A Culinary Cautionary Tale

Into the ongoing debate on the value of culinary school versus real-world kitchen experience, add this recent SF Weekly article about the California Culinary Academy, the San Francisco–based school accused of using high pressure and deceptive sales tactics to recruit students.

Many former students say admissions representatives told them whatever they thought the applicants needed to hear to get them to sign on the dotted line. The students … were told that a CCA degree virtually guaranteed them a well-paying job at an elite restaurant. In fact, the majority went on to low-paying kitchen jobs — and many soon left the food industry entirely in search of salaries that would pay off their student debt.

It’s a messy pot of soup, with former admissions reps admitting they misled students in order to meet enforced enrollment quotas, students being allowed to continue in the program regardless of achievement level (as long as they can qualify for loans they will be admitted, advanced, and graduated), and a for-profit company that took over the school in 1999 now facing lawsuits from former students who feel they have been deceived. Federal officials are looking into the situation.

But the real victims are the students and graduates, now highly in debt. Many of them cannot afford to cook—the low wages won’t allow them to make their loan payments. Those who try to pursue work in kitchens soon realize that their expensive degree doesn’t hold water. One former student says that “when a chef saw the name CCA on his resume, her eyebrows would lift, or a smile would flit across her face.”

Even early CCA grads seem to be clear that the school has changed and the quality hasn’t been retained. Chef at the Ritz-Carlton’s Dining Room, and an alumnus of the program himself, Ron Siegel says he probably wouldn’t hire a CCA grad today. “The last one I took from there, the person came one time, and no-showed after that.”

Pastry chef Shuna Fish Lydon, who has strong feelings about culinary schools, is delighted that CCA has come under scrutiny. “The last time I heard someone’s CCA story I became red with rage,” she writes. “I do not unilaterally hate culinary schools. I hate their lies. … I hate that they tell prospective students that they will be chefs after a few months of basic cooking education!”

Over at Accidental Hedonist, Kate Hopkins is asking some harder questions: Why haven’t more of these students done their own research? “Have people become so blinded by what they read in the Magazines and what they see on Food Television, that they have become blind to the realities of the industry?”

A current CCA student is frustrated at the “very bad publicity the school just received,” though she admits, “I can definately [sic] see where they could get the impression they did.” Having just completed her first set of CCA classes, she writes, “As long as I can get a job then I’ll be happy.”

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