Skipping School

Top chefs can spend 30 grand on school or just work their way up

Tom Fleming graduated from a top cooking school, Kendall College in Evanston, Illinois. He now serves as executive chef at Lombardi Mare in Addison. Marc Cassel cruised through El Centro's apprenticeship program then gained fame at the Green Room, a Deep Ellum hot spot. Christopher Short, sous chef at Crescent Court's stellar restaurant, Beau Nash, didn't go to cooking school at all.

Three great chefs, three renowned restaurants. The only difference, it would seem, is that Fleming shelled out almost $30,000 to enter a profession that others choose for next to nothing. Chefs regard cooking school as only one of many ways into the kitchen, and an expensive one at that. Johnson & Wales University's respected College of Culinary Arts charges $14,985 per year, plus fees and housing, for their two-year associate's degree. And Culinary Institute of America--the dreaded CIA--demands more than $15,000 each year, plus $5,000 in extras.

"That whole student loan thing, I could talk forever about that," Fleming says.

Dave Sheehan of the Art Institute of Dallas' culinary program admits "you don't become a chef out of cooking school. Once you graduate you have to get a few years under you." Local chefs like Short and Mario Melgar, who opened Avanti Euro Bistro, shunned a formal culinary education altogether. Even Fleming concedes that a cooking degree earns him little in the company of peers. "There's no 'Hey, did you go to school or not?'" he says. "There's none of that."

Of what value, then, is cooking school in a chef's career? A few credit cooking schools with refining their knowledge of ingredients or just forcing them to try new things. "There were certain aspects that were tough," Fleming recalls, "like pastries. School exposes you to stuff you might otherwise avoid." A well-rounded program also prepares future chefs for the business of food service. "Students attend one hour of lecture and four hours of work, five-hour cooking classes three times a week," Sheehan points out. "Plus they take math, English, management, computer science; that's what gives them an edge in the industry."

Yet others offer more qualified support for formal education. "School gets you your first job," Cassel explains. "After that, it's up to you."

Cassel worked with several outstanding chefs after completing El Centro's apprenticeship program, including Dean Fearing of The Mansion and Abacus' Kent Rathbun. "They would take the time to show you why you do something, not just what to do," Cassel says.

Job-hopping is almost a requirement in an industry spurred this way and that by fads, new influences and fickle patrons. "Sometimes you learn more in the kitchen if you work with a lot of different chefs," says Jorge Cruz, executive chef at Rooster and an El Centro graduate. In some respects, the professional life of a chef is akin to that of a journeyman or apprentice. "You only know what you know," says Cassel. "That's why chefs move around so much. You work in one place and pick that guy's brain clean, go to another place, pick that chef's brain clean, and so on." It generally takes five to six years for someone to progress from cook to sous chef, responsible for everything except administrative tasks. Short claims that some people change jobs on an annual basis, but in general, he says, it's best to remain with one staff no more than six years. "After that you get stale," he says, "and there's always more to learn somewhere." Once a person achieves the title of executive chef, only a few career options remain.

Cooking school, then, is just the most expensive means to get into the kitchen. "When I decided I wanted to be a chef," Fleming explains, "I favored French and Italian cuisine. I wanted experience in a top French restaurant, and cooking school gave me an internship and a mentor."

The now fading economic boom and the dramatic spread of table-service chains drove up the incomes offered to new cooking school graduates in the late 1990s, and some blame schools and restaurant corporations for the dearth of people willing to accept low-paying grunt work as they claw their way up through kitchens. Sheehan claims that Art Institute graduates earn between $28,000 and $43,000 to start. The National Restaurant Association, however, lists an executive chef's median base salary at $48,000. Sous chefs settle for $30,000, median base. Most culinary schools across the country refer in their literature to 95-plus percent placement rates and student retention rates above 80 percent, but most chefs recall a number of dropouts. "The profession," says Sheehan, "is not for the faint of heart. You have to have stamina to perform at a high level, a passion for it and the ability to think on your feet." Indeed, Fleming, Cassel and Cruz all worked at least six years in restaurants before plopping down tuition fees.

"I wouldn't dismiss cooking school," Cassel says, "but you get more out of it if you've been cooking or working in a kitchen for a while."

Ultimately, a stint in cooking school is worth the price if it provides entry into a worthwhile kitchen and partnership with a good teaching chef. "I'm where I am today because of Kendall," Fleming says. Cassel, on the other hand, prefers El Centro's method--dumping you immediately into real-world apprenticeship situations. "You instantly know whether you'll like it or not," he points out. "It's not like getting $30,000 into debt before you realize the kitchen is not for you."

 
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