Culinary programs at community colleges explode in popularity thanks to TV chefs
published April 15, 2013
It was 2006 when the pilot episode of “Top Chef” aired.
At the time, the now-overcrowded culinary arts program at Los Angeles Harbor College in Wilmington didn’t exist. The three-story, $40 million culinary arts complex at Los Angeles Mission College in the San Fernando Valley was but a blueprint. Nationwide enrollment at a group of 17 for-profit culinary schools owned by the company Career Education Corp. had yet to explode.
Is there a link between the blazing-hot popularity of food TV – led by “Top Chef” – and the booming market for culinary arts classes? Students and instructors alike say without a doubt.
“It brought a business and industry to light that was pretty much behind the kitchen door,” said Steve Kasmar, chairman of the culinary and baking program at Los Angeles Trade Tech, home to the oldest continuously running culinary arts program in the nation. “They did glorify it. ”
Regardless, in just three years, the annual student load of the culinary curriculum at Los Angeles Mission College has more than doubled, from 250 to 600. And that’s not just because of the fancy new facility, which boasts seven spacious kitchens, each of them equipped with cutting-edge video technology a la the cooking shows. The surge is also happening at Trade Tech in downtown Los Angeles and Harbor College – the two other schools with culinary programs in the Los Angeles Community College District.
Both of those schools have multimillion-dollar kitchen remodels in the pipeline, largely to accommodate the onrush.
“I’m packed with more than 60 kids per class – the cap is supposed to be 25,” said Giovanni Delrosario, who runs the 5-year-old program at Harbor College. “We have 90 more students on the waiting list. It’s phenomenal; I’ve never seen anything like it. ”
Although the stampede for these classes is no doubt largely the product of an intangible trend – the term “gourmet” is becoming so ubiquitous it can even apply to ketchup – the food entertainment craze is a clear contributor. The popularity of TV cooking shows began heating up in the mid-2000s and reached a boiling point in 2012. (Soon after hitting an all-time high, ratings for the Food Network cooled slightly in the fourth quarter of the year.)
“It’s more glamorous now – we look at chefs like rock stars,” said Julie Valenta Kiritani,who recently finished a program at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena.
The problem is, the shine of the kitchens on TV seldom matches the grime of the ones in reality. While the culinary schools churn out a torrent of graduates, the job market into which they are released is far from flashy – or lucrative.
Job market limits
In 2010, cooks across the nation earned about $20,000 a year on average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Food prep workers took home about $19,000 on average. For the kings of the kitchen – chefs and head cooks – yearly pay averaged $40,000, a livable wage, but hardly glamorous. What’s more, the bureau projects that job prospects for chefs and head cooks will contract by 1 percent in the next decade, even as the rest of the economy expands by 14 percent.
“Employment growth will be tempered as many restaurants, in an effort to lower costs, use lower-level cooks to perform the work normally done by chefs and head cooks,” the report concludes. “Workers with a combination of business skills, previous work experience, and creativity will have the best job prospects. ”
Kasmar of Los Angeles Trade Tech conceded that the past couple of years have been an employers’ market.
“They’ve been picking by hand who they want,” he said. “You go work for nothing and they see if they like you. ”
That certainly rings true to employer Ed Kasky, executive director of USC’s University Club that caters to faculty and staff. Kasky recently posted a job online for a sous chef and got 50 applicants.
“I can tell you that 75 percent of the people who applied were severely overqualified to be a sous chef,” he said.
Still, Los Angeles is generally considered one of the foodie capitals of the world, and instructors of the community college programs insist their students are heavily recruited. (None could provide job placement statistics for recent grads, though.)
“When Wolfgang Puck (catering service) wants to do an event for 15,000 people for the Oscars or the Grammys … they actually come and recruit at the school,” Kasmar said.
Delrosario, the instructor at Harbor College, says his graduates have been landing jobs all over the place – and not just in Los Angeles restaurants.
“I can’t crank out enough grads to fulfill all the needs,” he said.
Some of his students have gone to work in the homes of wealthy families on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, for instance.
Even more unique is the partnership Harbor College has forged with a group of restaurants in Australia, whose economy is booming. Since August, at least a dozen of the college’s students have taken jobs Down Under, where starting salaries run as high as $45,000.
One of Delrosario’s students, 23-year-old Minor De Leon of Gardena, even lucked into the Playboy Mansion, where he works as a junior chef making dishes for Hugh Hefner and his playmates.
“When I wake up in morning, I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m on my way to the Playboy Mansion,'” said De Leon, who was drawn to the profession by cooking shows such as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and “Emeril Live.” “How many people get to say that every day? ”
Louis Zandalasini, chairman of professional studies at Mission College (and a chef), said it isn’t uncommon for corporate chefs to take home $80,000 to $100,000, though not all students can expect to reach that level. However, students can realistically expect to make $40,000 to $60,000, he said.
“When you’re making that kind of money, you’ve usually been in that particular job as executive chef for 10, 12 or 15 years,” he said.
For the vast majority of entry-level cooks, though, the starting pay ranges from $10 to $12 an hour.
The good news for the tidal wave of chefs-in-training is that Food TV also has had a zeitgeist effect on the consumer. Hence, the explosion of affordable restaurants (and food trucks) offering all manner of cosmopolitan cuisine: French delicacies, premium gelato, spicy seafood dips, wood-grilled this or that, center-of-the-plate desserts.
“There are so many more food and wine festivals, where the food is now the star,” Kiritani said. “It used to be you’d go and see a band play, and that was more exciting than the food. Now it has completely shifted. ”
Kasmar of Los Angeles Trade Tech is thankful for the enrollment boost they’ve inspired. After all, it has fueled future plans for a $36 million renovation to his facility, whose new incarnation is scheduled to open in 2016. But there’s been a downside.
“They glorified what we do, and what we do is really not glorious,” he said. “It’s hard friggin’ work. “