Too many top chefs for the kitchens

Not that long ago, cooking was a blue-collar profession.


It sounded so exciting.

My friend Carrie’s sister was living the dream. She was taking an interest in food well past obsession and into the stage of actually doing something about it. She loved baking. She wanted to become a baker. So she enrolled into the baking program at the Culinary Institute of America.

The Culinary Institute of America (everyone there calls it the CIA, but certain people hear those initials and think of something else) is the most prestigious culinary school in the country. They call themselves “The World’s Premier Culinary College,” though some folks associated with Le Cordon Bleu might have a difference of opinion. Still, the CIA is the best in America, and many of the biggest names in the cooking world have passed through the doors of its lovely Hyde Park, N.Y., campus (it also now has locations in California, Texas, and Singapore).

Carrie’s sister was in the 21-month associate program in baking and pastry arts, so for 21 months Carrie’s friends pestered her for details. What was her sister learning? What was she baking? How was she enjoying it?

This sister, the object of our envy, received her degree from the institute and, as you might expect from someone with parchment from the CIA in hand, quickly found a job in a bakery.

Two months later, she decided she hated waking up at 2 a.m. to begin the day’s baking. She quit the business altogether and, the last I heard, she was working as a clerk or something at a Social Security office.

The story of Carrie’s sister came to mind recently (though her first name did not) when I was reading Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant, by Scott Haas. Mr. Haas is a clinical psychologist and food writer who spent 18 months — he almost could have earned an associate degree in baking — observing the kitchen and the personalities who inhabit it at the well-respected Craigie on Main in Boston.

The book sometimes clunkily combines psychological insight with fascinating depictions of life in a restaurant kitchen. One brief section in particular arrested my eye.

Not that long ago, it says, cooking was a blue-collar profession. Cooks did not think about advancement, they did not think about much of anything except cooking the food the best they could and getting it to the customers while it was still hot.

“There was no Food Network, there were no food shows, and there weren’t many celebrity chefs,” Mr. Haas writes.

Then he quotes the restaurant chef’s mother, who says that everything changed when the Culinary Institute of America added a course in media relations. Most of the graduates would never actually become a chef, the top position at the best restaurants; most by far wind up as line cooks, who toil away at specific stations (such as the grill or cooking the hot appetizers) at a restaurant kitchen.

But the course in media relations got them thinking that they could become famous chefs one day.

“I think that was a disservice,” the chef’s mother says.

And then the author, Mr. Haas, makes a thoughtful supposition. “Maybe that’s a problem with hiring cooks. ... Maybe they have the idea that line cooking is beneath them and that after a few months they can quit and open their own place or move up the ranks.”

According to the nonprofit Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, more than 700 schools across the country now offer culinary classes, and some of the larger ones, such as the Culinary Institute of America, have more than 2,800 students enrolled at any time. It is simple math: That is more students than can possibly be expected to claim the main leadership position at the highest level of restaurants.

It is the expectations that lead to disappointment, not the quality of the education. Culinary schools, including the one at Owens Community College (I proudly serve on the advisory board) teach all you could possibly want to know about cooking and running a restaurant. They even teach the important things you don’t think about, such as sanitation and the principles of hospitality.

Culinary schools are irreplaceable. But before you go, you have to know what you are getting into.

Contact Daniel Neman at 
or 419-724-6155.