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Culinary Schools Are the Cutting Edge of Popularity, Despite Costs

This story was published via The Medill News Service on June 4, 2008. It was written for a class while Molly was attending Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

Five months ago, 27-year-old Latonya Black, a student at Washburne Culinary Institute of Kennedy-King College, realized she wanted “to be surrounded by food all the time.” Black called it “an a-ha moment.”

More and more Americans are having a-ha moments and enrolling in culinary schools across the nation — particularly in Chicago.

The National Center for Education Statistics’ 2007 “Digest of Education Statistics” reported that the number of Americans getting Bachelor’s degrees in the culinary field has skyrocketed.

In 2006, a total of 57 students were awarded degrees in “baking and pastry arts/baker/pastry chef,” up 83 percent from 31 students in 2004, and up 119 percent from 26 students in 2003. A total of 322 students earned degrees in “culinary arts/chef training” in 2006, up 35 percent from 239 in 2004.

A degree is not a necessary ingredient in a chef’s recipe for success. In fact, most chefs – degree or not – are still required to start working as line cooks, busboys or vegetable peelers.

“Just like other Americans, I felt like culinary school was kind of for people who just didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives, some kind of backburner or you didn’t make it anywhere else, so you went to culinary school,” Black said.

Today, she is learning about cold soups and sauces and is set to graduate in May 2009 with an Associate’s degree in Culinary Arts. Black is ebullient about her experience and is a big proponent of culinary school. (Note: Top Chef fans might recognize Washburne’s kitchen – it was featured on Episode 8 this season.)

“I don’t think it’s necessary to get a degree, but it helps you along the way. It helps you get to the next level and make those strides a little bit faster… There are people who have been in the industry for 15 years and they’re just having that a-ha moment,” she said.

The a-ha moment is the crystallization of one’s desire to be a chef. Executive Chef Ethan Holmes, 33, described it as a “wild unflinching passion to cook or feed people” and “the absolute love of food and perfection.”

Holmes graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in 2001 and attributes his early success to a combination of the culinary degree and his total commitment to food. He giddily described looking at diver scallops in his Texas restaurant’s freezer.

“I’m back there oohing and aahing… like, these are the most beautiful scallops… I feel like I’ve stolen something from someone because they’re so beautiful,” he said.

Many executive chefs describe this commitment – not a degree – as a reason to hire. Still, no one denied the positive effect a degree could have on a chef’s salary.

“I think it’s like any other field, 20 years ago you practically didn’t need an accounting degree to do accounting. But nowadays, the more education you have the more advantages you have in terms of getting a job. When we first started researching the field of culinary, when I talked to chefs and restaurant owners they said, ‘I don’t just want to hire people who can cook, I want to hire people who can think,’” said Nancy Rotunno, the executive director and dean for the Institute of Culinary Arts at Robert Morris College.

Robert Morris will offer its first Bachelor’s degree in culinary arts this fall. They expect to have about 100 students in the program. It has previously offered Associate’s degrees and has about 300-350 students enrolled in those programs. Applications for students starting in the fall at the Chicago campus doubled compared to last year, Rotunno said.

“Quite frankly and pardon the pun, but food is a hot industry right now, and it has been for the last several years, so we’ve had a lot of interest,” she said.

One oft-cited downside of attending culinary school is the price. Holmes paid $51,000 for two years of culinary education.

“It cost me more to go to culinary school than it would have cost to go to law school,” Holmes said.

Chicago’s schools cost an average of $27,000 for one year of education. Washburne costs about $13,000, far below other area institutions, because it’s part of the City Colleges of Chicago. Black has already won a scholarship and hopes to be awarded more money.

The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, which has over 800 students, is affiliated with Le Cordon Bleu and is regionally accredited. Tuition for a 15-month program is about $40,000.

Though he was unwilling to reveal enrollment figures, President Lloyd Kirsch said that business was good and that in the last four years, the school has expanded its campus by 20,000 square feet and added five industry-standard kitchens and two classrooms.

Malika Ameen, 33, is the executive pastry chef and co-owner of Aigre Doux. She was born and raised in Glencoe, Ill. but attended culinary school in New York. She estimates she paid about $16,000 for her culinary and pastry arts degrees, but stresses that was in the mid-‘90s and prices have vastly increased since then. She says she would make the same decision again, but that culinary school isn’t the best choice for everyone.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for people to go to culinary school, but I am an advocate of it if you can. It’s very expensive. I don’t think it’s something that’s necessary, but I think it’s helpful in getting practice and learning about basic skills, which are the building blocks and foundations of anything you do.”

Holmes said that despite the increasing cost of getting a culinary degree, he thinks his education has already paid for itself.

“It would take me between another two to three years to [be an executive chef], and I would make about 50 percent what I make right now in that time. I would have no foundation for any sort of negotiation to say, here’s the education I’ve been able to get, this is the experience that I have a result of that, this is the experience I got in addition to that and this is how much I’m worth.”

His diver scallops eventually ended up pan-seared and accompanied by stone-ground polenta, roasted asparagus and a tomato, caper and olive relish.

“I wanted to be a chef since I was 4 and I just never had the gumption to do it. Finally I was like, ‘I’m sick of being sick and tired. I’m going to be a chef,’” he said. “Now I’m just tired all the time, but I’m happy.”

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