to $10 an hour, said Harry Brockwell, a Westlake Village caterer who also heads an advisory panel for the chancellor's office, California Community Colleges. Even full-fledged chefs make less than individuals in many other trades, a fact that Brockwell finds unacceptable. Restaurant owners, he said, have succeeded in keeping a lid on food workers' wages.
"We're doing everything we can to crawl out of the dungeons [of low wages]," Brockwell said.
If students stay in school long enough, completing related business courses as well as kitchen training, they have a shot at leaping out of the low-wage pool, said Norena Badway, a restaurant owner who also directs the community college cooperative at UC Berkeley.
"If you have come through a two-year community college program, the chance of starting at the bottom is much less," she said.
Graduates also can move through positions rapidly. A qualified worker who proves himself at chopping can quickly become a sous-chef (chef's assistant) and then move on to the front of the restaurant. Those who work directly with customers tend to get better pay.
A good culinary arts program, Badway said, would consist of courses in preparing foods in quantity, safety and sanitation, computer software and accounting, cost control and supervising and motivating employees.
Muscarolas, the L.A. Trade-Tech grad, considers Curator's Cafe an internship.