When Rob Anderson decided last year to pursue a longtime passion for food and open a restaurant in Provincetown, Mass., he left behind a job as an opinion-page editor at The Boston Globe and enrolled in the six-month culinary-arts program at the International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York’s SoHo neighborhood.
“When you tell people you’re on a path to opening a restaurant, they like to point out how crazy you are and how likely you are to fail,” said Anderson, 31. He knew that “they were at least partly correct.”
For those looking to become top chefs or achieve other high-ranking roles in the risky food-services industry, investing in a culinary education can make sense, even if the schools are expensive — and some have even been sued for overpromising on the job and salary opportunities they can deliver. Especially for those changing careers, formal training is becoming the fastest and most efficient way into an industry that has grown in competition and complexity.
Celebrity chefs, myriad cooking shows and stylized menus have energized foodies with dreams of commanding a restaurant kitchen (or TV show) and have educated a public that has become more discerning of food and demanding of chefs, said Rosemary Batt, author of a 2014 study on restaurant practices and a professor in Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School.
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Formal training is “extremely important,” she said, especially for those aspiring to work in fine- and casual fine-dining restaurants, where customers expect creative cuisines, and where chefs are most likely to distinguish themselves and earn high salaries.
Last year, 273 institutions offered 476 accredited postsecondary culinary programs in the U.S. The number of institutions is up 30 percent, and programs up 39 percent, over four years, according to the accrediting commission of the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation. A 2010 report by Education News’ Career Index found that the number of culinary-school graduates over all grew by 25 percent in four years.
It is still possible to get into the business as an apprentice. But those positions are rare in the U.S. — and best suited to the young, who can spend several years as a potato peeler before becoming a line cook. Career changers “do not have the same runway,” said Will Blunt, managing editor of StarChefs.com, an online magazine aimed at culinary insiders.
Neither do they want to spend time in cooking school retaking math or English, said Francois Dionot, founder and director of L’Academie de Cuisine, outside Washington, D.C. The average age of the school’s students is 28, and its yearlong programs in culinary or pastry arts are tight, focused and fast-paced. They are typical of immersion programs that target older students who, as Michael Cutler, a 60-year-old L’Academie student, put it, only “need the cooking chops.”
Part of culinary-school training, said Dionot, is teaching “how to be in a kitchen.” Discipline, kitchen hierarchy, speed, safety, building physical stamina and getting used to tough schedules are all instilled.
With tuition of $25,725 at L’Academie, students will need to get hired onto a kitchen where they can earn enough to make their investment worthwhile. If there is a main complaint about culinary schools, it is this: In one of the most poorly paid yet demanding industries in the country, tuition for training can range from $19,500 for a certificate from Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, to $48,750 for ICC’s diploma, to $53,000 for an associate degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., (double that for a bachelor’s there). Many students take out loans.
As Blunt said, “This is not a get-rich-quick scheme.”
Just ask Amy Zarichnak, 42, who will graduate with an associate degree from the Culinary Institute’s Hyde Park campus in July. After being laid off from her fifth marketing job in five years, she decided to pursue her interest in food. She took out a $60,000 loan and cashed in her 401(k). She still carries $40,000 in debt from her undergraduate degree. “I took a gamble,” she said.
But to her, having the institute on her résumé — the “Harvard of cooking schools,” she said — was important. She doesn’t want to be a chef and will combine her marketing and culinary knowledge to work in food media. “I’d like to pick up where I left off, starting at $60,000 to $80,000,” she said.
That would be a good salary for a restaurant executive chef, a job earning an average of $76,054 in 2012, according to a StarChefs survey. Pastry chefs earned an average of $56,383. A culinary degree appears to raise chef compensation by an average of about $8,000. But cooking-school grads typically start as line cooks at $10 to $15 an hour, usually with no benefits. If all goes well, they could rise to executive chef in five years.
Community-college programs could be a better deal. Many offer solid training at a fraction of the cost. At Jefferson Community College in Watertown, N.Y., tuition for an associate degree is about $10,000.
“We’re teaching pretty much the same things as private schools, but you could pay $60,000 for them,” said Alexander Vickers, hospitality and tourism department chairman at Jefferson Community. Most students at his college go on to well-paying jobs, he said.
Geographic flexibility can improve the return on investment.
That is what Anderson and his business partner and husband did when they opened the Canteen in Provincetown. The restaurant grew from three to 33 employees in three weeks, as customers wrapped a line outside the door for its signature recipes, like cod banh mi, a local take on a popular Vietnamese sandwich.
The restaurant’s first season exceeded expectations, Anderson said. Now he is writing business plans and recipes and thinking of a possible expansion.