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Chefs vary on value of culinary school

| Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011

Ask a dozen chefs, and the answers could be as varied as their individual recipes for lamb stew: Is culinary school worth it?

For aspiring Wolfgang Pucks, spending $50,000 for a two-year culinary degree can be a gamble in the best of times. But a September survey by the National Restaurant Association found that only 17 percent of restaurant owners were optimistic about the economy, down from 26 percent the previous month.

Is it safer and saner to learn how to make radish rosettes and sear steaks on a restaurant's payroll?

Seth Bailey, head chef at Cafe at the Frick in Point Breeze, did both. He attended the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in North Carolina. The $20,000 yearly tuition for the two-year program was worth it, he says.

Prior to enrolling, he worked in the restaurant industry for a year to make sure he knew what he was getting himself into.

"Starting out in the industry, you learn what people expect from you right off the bat instead of being disillusioned, going to school and thinking you're going to be on the Food Network someday," Bailey says.

Kevin Joyce, owner of the Carlton Restaurant, Downtown, says he employed at least one head chef who had enough natural talent to bypass culinary school.

But he was the exception, he says.

"You're going to work your way up the old-fashioned way no matter what," Joyce says. "There's a lot to be said for going to culinary school. But, once you come out of culinary school, you're still working your way. up .You're still starting at that salad station."

Any debate over the merits of a formal culinary education eventually will lead to the subject of for-profit cooking schools, which have proliferated in the past decade. Critics say they often mislead students into thinking they'll graduate into a "top chef" job. The reality is that many end up working in low-level jobs, whose wages barely make a dent in their student loans.

"I can't tell you the number of cooks over my life span who said 'I can't believe I spent $50,000 and I'm making 10 bucks on hour,'" says Bill Fuller, corporate chef for Big Burrito Restaurant Group, which includes Mad Mex, Casbah and Eleven restaurants.

"They promote the glamour part to recruit the people," he says. "Of course, you would. You're not going to show a chef at one o'clock in the morning, finishing up prep for the next day's party. You're going to show when he's shaking hands in the dining room with the prince of Spain."

Fuller, who has no formal culinary degree, says he began his career at 15 at the Dutch Pantry in Falls Creek, Clearfield County.

"I moved on to the breakfast cook on the weekends," he says. "But I washed dishes for a long time."

Some for-profit cooking schools have been sued by graduates who claim they were duped.

Recently, Illinois-based Career Education Corp. announced that it would spend $40 million to settle a 2007 class-action lawsuit against the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, one of more than 80 colleges it operates. The publicly traded company runs Le Cordon Bleu schools in more than a dozen cities, including Pittsburgh. The local branch of the school will close after it graduates the class of 2012.

"The education our students receive from experienced chef-instructors puts them on a career path," says Mark Spencer, spokesman for Le Cordon Bleu Schools in North America in a prepared statement. "Learning the same foundational cooking techniques taught at the original Le Cordon Bleu in Paris affords opportunity. But as with all education, it's no guarantee of success."

Officials at traditional, not-for-profit culinary schools say applicants should chose a school with a proven track record.

"Not all culinary schools are the same," says Pittsburgh native Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. which was founded in 1946. "You can't make a sweeping generalization about culinary education because it assumes that everyone is the same. I think, particularly, the for-profits that have come along in recent years have done a complete disservice to culinary education and to the culinary profession. "

Ryan, a certified master chef, says the institute's two-year and four-year programs provide instruction in food safety, nutrition and business, as well as cooking. Applicants must have six months experience working in a restaurant in order to be considered for admission.

The $25,000 per year tuition at CIA helps to pay for top-level instructors, kitchen equipment and ingredients, which don't come cheap.

"We're teaching students how to use truffles and foie gras and expensive seafood versus the cost of textbooks in a traditional college," Ryan says.

Derek Stevens, executive chef at Eleven in the Strip District, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1994.

"Culinary education can really be an important step in becoming chef but it's not the step," Stevens says. "You don't go to school and walk out of school and — pouf! — you're a chef. ... As with anything in life, you get out of it what you put into it. People who are successful in this business put a lot into it."

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