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Too many cooks' dreams spoiled

Enrollment at culinary schools is booming amid the celebrity chef craze, but debt, low-paying jobs and unemployment await many graduates.

January 01, 2007|Kim Curtis | The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Cameron Cuisinier's dreams of a catering career led him to culinary school. Now he is unemployed and $43,000 in debt, and he is not alone.

With the popularity of TV chefs and reality shows on which the winners get their own restaurants, it's a hot time to be in the kitchen. Record numbers of would-be chefs are enrolling in culinary schools, some of which charge $20,000 a year or more.

But the restaurant business has always been a tough way to make a living, and many graduates find themselves saddled with debt and working long hours at low-paying, entry-level jobs.

"When they're trying to get you enrolled in these programs, they tell you you're going to come out making top dollar," said Cuisinier, a recent graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. "I've just been way disappointed."

Industry observers say celebrity chefs such as Rachael Ray and Emeril Lagasse -- with his trademark exclamation, "Bam!" -- helped launch the craze. The rising popularity of cable TV's Food Network and reality shows such as "Top Chef" and "Hell's Kitchen" are fueling it.

"It looks really fun on TV," said Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., one of the country's premier training grounds for chefs. "You've got an audience adoring you. You say, 'Bam!' and throw some stuff on a plate, and everyone goes nuts.

"That's not what happens," he said. "The work is long and hard. There's a lot of pressure."

In 1996, there were 269 career cooking schools and 154 recreational cooking schools in the U.S., according to ShawGuides Inc.'s "The Guide to Cooking Schools." By 2006, those numbers had risen to 446 and 503, respectively.

Attendance also is rising. At the Culinary Institute of America, 2,757 students were enrolled last year in a full-time, degree-seeking program. That's up from 2,012 in 2001, Ryan said.

The number of food service jobs in America rose to 10.8 million in 2005 from 9.9 million in 2001, the Labor Department said. But a small fraction of those jobs -- about 115,000 -- are for chefs or head cooks, and that number did not change significantly during that period.

The vast majority of food service jobs are held by fast-food workers and wait staff, and the industry's average hourly wage was $7.73 in 2005, according to Labor Department statistics.

"Hell's Kitchen," featuring the rantings of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, introduces viewers to some of the stresses of restaurant work. Not so the sunny ramblings of Food Network hosts Ray or Lagasse, whose show features a live band and studio audience whose members enthusiastically cheer his every move.

The Food Network reaches 87 million homes and attracts half a million viewers a day. And these aren't your mother's cooking shows. Television chefs -- notably Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis and Anthony Bourdain -- are bona fide celebrities.

Although the increased visibility is a boon to the industry, Ryan is careful to intercept prospective students who seem more interested in being on a TV show or writing a cookbook than running a restaurant.

"We spend a lot of time before we admit students to make sure they understand the realities of the industry and don't come in all starry-eyed with unrealistic expectations," Ryan said.

Sociologist Krishnendu Ray says the elevated profile of the culinary arts has made cooking careers seem more glamorous than they really are.

"It's becoming rarer to cook amongst young, urban professionals," he said. "We're watching TV and reading books about beautiful food."

Creating beautiful food was part of the attraction for Heather West, a 26-year-old New York native who won the second season of Fox's "Hell's Kitchen."

"If you like free time and if you like holidays with your families and time with your friends and ... you like your feet not hurting, this is the wrong business for you," said West, who works as senior chef at Terra Rossa, an Italian restaurant at the Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa in Las Vegas. "When you see that plate go out and you see that person smile when they eat your food, it's totally worth it."

But few culinary school graduates find themselves in West's enviable position. It's increasingly likely that they will end up like Cuisinier, who recently got his $857 monthly loan payment deferred because he is unemployed.

Ida Eng, 28, wanted to design wedding cakes and spent two years training at the California Culinary Academy. She worked at two of San Francisco's top restaurants during school but couldn't find a job after graduation that paid enough for her to stay in her adopted hometown. Now she works as a cocktail waitress and isn't even sure she wants a kitchen job anymore.

"They work people to death," she said.

Officials at the academy did not return calls for comment.

Michael Ruhlman, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in 1996 and wrote about the experience in the book "The Soul of the Chef," says the boom in culinary school enrollment is a byproduct of an increasing emphasis on the bottom line.

"It's become fashion rather than art now," Ruhlman said. "It's become commerce."

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