Lyle Hildahl, executive director of the Washington Restaurant Association's Education Foundation, isn't a foe of formal kitchen training. But he fears the current glamorization of professional cooking, advanced by the Food Network and glossy food magazines, has inspired young college students and frustrated mid-career workers to seek overnight stardom by signing up for culinary school.
"It's great for the schools," Hildahl says. "They've been filling up all over the place. But one of the challenges that students have when they get out is they still have to start at the bottom. You're not going to run a kitchen."
According to Hildahl, many prospective chefs believe the $40,000 tuition fee collected by for-profit trade schools entitles them to a cushy executive-chef position upon graduation. They're unwilling to accept a $12-an-hour prep-cook job or wash dishes, as Hildahl did at the start of his career. "These kids feel they know more than the chef," Hildahl says.
Culinary-school enrollment has soared over the past few years. Le Cordon Bleu enrolled one-third more students in 2009 than it had the previous year, and applications at the Culinary Institute of America have surged so dramatically that the storied training program has developed a satellite campus to accommodate more students. Locally, students interested in studying culinary arts at South Seattle Community College are forced to add their names to waiting lists.
But recent legislative decisions are likely to make culinary school less accessible and attractive to aspiring chefs. The Washington state legislature last month slashed $84 million from budgets for the state's technical and community colleges, many of which will adapt to the cuts by offering fewer classes. Furthermore, about half of the schools accredited by the American Culinary Federation are for-profit colleges, and will be subject to new rules governing eligibility for federal student aid. While Department of Education regulations issued this month won't take effect until 2015, career colleges which fail to show that their programs prepare students for "gainful employment in a recognized occupation"—dishwashing jobs don't count—stand to lose access to billions of dollars in loans.
Without the promise of free money to lure them into the classroom, Hildahl suspects many food-loving students will opt to learn their craft on the job, as generations of chefs did before them. "They'll do it through paying their dues," Hildahl says.
While the bootstrap approach means young cooks might not learn why a toque has folds or why Escoffier is revered, Hildahl is confident that the fundamentals of cooking can be communicated as clearly on a working line as in a demonstration kitchen. And restaurants have schools beat as instillers of good working habits.
"The biggest concern is not so much foundation skills," Hildahl says of the difficulties many chefs encounter when staffing their kitchens, even with a glut of culinary-school graduates looking for work. "The challenge is work readiness. That's where the emphasis should be, but everyone wants to decorate a cake or carve a mushroom."