Displaced 2nd-career seekers flocking to cooking schools

Displaced 2nd-career seekers flocking to cooking schools

Milford Prewitt

Corporate America’s frenzied obsession with downsizing is turning out to be a boon for culinary schools, whose enrollments are swelling with displaced workers.

Admissions directors at the nation’s leading two-year and special-certificate culinary schools said the massive and controversial firing trend by such corporate giants as AT&T, IBM, Ameritech, Maxwell House, Grumman Industries, Kellogg, GTE Corp., Chase Manhattan and defense-related companies are providing a rich harvest for their schools.

“What we are seeing is this increasing influx of students from unrelated fields, who have been downsized and who want retraining in a field where employment is high,” said Chris Garigliano, director of admissions for the San Francisco-based California Culinary Academy. Perhaps as much as 7 percent of the 700 students there were the casualties of recent downsizing.

“Maybe they would never have thought of this option had their employers not fired them,” Garigliano explained. “I mean, we are talking about people with 15 or 20 years’ devotion to one employer. But now, because of circumstances beyond their control, a culinary career has become an attractive option, especially given the job demands of the industry.”

Lawyers, computer operators, receptionists, airline reservations managers, scientists, warehouse managers, production workers, mid-level executives, personnel administrators and even police officers are among those who are making midlife career switches to the restaurant industry after losing their jobs.

Many of them are learning classic French cooking techniques and restaurant-management skills at those urban culinary schools that are not related to traditional four-year colleges or universities.

“People are losing faith and security in large corporate environments, and they see learning restaurant skills as a quick career change, especially in an industry whose needs are so great,” said Steve Tave, director of admissions at the New York Restaurant School, in Manhattan, where the student body has tripled to more than 1,000 full-timers in the past four years.

“With all the press attention on the industry right now and the prominence of celebrity chefs with their own P.R. firms, the image of the restaurant industry has been uplifted over the years as a bona-fide profession, and coming to a school like ours is an accepted alternative to the traditional education.”

The NYRS operates 24 hours a day during the week and also offers weekend classes, as well as a two-year degree program, which costs about $25,000.

“Forbes magazine does an annual ranking of the best values in education,” Tave continued. “But you will never see a culinary school there. Yet culinary schools have the highest graduation rates and the highest placement rates. What better value in education is there?”

Tave said many of the laid-off career switchers the NYRS attracts are middle-aged, with mortgages, marriages and children and cannot afford to be out of work for long.

“The word is getting out to people who have lost their jobs that there is not another field in this country where a person can be totally retrained in just 16 months and get right back into the work force with a new career,” he said. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of our graduates land a job after leaving here. They don’t have to send out 500 resumes and wait five or six months.”

For some displaced workers who are attending culinary school, termination was a fortuitous event in making a lifelong dream come true.

“I always wanted to run my own restaurant,” said Jack Gibson, a former Kellogg warehouse and freight manager who was fired five weeks before his 27th anniversary with the company. He was one of about 730 people the cereal company dismissed.

Gibson now is attending the California Culinary Academy, where he is pursuing a certificate program. The school also has a two-year degree program with a $12,000 annual tuition, and its students average a 96-percent placement rate after graduation. About 50 full-time instructors are on staff.

But Gibson’s long-range goal is more entrepreneurial. He wants to open a pastry shop and bistro in the Livermore/San Ramon Valley area. “As a native San Franciscan, I think cooking is kind of in your blood,” he explained. “I love being in the kitchen. I’ve cooked for friends, family, even Kellogg corporate executives and have gotten a lot of accolades.

“I had been thinking about doing something like this for a long time, and I saw the writing on the wall when the company started closing plants. So I began preparing, straightening up my finances, getting rid of a few bills. By the time I got fired, I left with a retirement package and severance that allows me to do this today.”

Keith Keogh, executive chef at Walt Disney World in Orlando, and Mark Franz, the sous chef under Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco, are alumni of the CCA.

In Chicago, 43-year-old Anthony Pappas is attending the Cooking & Hospitality Institute after being laid off from Breuer Tornado, a manufacturer of industrial cleaning equipment, where he had worked virtually all of his adult life.

“I’ve been cooking since I was seven, and I always wanted to go to culinary school but I never got around to it,” Pappas said. “After I got fired, I started interviewing around and what people wanted to pay me was tremendously less than what I had been making.

“So I sat down with the wife and the kids one day and said this is what I wanted to do.”

Gibson, who has worked at an East Side Mario’s and a catering company while he attends school, soon will be graduating and already has a permanent chef’s job lined up. He will be the executive chef at the soon-to-open Jesse Oaks, a continental restaurant in Gages Lake, Ill., a resort town near the Wisconsin border.

Linda Calafiore, a former state education bureaucrat who founded the Cooking & Hospitality Institute 14 years ago, said stories like Gibson’s, telling of students having jobs lined up after graduating, are common. She noted that the school enjoys a 90- to 95-percent placement rate.

The CHI employs 20 instructors to teach courses from restaurant management to food safety. Many students are acquiring “post-retirement skills.” The school has a two-year associate degree program at $16,000 tuition and a seven-month intensive cooking and baking course for $6,500.

Calafiore said the school’s student body, which averages about 800 a year, has been growing about 10 percent a year. About 35 percent of the student body are career changers who attend classes between full-time jobs in unrelated fields.

She said many downsized employees are able to use federal retraining funds through the Job Training Placement Act. Other students may be eligible to procure tuition money from their former companies’ out-placement assistance programs. One student who wants to become a pastry chef took early retirement from Ameritech and was able to pay a portion of her tuition through the phone giant’s out-placement funds.

As with most two-year culinary programs, students at the Cooking & Hospitality Institute are older than students at traditional colleges. The average age at the CHI is 30, and there have been a few 70-year-olds, Calafiore said.

“As our reputation grows and as the job opportunities grow, we are seeing more and more students apply,” she said. “But what we are also seeing are people who are not necessarily facing layoffs but who want to switch careers to this industry. And I’m speaking of really professional people, like lawyers, accountants and nurses.”

At Scottsdale Culinary in Arizona, a restaurant management and cooking school, the 300-student body has been growing at a 10-percent rate each year since the beginning of the decade, according to Darren Leite, director. He attributed much of the growth to workers who have been axed from defense plants and phone companies in the area.

He said that in admissions interviews with the applicants many have dreams of being their own boss one day.

“You see a lot of entrepreneurial spirit from our students,” he pointed out. “They’ve been fired, and now they want to work for themselves and want to know how to run their own restaurant or a bed and breakfast.”

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