After 22 years as a pediatric nurse, Maggie Dahl of Arlington, Va., decided it was time for a change. She was 53 years old, the last of her five kids was leaving the nest, and her nursing job, thanks to hospital cutbacks and outsourcing, had become more and more stressful and less and less satisfying.
"It was time to think about the rest of my life," she said.
So last year, Dahl enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College's cook apprenticeship program. Today, instead of doling out medicine, she's putting the perfect meringue swirl on 200 lemon tartlets at Design Cuisine, one of the Washington area's top catering firms. Eventually she hopes to open a hostel or have a catering firm.
Lew Burkholder, 50, of Alexandria, Va., had had enough of the construction business.
"My knees couldn't take it anymore," said the retired Navy officer. His hobby was cooking, so two years ago he became a full-time culinary-arts student at Stratford College in Falls Church, Va. Today he's a chef, preparing breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner for visiting dignitaries at Blair House, the president's official guest house in Washington.
Dahl and Burkholder are part of a growing trend: career-changers starting new professions in the food-service business, filling that industry's desperate need for new employees. There is a smorgasbord of cooking schools for them to choose from, many of which have opened in just the past few years. Shaw Guides (http://www.shawguides.com), a New York publisher of guides to everything from golf camps to photography schools, has seen the number of nationwide listings for career cooking schools more than double in the past decade, from 174 to 409.
All of this growth is being driven by a healthy economy and a restaurant industry that is generating $376 billion in sales and 200,000 new jobs each year, said Steven Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Assn.
"Restaurants employ 11 million people. We are the largest private-sector employer in the country. Only the government employs more people than we do."
For those looking for jobs, the market for skilled restaurant chefs and cooks is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the economy, increasing by nearly 20% each year, according to figures from the restaurant association and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To help fill all these openings, cooking schools are offering a menu of options: one-, two- and three-year programs, day, night and weekend classes, and a variety of employers willing to provide budding cooks with paid on-the-job training while they earn their culinary degree.
Career-changers make up the bulk of students at Stratford (formerly ATI Career Institute), where the average student is 30 years old. The school began offering accredited 15-month associate's degrees in culinary arts two years ago. There is also a 12-month diploma, said Executive Vice President Mary Ann Schurtz, "but nearly all of our 200 students want the associate's degree. It carries more weight with employers and allows students to take electives like computer science or business administration, if they're thinking of going into management."
The school has three commercial kitchens where students hone their cooking skills, including a restaurant--open to the public for lunch and dinner on Fridays, where students can get experience serving and dealing with typical restaurant problems, said Schurtz, "like no-shows for reservations."
Instructors and cooking-school graduates try to dampen some expectations. Jobs may be plentiful, they warn, but few in the food industry are getting rich and everyone--even celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, star of the Food Network--works long hours.
Plus, training can be expensive. Community-college programs are a bargain, but tuition at the more prestigious, and rigorous, private culinary schools can easily top $10,000 a year. Though some top executive chefs earn in the six figures, the average salary range for head chefs is anywhere from $35,000 at a small restaurant to $80,000 for larger, more-upscale eateries.
Assistant chefs can earn from $23,000 to $43,000, while hourly wages for cooks range from $6.38 to $11.32, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Restaurant Assn. figures.
Even in a top-notch city restaurant, a food-service job is not an easy way to earn the big bucks.
"You don't go into this business to get rich," said Burkholder, who saw his six-figure salary as a master plumber and construction boss drop by nearly half. "If you choose this career, you have to do it for the satisfaction and the love of food."
The perks aren't much to speak of, either.
"You have no weekends, no holidays, and your evening life is pretty much gone," he said.