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Some up-and-coming chefs are skipping culinary school

Rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars on an education, many opt to work their way up in restaurants.

July 28, 2011|By Betty Hallock, Los Angeles Times
  • Cole Dickinson, chef de cuisine at the soon-to-open Ink restaurant, opted not to attend culinary school. He says he's spent several years working his way up the chain with different chefs.
Cole Dickinson, chef de cuisine at the soon-to-open Ink restaurant, opted… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Cole Dickinson, the chef de cuisine at Michael Voltaggio's soon-to-open West Hollywood restaurant, Ink, got his culinary education the old-fashioned way: in the kitchen.

That might sound obvious, but it makes him something of an anomaly as the number of culinary schools multiplies, drawing legions of novice cooks with the promise of turning them into top chefs.

Yet the less-touted, less-glamorized path of working one's way up through the restaurant kitchen ranks is starting to sound more appealing. At a time when for-profit professional cooking schools are coming under more scrutiny, some of L.A.'s rising chefs — like Dickinson — are succeeding without ever having stepped into the classroom.

For-profit schools across the country are facing a flurry of lawsuits claiming fraud; they're accused of misleading students about tuition costs, job placement rates and how much they'll earn after graduating.

The cautionary tale of a would-be chef goes like this: A starry-eyed youth dreams of helming a restaurant kitchen and enrolls in a $60,000 culinary program but upon graduation still qualifies only for a job as a $10.50-an-hour line cook and struggles to work off crippling school loans that, with interest, can balloon to nearly $100,000. Dream crushed.

Meanwhile, Dickinson has a coveted gig at one of L.A.'s most hotly anticipated restaurants. He was a 17-year-old bussing tables for Charlie Palmer in Healdsburg, Calif., when he first considered culinary school. "I didn't have the money. I had a single mom," Dickinson says, "so I got it in my head that I'd ask Charlie if he'd sponsor me and I'd come back and work for him. He basically said, 'Don't be an idiot. Work for me for a couple of years and I'll get you in wherever you want to go.'

In a year and a half, I'd worked my way around every station of that kitchen.... I don't regret not going to culinary school at all."

Besides his time with Palmer, Dickinson, now 27, worked at the Fat Duck in England, for Laurent Gras at L2O in Chicago, then for Voltaggio at the Tavern Room in West Virginia and at José Andrés' Bazaar in Los Angeles.

In interviews with a dozen chefs and restaurateurs, few recommended culinary school; none said it was necessary. "We get asked all the time," says Karen Hatfield, who, along with her husband, Quinn, owns Hatfield's in Los Angeles. "Quinn and I don't recommend it to anybody ever. It's such a huge financial burden now." (She went to cooking school; he didn't.) And yet all but one of the restaurant's kitchen staff of about 15 attended culinary school.

Palmer, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who grew an empire out of his Manhattan restaurant Aureole, isn't so adamant. He advocates cooking school "if the person has the resources. But there's an enormous range as far as the quality of cooking schools. It's something especially younger students don't really understand."

Even at well-regarded not-for-profit colleges, such as the C.I.A., it might not make economic sense. A two-year associate's degree program at the Culinary Institute of America costs $50,000. A bachelor's degree is more than $100,000. According to the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage of a restaurant cook is $21,990. (That's about one-third the cost of tuition for the culinary arts program at the for-profit Art Institute of California in Santa Monica.)

"Is it true that graduates [have to] pay their dues?" says Bruce Hillenbrand, vice president responsible for admissions at the C.I.A. "Absolutely, just like other graduates initially going into other careers." He points out that a C.I.A. survey shows that its graduates can expect to double their salaries within the first five years.

According to the C.I.A., the student loan default rate among its graduates since 2008 is less than half the rate at for-profit schools.

There are now several hundred culinary programs in the U.S., many operated by for-profit companies such as Art Institutes and Career Education Corp., the parent of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, which has 16 locations in the U.S. More culinary schools keep popping up. Last year, Triumph Education Group launched the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Chicago and Austin, Texas, with plans to expand.

Enrollment in culinary programs at Career Education was 13,100 at the end of 2010, up 20% from 2009 — though new student enrollment was down 3% in the fourth quarter. The Pasadena Cordon Bleu is one of the company's schools slapped with a class-action lawsuit alleging fraud. A $40-million settlement of a class-action suit against San Francisco's California Culinary Academy, also a Career Education school, is pending.

"Learning the same foundational cooking techniques taught at the original Le Cordon Bleu in Paris affords opportunity," says Career Education spokesman Mark Spencer. "But as with all education, it's no guarantee of success."

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