Culinary schools face scrutiny

BY SARAH BULMER | APRIL 08, 2011 7:20 AM

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

It’s 7 a.m., and nine students in Chef Jeremy Ralph’s four-hour Stocks and Sauces lab at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids listen as their instructor explains the value of Khira raita, a cucumber-yogurt salad typically served as a condiment with Indian cuisine.

Since Ralph began teaching culinary school at Kirkwood in 2000, he’s seen a growing number of students interested in culinary education and food-related jobs.

“It takes longevity,” Ralph said about culinary careers. “You have to love it, otherwise, you’re not going to make it.”

Nationwide, some legislators have recently criticized the economic strength of culinary degrees.

Lawmakers have questioned whether the starting income of culinary-school graduates is worth what they paid for a degree, said Jarrel Price, an analyst at Height Analytics, an independent policy research group.

“Countering the industry position, many policymakers have argued that it is fair to evaluate for-profit students based on their initial salary, because that’s when they need to be able to repay their loans,” Price said.

( Daily Iowan video feature )

Video in QuickTime format, click here for free player download

Officials are more concerned with specialized institutions such as Le Cordon Bleu, which lists a tuition of $19,350 for a culinary-arts certificate and not with community colleges such as Kirkwood.

Career Education Corp., the company that owns Le Cordon Blue, is being sued by a group of California students who allege the school made false promises, according to a National Public Radio report. The school is paying a $40 million settlement in a similar class-action suit filed by students struggling to pay large amounts of debt, and it has made some changes to help students graduate and manage their loans.

“The model doesn’t work,” the students’ attorney Michael Louis Kelly told NPR. “You can’t go to school, accumulate $30,000 or $40,000 or $50,000 in debt, and then go into an industry where you’re going to have to start out at $8 or $12 an hour anyway.”

Still, concerns about where culinary graduates find themselves in the job market still exist at Kirkwood, where an Iowa resident’s average full-time tuition runs roughly $1,770.

“You’re not going to leave this facility and be the head chef at a five-star restaurant in downtown Chicago,” said Kasi Tenborg, the restaurant and beverage manager at the Hotel at the Kirkwood Center. “You’re going to leave this facility and be a line cook. There’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s where you’re going to learn.”

The average yearly salary for line cooks was $29,622, according to the trade publication Star Chefs.
The Kirkwood Center’s Hotel houses the restaurant Class Act, in which culinary students pair with professional chefs to run food service. The Hotel is the largest and most comprehensive teaching hotel at a community college in the United States, according to the Hotel’s website.

Degrees weren’t always necessary for those looking to cook in restaurants.

Tony Walsh, the head chef at One-Twenty-Six, 126 E. Washington St., and its sister restaurant Hearth, didn’t attend culinary school.

“If you try hard and have a couple brain cells to rub together, it’s not terribly difficult to rise through the ranks,” Walsh said.

But he said degrees are becoming increasingly important.

Kirkwood culinary instructor Saralyn Smith agreed. Despite some people being able to find success without a degree, she said, hands-on education is always beneficial and worth the cost.

“It’s true that you can work your way up in the industry, and you don’t have to go to culinary school,” she said. “But I think it’s an advantage to learn the science and theory behind the foods that you’re working with.”

In the past half-century, the food industry has changed dramatically, said Brad Barnes, the senior director of Culinary Education at the Culinary Institute of America.

“Folks expect a reasonable credential from anyone who is going to be a real culinary professional,” Barnes said.

Despite concerns nationwide, Kirkwood Center Hotel banquet chef Justin Billings said education is the best choice for chefs-to-be.

“[School] puts you on the fast track to knowing the right people and knowing the nuts and bolts of an organization,” he said.

> Share your thoughts! Click here to write a Letter to the Editor.

comments powered by Disqus

Privacy Policy (8/15/07) | Terms of Use (4/28/08) | Content Submission Agreement (8/23/07) | Copyright Compliance Policy (8/25/07) | RSS Terms of Use

Copyright © The Daily Iowan, All Rights Reserved.