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Culinary School Abruptly Closes

Education: Student chefs are told the Encino facility no longer has funding. They react with shock and anger.

May 23, 2000|EDGAR SANDOVAL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ordinarily, they would all be in a classroom at the Los Angeles Culinary Institute, learning how to prepare the latest gourmet dish.

But on Monday, about 20 chefs in training stood outside the closed facility on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, perplexed and wondering what went wrong and what happened to their annual tuition of $20,000 each.

All the students knew, they said, was that a lawyer who said he represented school officials showed up at their class Friday afternoon and told them not to return Monday because the school no longer had funding.

This is not the first time the institute has gone through financial turmoil since it was founded in 1991. The culinary school was evicted from its first home at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank about five years ago for failure to pay rent for about a year. Its owner, Raimund Hofmeister, a professional chef, then moved the school to Encino.

It is unclear if Hofmeister is still the owner of the institute, which has an enrollment of 60. Students said the school had a new operator. But attempts to reach Hofmeister or other school officials were unsuccessful.

"We were in shock," said culinary student Lori Miller, 31, on Monday, summing up the mood of her class. "The hard part is I want to become a chef so bad. It's hard for me to wake up and not be able to go to school. . . . "

"This is so wrong," she said.

It was unclear Monday if the closure is permanent. Kym Anderson, director of property management with Doerken Real Estate Services Inc., which runs the shopping center where the culinary school is located, said, "I have not heard that they are closing. Nothing is official."

Officials with the Bureau for Private Post-Secondary and Vocational Education, a state agency that licenses private schools to operate in California, said schools are required to notify the bureau when they cease operations.

"And they [culinary institute officials] have not done that so far. We have not been able to reach the owners to see if these allegations are true,' said Eddie Solorio, staff services analyst with the agency.

Deborah Godfrey, an analyst with the agency's student tuition recovery and closed school division, said she will visit the students Wednesday and tell them about their options, including transferring to another school, possibly getting their money back and discharging their student loans.

Godfrey said her agency frequently deals with similar situations. About 200 schools in the state close every year, she said. Most fade out slowly, declining to accept new students, but about 20 to 25 close their doors abruptly and disappear for a few days before facing angry students, she said.

"We hope to hear from them [owners], but it is not uncommon for owners not to make themselves available. It's a very emotional situation," Godfrey said. "We want to let the students know they are not completely abandoned."

The mood outside the school remained gloomy Monday morning. Michael Lundgreen, 37, said he had planned to forsake his banking career to become a chef and was looking forward to his June 24 graduation.

Now, he said, it will take him almost a year to make up lost classes.

"This is not entirely new to me," he said. "When banks close, usually they give us six months' notice. There are no signs. That's what makes us angry."

All the students could do Monday was wait outside, hoping a school official would show up.

But after sharing tragic stories for almost two hours, the students began to leave.

Miller said she did plenty of research before selecting the school, and she persuaded her mother just a few weeks ago to take out a loan to help pay about $9,000 in tuition.

Kristi Lehrack, 23, of Van Nuys saved money most of the year to pay her tuition in installments. She said she gave the school a check for $4,000 about a week ago, but she was not told about the school's alleged financial crisis.

Others said they now recall small signs of trouble. Sometimes the class was out of salt or testing spoons and some chefs had begun to bring personal items for lectures, said Adam Tenenbaum, 25, of Chatsworth.

"They told us, 'It's just paperwork problems; we will fix it,' " Tenenbaum said. "But not this. This was a total shock. We do not know what to do next."

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