Last year, the Le Cordon Bleu London cookery school, Leith’s School of Food and Wine, and Mountain Chefs School ” which trains ski chalet chefs ” reported a huge rise in enrollment and inquires for classes. The Institute of Culinary Education had a record-setting 20,000 inquiries for enrollment, up more than 12 percent from the previous year.
“The Food Network and shows like Top Chef’ showed that cooking can be cool, that it’s an art form,”said Dustin Anderson who graduated three years ago from Oxnard College where they train aspiring chefs and restaurant managers. Andersen now owns his own catering company. “It’s one industry where there’s always jobs. Everybody needs to eat, and they still want a place to do that”
The explosion of Reality TV has given birth to a new form of venerated TV star with a fling for on-stage cooking. Wannabe chefs dream of enrolling in chef school in order to capture the world’s attention and attain rock star status, replete with a celebrated television show, road trips, free restaurant coupons, and live concert-like cooking events.
But is the rush for foodie bliss and celebrity fame a whipped cream mirage in the low paying steamy restaurant kitchens of hopes and dreams? A closer look at the culinary industry reveals a harsher and more brutal landscape — light years away from the stage lights on the set of Food Network, or the suave charm of El Bulli, overlooking Cala Montjoi bay on Catalonia’s Costa Brava.
For chefs there are no Thanksgiving celebrations with family, no Christmas gatherings, and least of all leisurely weekends.
Most successful chefs began at the bottom — they spent hours peeling potatoes, lifting heavy pots, and slicing roast beef in a long gray line of sweaty kitchens. The work is physically demanding and requires standing all day.
“That it is all glamor and no hard work, says Chef Julio-Cesar Florez of Mirabelle, “when it is the complete opposite. You have to be ready to humble yourself, you will be taking out trash, sweeping and mopping floors, and doing lots and lots of cleaning. Cooks have short tempers and alot of them are not patient. Cooking can be a messy job, it is stressful, and kitchens are hot”
People change careers because they think being a chef is all about being on TV and parties and champagne, says Chef Steve Mendoza of Las Chicas Locas. “It takes a lot of long hours with very little pay, all nights, weekends, holidays, no insurance, no personal life and lots of cuts, burns and mental anguish to be a chef. It takes a special kind of crazy to want to do this”
When Chef Sam Freund of One if by Land in NYC entered culinary school he had 15 close friends. “Only two of us are cooking professionally today. People think cooking is glamorous…They don’t realize that it’s a daily commitment of a tremendous amount of time and energy and you have to have a passion for it to continue with it”
And there is no ranking of top chef schools like there are for business and liberal arts institutions in the Princeton Review or U.S. News and World Reports. While a culinary education may help, most graduates work for low wages making it difficult to pay off student loans.
“In fact there’s a mere $300 difference in salary between degree-holders and non-degree-holders. The restaurant industry seems to be rewarding experience over education; ambitious youngsters and career-changers might do better to spend culinary school tuition on racking up unpaid experience in foreign kitchens.”
White executive chefs are the highest earners; while women are — you guessed it — paid substantially less than men. If you’re a chef de cuisine your earning potential is best at a hotel or catering operation.
Earnings in all chef categories vary by state and restaurant type. In 2009, an executive chef in New York state made almost $4,000 more than an executive chef in Florida; last year, sous chefs and chefs de cuisine made more at a hotel or catering company. And executive chefs and pastry chefs did better in earnings working for kitchens of private country clubs.
Restaurant industry salaries took a big hit in 2008, but in 2009, executive chefs saw a increase in pay with salaries averaging 6.1% growth at $79,402. Pastry chefs also made more with salaries showing a 5.7% increase at $48,861.
Meanwhile, according to StarChefs.com, sous chef and line cook salaries took a dive, down 4.4% and 2.6% respectively, widening the gap between the upper and lower rungs of the professional ladder in the kitchen — sous chefs averaged $42,266 and line cooks averaged $29,662.
Our advise — try it out before making the investment. Work in a few kitchens and get to know the field. If you still love it, then it is definitely for you.
“Basically,” says Chef Steve Mendoza, “you have to really love to cook and be willing to endure the physical requirements of the job and work hard for a very long time before you start to see the fruits of your labors. Becoming a chef is not for the weak of mind or heart.”