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Too many chefs? A culinary academy closure raises questions

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It’s a real shockeroo that the Culinary Academy in San Francisco is closing. Its graduates include Ron Siegel, now of Michael Mina but I remember dining at the old Charles Nob Hill restaurant, which he eventually left to go to Masa’s. Talk about a resumé!

There are two outposts of the culinary arts in the food-obsessed Bay Area: The Culinary Academy [also known as Le Cordon Blue] and the Culinary Institute of America, in Saint Helena. To have one of them shut down in the midst of one of the greatest restaurant booms in memory is amazing. The official reason for the Culinary Academy’s closure is high food and facility costs,” but a major financial problem was “a $40 million settlement in 2011 of a class-action lawsuit by students who claimed the school inflated graduation and job placement rates.”

According to that settlement, 8,500 students who attended the Academy between 2003 and 2008 were eligible for tuition rebates, based on the notion that “they were told a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu would allow them to become chefs, but that many students who graduate are unable to obtain that position.”

One hardly knows where to start in the commentary. During the first 15 years of this new century, being a chef was one of the hottest careers in America—at least, the America of the coasts, and in the urban and rapidly urbanizing centers of the country, where despite the Great Recession people had good jobs and were developing the discretionary-income behaviors of upping their food game and looking for great local restaurants in which to dine. I’m sure that many applicants to the Culinary Academy dreamt of being the next Ron Siegel, and why not? It’s a good dream.

The “chefs are hot” movement was rivaled, in our food-and-wine world, only by the “somms are hot movement,” which itself was exceeded by the “mixologists are hot” movement. Still, there seems to be enough room in our hedonistic culture for chefs, somms and mixologists to co-exist, with plenty of jobs for all.

What, then, are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? I will not weigh in on the merits of the 2011 lawsuit, but clearly, even graduates of an esteemed cooking school in San Francisco found it hard to obtain the sort of work they were expecting; some of them faced “in excess of $100,000” in student loans, hardly an amount a young line chef, even if she could get a job, would be able to repay for many, many years.

I remember when I moved to San Francisco, everybody wanted to be an M.B.A. That was the hot job of the first Reagan administration. Of course, all those newly-minted MBAs didn’t get rich. That degree, too, was over-hyped and over-sold. I frequently have the same feeling about sommeliers today. There are so many ways to get certified, whatever that means, that I sometimes think, pace Warhol, that in the future, everybody will be a sommelier for 15 minutes.

But an oversupply of chefs? What else are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? Clearly there are two things going on: (1) the media’s obsession with these sexy careers, and (2) the corresponding reality that there are not enough jobs for all the graduates of the nation’s cooking schools.

I believe in dreams. I made my career as a wine writer based on my dream. But that was then; this is now, and I don’t know that the dream of being a chef is based on reality. There comes a time when a career gets so popular that too many people pursue it; being a wine writer is in a similar plight today. I am second to no one in the esteem in which I hold chefs. They have been instrumental in our evolution as a culture. If I had a kid who dreamed of being a chef and asked for my advice, I’d be torn. Follow your dream? Or forget about it because the competition is so intense and the chance of success is diminishing. I honestly don’t know what advice I would give.

  1. Here in Los Angeles, the Cordon Bleu Pasadena affiliate is closing:

    http://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-dd-le-cordon-bleu-closing-20151217-story.html

  2. I’m sure there are plenty of jobs in the restaurant industry for culinary school graduates. Just not enough that pay enough to justify having spent $100,000+ in tuition for.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    Let’s call these cooking schools what they are: for-profit, student loan mills. They’re no different than Phoenix or Westwood or the local cosmetology school. That a few graduates have threaded the needle and found high profile careers doesn’t negate the mass of their graduates out there trying to pay off an insurmountable student loan debt on a line cook’s salary.

    They also provide the odious role of giving the right wing in this country a convenient straw man to attack the very concept of government tuition assistance (which has been one of the most successful government programs in this country’s history) and even the very concept of public higher education.

  4. Here in Los Angeles, we have Trade Technical College — an AA-degree granting “community college.”

    One program is “Culinary Arts”:

    http://college.lattc.edu/culinaryarts/culinary-arts/

    The cost?

    “At the community colleges, California residents pay a low cost, state-established tuition based upon the number of units carried ($46 per unit). Non-residents of California are required to pay out of state tuition ($190 per unit or current rate plus $46 per unit).”

    How many units are needed to graduate with an AA-degree?

    At least 60 degree applicable units (48 total units in one’s major and the balance being general education coursework units) are required to earn an Associate degree.

    Public instruction sure beats the cost of a for-profit Cordon Bleu culinary trade education.

    L.A. Trade Tech is an employee “feeder” program for restaurant and hospitality and amusement park businesses across the greater Los Angeles area.

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    Gosh, Bob. Are you daring to insinuate that the public sector is doing something at a higher quality level, lower cost and with greater economic benefit to both its students and the local economy than the for-profits?

    I’ll bet their student loan default rates are also a fraction of Cordon Bleu’s

  6. Southern Maine Community College has a culinary program that is probably similar to the L.A. one that Bob describes, and its cost is probably also quite low. I took a couple of classes there for fun, and they were very good. As with the L.A. school, its graduates probably go into unglamorous local food businesses. But at least they have jobs, and no huge debt.

  7. There was a time when the California Culinary Academy was a serious place for serious chefs and people interested in wine and food. The list of successful chefs coming out of the place back two decades and more is substantial.

    But, then it was taken over by one of these so-called private educational colleges and became a diploma mill. Enrollment tripled, and the curriculum was cut back. Sadly, the gov’t college loan program was the fuel that was used by this place and all the other “colleges” to rip off both the students and the intent of the program.

    Now, it is gone and good riddance. The good that it did will live on in chefs like Ron Siegel, but so too will the bad in long list of students who will never be able to pay off their student loans.

  8. Bill:

    I would immodestly suggest that I boldly “declare” rather than sheepishly “insinuate” when it comes to expressing my opinions.

    (Which I distinguish from theories and hypotheses and those inconvenient truths we call facts . . . evinced by my embedding links in my comments.)

    Bill and Charlie and others:

    The New York Times got it right on the suspect admissions standards and “academic teaching rigor” of diploma mills like the University of Phoenix:

    “The government measures graduation rates as the percentage of first-time undergraduates who obtain a degree within six years. On average across all American universities, the rate is 55 percent. . . .
    The official rates at some University of Phoenix campuses are extremely low — 6 percent at the Southern California campus, 4 percent among online students — and he acknowledged extraordinary attrition among younger students.”

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/education/11phoenix.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Six percent? Four percent?!

    Sounds like the “graduation rate” for Master Sommelier candidates . . .

  9. Brad Hoffman says:

    Wow after all this time it turns out Bill Haydon might have said a couple of things I agree with. I knew us Chicago guys had to have a meeting of the minds somewhere. I was involved in the operation of some of these “Vocational” schools back in the 80’s. Even though the sales pitch promised a career in radio and television it always struck me that Talent (or even a decent vocabulary) was never one of the prerequisites for admission…qualifying for federal Pell grants or Student Loans was all you needed.

  10. Steven Riceman says:

    Hello,

    Has there been any updates on lawsuits against the larger institutions i.e. The Culinary Institute of America?

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