As the for-profit Career Education Corporation announced that it would close all 16 Le Cordon Bleu culinary schools in the U.S., they remain under scrutiny for fraudulent tactics and predatory lending practices.
Curiously, I ask, what took so long for this issue to surface? For decades, high tuition, to aggressive recruiting and predatory lending practices tend to be the norm for culinary schools. This, coupled with low salaries, ridiculously long hours and crazy schedules cripples the industry.
Some believe the closures are associated with low enrollment or little opportunities for graduating students. Both are far from the truth. According to Steve Heimoff, a renowned ex-wine critic for the Wine Enthusiast brings to light, Too many chefs? A culinary academy closure raises questions, that the culinary schools are closing because there is an oversupply of chefs,
“What else are we to make of the Culinary Academy’s closure? Clearly there are two things going on: (1) the media’s obsession with these sexy careers, and (2) the corresponding reality that there are not enough jobs for all the graduates of the nation’s cooking schools.”
Yet, his conclusions are unfounded as evident with the crisis many cities face today—not enough talent to fill restaurants. There is literally a chef crisis for many top cities, from San Francisco to London. A number of publications have touched on the crisis over the last few months:
The reality is that students graduate with $100K in school debt and typically begin work making $12 an hour as a prep cook. Then, they make their way to pantry, pizza, grill and then sauté, before accepting a position as a sous chef or chef de partie at $54K in a city like San Francisco, where it is hard to make a living on this salary. Couple this with long hours and hellacious schedules, and many employees throw in the towel before making it to an executive level.
In 2013, former culinary students filed a $40 million class action lawsuit alleging, according to the suit,
“…the culinary career ed recruiters oversold their job prospects after graduation…Many complained that they made salaries of just $12 an hour after earning degrees from the prestigious academy, and worked in menial jobs such as line cooks and baristas that did not require costly training.”
For decades, schools have oversold promises they can’t keep, and the reality of what it takes to become a successful chef requires a lot of blood and tears. Too many culinary students pay high tuition and expect immediate restaurant placement as a chef and this isn’t a reality. And it is this specific reason why culinary schools are closing, as they are scrutinized for aggressive recruiting and predatory lending practices that mislead students on their job prospects after graduating.
The dream of becoming a chef IS a reality as long as students realize there is no easy button. It requires hard work, long hours, patience and talent. We need more talented chefs that embrace their dream and the market is definitely not saturated…and I doubt it will ever be saturated as many restaurants are revolving doors.
And in terms of closing a culinary school, many potential chefs are better off anyway. Skipping culinary school (a business degree would probably be a better option), while learning on the job and finding someone that will take them under their wing to learn the ropes is the road that many chefs take. Take for example, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller (French Laundry), Ferran Adria (elBulli), Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), and Paul Prudhomme, all whom made it as self-taught chefs.
And as Alton Brown stated on twitter, “As far as I’m concerned, Le Cordon Bleu is a culinary puppy mill.” Indeed, this about sums it up.
photo credit: firstwefeast.com