mario.jpgI’ll admit it, I’m addicted to food TV; and I’m also a closet foodie. I like to cook. I like talking about cooking, and I love to eat. But should I be a chef?

I don’t think I should, but secretly I dream about it. Come on, admit it; it’s your secret passion too. Well, maybe not a secret passion for many of you because it turns out cooking schools are bursting at the seams.

Enrollment in culinary schools is booming; and Mark Erickson, vice president/dean for The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), told me a while back that: “People are re-pondering the importance of food in our lives. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that food is a topic on the national agenda. People are thinking about the health, social and political implications food has and it’s a wonderful time to think about a career in the food profession.”

This, my foodie friends, is a good and bad thing.

Even if you pay the thousands of dollars in tuition, anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000, to go to culinary school there is no guarantee you’ll land a plum chef gig. Those jobs are highly competitive, but the grunt jobs at restaurants, including line cooks and food preps are plentiful, albeit not very stable. And forget about benefits such as health care and paid sick days, that’s just not part of the culinary profession’s landscape.

The government is actually cracking down on culinary schools that lure students — using federal loans to pay for the education — to their doors by promising them a too-good-to-be-true Bobby Flay type life. The crackdown started after the Government Accountability Office released the results of an investigation of for-profit schools of all types and found major fraud.

This from the GAO report:

Undercover tests at 15 for-profit colleges found that 4 colleges encouraged fraudulent practices and that all 15 made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements to GAO’s undercover applicants. Four undercover applicants were encouraged by college personnel to falsify their financial aid forms to qualify for federal aid–for example, one admissions representative told an applicant to fraudulently remove $250,000 in savings. Other college representatives exaggerated undercover applicants’ potential salary after graduation and failed to provide clear information about the college’s program duration, costs, or graduation rate despite federal regulations requiring them to do so.

Indeed, a story on National Public Radio just this week found that many culinary grads didn’t find cooking bliss and a great paycheck after school.

Here’s an excerpt that looks at

Roger Hollis, who’s facing an unexpected career change. “I’m a mechanical engineer, and I lost my job after 25 years — the construction industry’s really hurting. I’m 52 with a 7-year-old, so I decided to follow my passion and go back to school for cooking.”

Hollis says he has taken out thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for an associate degree in cooking. Despite his work experience and his expensive degree, he’ll still be starting at the bottom, as a line cook. “Twelve, 15 [dollars] maybe an hour, yeah.”

Many former students say that with that income, it’s virtually impossible to keep up with their student loan payments. Newbies may spend years as a line cook; the average salary, according to the online industry magazine Star Chefs, is less than $29,000 a year.

And those are the hard to get good-paying jobs folks. Food prep employees hold the distinction of being the lowest-paid Americans bringing in a measly $8.71 an hour, or $18,000 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But if you don’t mind thinking outside the restaurant box, the food job opportunities could be more lucrative and a bit easier to get.

“Food is the second largest employer after the federal government,” said Irena Chalmers, author of “Food Jobs: 150 Great Jobs for Culinary Students, Career Changers and Food Lovers.” The industry is huge, she maintained, “but people tend to think of food as cooking and chefs in a restaurant. That’s a tiny part.”

Chalmers said there are a host of opportunities if you want to cook, including kitchens in nursing homes, retirement centers, personal chefs in people’s homes, and even supermarkets that are doing more prepared food for time-crunched consumers. Non-cooking jobs, she says, run the gamut from nutritional experts to food safety jobs, to research and development positions for corporations.

Dennis Pitchford used to work for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra doing marketing but decided to take his business background and combine it with one of his other loves, food. He graduated from the CIA last June and is now working as Executive Business Development Chef for Lincoln, Merrychef and Merco at Manitowoc Foodservice.

When he went to culinary school, he admits he considered whether he’d be a famous chef like the ones he’s seen on TV. “But school straightened me out,” he quips.

More and more people are also looking to careers in nutrition, said Joan Salge Blake, clinical associate professor at Boston University and a spokeswomen for the American Dietetic Association. The economy, she said, has caused people to rethink their career choices. “I don’t like to call this a recession, I like to call this a resetting. People are resetting what they want to do with their lives,” she explains.

And that’s a great thing. Just be realistic about what a culinary degree can get you. Yes, you could be the next Rachel Ray, but do we really need another one?

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