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Culinary schools rebound from recessionary slump

Aspiring professional chefs and ambitious home cooks fill rolls again.

December 01, 2009|By Cyndia Zwahlen
  • Deborah Dragon takes poultry in hand at the New School of Cooking in Culver City, where enrollment is on the rise and many students sign up because they want to save money by learning to cook for themselves rather than eat out.
Deborah Dragon takes poultry in hand at the New School of Cooking in Culver… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)

Just a few months ago, the cooking school business was deflating like a punctured souffle. But at several culinary academies around Los Angeles, enrollment has taken a turn for the better.

Spurred by out-of-work cooking enthusiasts seeking training for food industry jobs and by foodies brushing up on their skills so they can eat well without paying restaurant prices, sales are starting to recover -- even bouncing to pre-recession levels.

"People are taking advantage of the economic downturn and looking to change careers," said Eric Crowley, who with his wife, Jennie Shields Crowley, owns Chef Eric's Culinary Classroom in Los Angeles.

Crowley is adding classes at his school, such as Everyday Cooking for Families and One-Dish Meals, and booking more private parties and corporate team-building events. He sold out his most recent 20-week professional chef program and 10-week professional baking program.

The Crowleys only recently began taking salaries again after forgoing paychecks earlier this year to cover business costs.

At Chef's Inc. in West Los Angeles sales have rebounded almost completely from a 70% drop earlier this year, said owner Leslie McKenna. Particularly popular, she said, is a class based on recipes from famed chef Julia Child, whose popularity was renewed last summer by the film "Julie and Julia."

"Every one of those classes sold; they have been unbelievable," McKenna said.

Those classes, as well as several budget-minded offerings, have helped fuel a 65% rebound in sales at her recreational cooking school in Los Angeles since the beginning of April, she said.

"Everybody needs to eat, and there are always jobs in kitchens or at catering companies or even as personal chefs; those are still in demand," said Callie Beckmann, who is studying at the New School of Cooking in Culver City.

Recounting how she learned to grab the gills of a slippery, 3-foot-long Alaskan king salmon so that her teacher could slice it, Beckmann said she has learned, among other things, not to be squeamish.

Beckmann paid $2,500 for a professional cooking course at the school in hopes of landing a job in the food business.

The increases locally mirror an upward trend in cooking class enrollment nationwide, said Lacey Griebeler, managing editor of the trade publications Chef Educator Today and Chef Magazine.

Interest dropped dramatically during the depths of the recession as people who might have signed up for cooking classes for the fun of it stayed home. Now, people who want to change jobs or save money by cooking their own meals are returning.

"The popularity of cooking shows on TV . . . have really driven interest in the general public about learning more about food," she said.

The recession has made students look at the classes as something more than just entertainment, said Bonny Giardina, who manages two locations for L.A.-based Hipcooks. Many are now keen to learn how to be thrifty shoppers and more efficient in the kitchen.

"It's not so much about skimping as really managing your resources," Giardina said.

Hipcooks, which started in 2004 at the Brewery on North Main Street in Los Angeles, now also has operations on South Robertson Boulevard and in Portland, Ore.

Sales are still below expectations at the Portland school, but the two Los Angeles locations are recovering from a slow summer when the class schedule had to be cut by about 60%, said owner Monika Reti. She expects overall sales of $350,000 for the year, down about 20% from 2008.

Reti has restored classes to the schedule since the fall, crediting the increased demand to new courses aimed at helping budget-minded cooks.

At the New School of Cooking, owner Anne Smith has also had to add courses.

"Classes are filling up faster and waiting lists are longer," she said.

Many of her students sign up because they want to save money by cooking for themselves rather than eating out.

Concerns about childhood obesity and the nutritional state of school lunch programs have also created a growing awareness of the need for healthful-cooking skills for families and professional chefs, said Catherine Luu, program coordinator for Operation Frontline Los Angeles.

The nonprofit program is affiliated with the Share Our Strength organization, which fights child hunger. Launched in Los Angeles in May, it offers free cooking and nutrition classes for low-income families through a variety of local nonprofit groups.

"Low-income families are already pinched trying to feed their families," Luu said.

Her volunteer chefs and nutritionists teach hands-on classes for recipes such as Haitian chicken, chocolate-dipped fruit and banana-and-peanut butter quesadillas, designed to appeal to kids and cost less than $1.40 per serving.

Still, the recession has been hard on cooking schools, and not all survived the slump to ride this new wave of popularity. Others are still in business but struggling, experts said.

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