The kitchen is an odd place to work. The endless shifts in often windowless environments, the dripping sweat, the low wages, the constant handling of dead animals, sharp knives and scalding-hot oil tend to produce perils that often dissuade the more collegiate-oriented of society from joining the ranks on the line.
Though it does happen — and surprisingly often — one historically doesn’t look to the kitchen to find the next poet laureate or economic guru. Rather, traditionally, the commercial kitchen has become a kind of stereotype for a place to find the folks for whom conventional school, work or life in general seemed a little too constraining. But more and more these days, perhaps because of the pervasiveness of the food-as-entertainment concept, young people are enrolling in culinary school in order to get into the kitchen. And that rise in enrollment begs the question: Is it worth it?
There are a wide range of establishments offering culinary arts degrees. Some are for-profit schools like Le Cordon Bleu, a franchise of the Career Education Corp., which currently accounts for over 20 percent of all culinary school enrollments in the country and which in 2013 ended a drawn-out lawsuit over inflated job-placement rates for prospective students to the tune of $10 million. These corporations thrive on federal aid, and not surprisingly, their tuition rates have continued to skyrocket as America’s food obsession has inspired more to seek careers in the culinary industry. To complete the famed International Culinary Schools at the Arts Institutes, it costs over $50,000. Johnson & Wales is just a thousand dollars less, and even Le Cordon Bleu pushes over the $15,000 mark. Bear in mind that in small cities like Asheville, the average line cook makes $10-$13 an hour, often with no benefits.
Learning things the hard way
“One day in my mid-20s, I dropped everything and packed my truck with a dog, a bike, some clothes, a Sun Drop and a tin of Slim Jims and drove west as far as I could to San Francisco,” says chef Mike Moore, proprietor of the Blind Pig Supper Club and the Old Etowah Smokehouse. In California, he began working in a small breakfast joint in Pacifica while he enrolled in culinary school. “I ended up in an overpriced and way underrated French culinary school in the Tenderloin, getting catcalled by the most beautiful transvestites I had ever seen and stepping over dead people while pigeons ate sidewalk vomit in one of the worst neighborhoods in the U.S. on my way to class for 10 hours a night.
“Was it worth it?” he asks. “My debt-to-income ratio was once an embarrassment, and it hindered me from gaining financial momentum in life during my late 20s. Many culinary schools like the one I attended in the early 2000s were run like degree mills similar to late-night online curriculum programs. They were advertised and marketed to offer excellent and prestigious career training, which would reflect career salaries. They also promised job placement worldwide to their students. It is sad to say, but postsecondary culinary institutions across our nation took advantage of many students with inflated tuition costs and high interest rates that, once revealed, would shock you.
“I learned more from the two Mexican cooks in that breakfast café in Pacifica,” Moore says. “Eventually, I threw everything I owned on an eastbound train … landing in Asheville about the time Zambra opened. I paid a mortgage and loan payments while making $10 an hour for the next three years. Thirteen years later I still agree I learned more either on my own or working with other inspirational chefs — but for some reason we sometimes learn things the hard way.”
“I think it’s worth it, but it depends on your motivations when you go to culinary school,” says chef Steven Goff, who helped open Standard Foods in Raleigh after opening the now-defunct King James Public House here in Asheville. He is currently helming the kitchen at Sovereign Remedies while he works to open his own food truck back in the Triangle. “[But] I don’t think you should go there without working in a kitchen first, because a lot of what you’re going to be learning isn’t going to be cooking. You’re going to learn management, numbers, how to be a hospitable human being. And if you’ve already worked, maybe you’ll be able to refine some of that knowledge you’ve already learned in a restaurant.”
Goff, having dropped out of high school at a young age, train-hopped his way across the country, cooking at restaurants along the way to make ends meet. He wound up in Asheville, homeless, but worked his way up the line, also at Zambra. He attended A-B Tech’s culinary program before eventually teaching there himself. “Obviously I’m going to be a little biased,” he says. “Do I think that you have to go to culinary school? Absolutely not. But is it helpful? Yes. And do I think it is worth it? For a community college, hell yes, it’s worth the money.”
“To quote Thomas Keller, are we really trying to advocate for less education?” says Frederick Snyder, chef and instructor at A-B Tech. “The piece that always seems to be missing from every story about culinary schools that I read are the less expensive schools. I hold what seems to be a popular opinion: The private, for-profit schools are really expensive. It doesn’t make sense to spend more money on school than you are going to make in salary when you get out of school. That just doesn’t work.”
But for Snyder, the argument for some schooling is elementary. “This is an industry where there is no one-size-fits-all for everyone,” he says, but in culinary school, “it’s about exposure to the fundamentals. It lays a better foundation.”
A-B Tech’s culinary program is an estimated $8,000 to 10,000 for a two-year associate degree, a stark contrast to the carlike pricing of the higher-end schools. And while some snooty Michelin-starred kitchens might scoff at a community college as opposed to the prestige of a fancy program in Hyde Park, N.Y., that often depends on the kitchen. Chefs, unlike banks or financial companies, are often less likely to put as much emphasis on the kind of school one has attended, and some don’t really seem to care if the applicant attended school at all.
“I would hire someone from culinary school before I would hire someone with zero experience at all,” says Goff. “But more importantly, I’m going to look where you’ve worked, but if you’ve gone to school, I know you’ve been taught some of the more basic things, and you’ve at least been taught — more importantly than cooking — to respect the kitchen, the food and the chef.” He also notes that occasionally students fresh out of the fancy culinary programs can be difficult to work with: “They often come with a little more ego because they went to the [Culinary Institute of America] or Johnson & Wales.”
Moore agrees. “I have worked with many recently graduated culinary students who have had a false perception of the industry and whose attitudes have hindered something as simple as passion and love for the craft of cooking,” he says.
Snyder also agrees, to an extent. He worked as chef at The Market Place under Mark Rosenstein for several years. He recalls, “While working there, it got to the point where if I got a résumé from A-B Tech, one from CIA and another from Johnson & Wales, I wouldn’t even call the people from Johnson & Wales and CIA until I’d talked to the person from A-B Tech, because that’s the reputation that we have in this area.”