Food for Thought

Cooking shows spur enrollment in culinary programs.
February 1, 2006

When she was a girl, Cheryl Janz, 57, loved to help her mother cook. “She thought nothing of doing a 24-pound turkey for Christmas, and a ham and a roast,” Janz says. “She let me help in the kitchen, but she’d say ‘you have to get a real job.’”

So, for a quarter century, Janz designed buildings for AT&T and Target. She confined her penchant for food service to a weekend hobby, catering parties with her friends.

Finally, Janz retired, built herself a house in Michigan, and settled down to ... boredom, she says. Looking for a new career, Janz realized that cooking has become a real job, a perceptual shift she attributes in part to the popularity of the Food Network, and the celebrity chefs it has created. “Way back when, chefs were just anybody you could pull off the street who could fry an egg. Now it’s a revered status.”

Janz sold the house she built, and is currently enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, which is often referred to as one of the top places for culinary education, in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Stephan Hengst, a spokesman for the institute and a chef himself, says that “food has become very popular. Chefs in the media are definitely attracting people who hadn’t thought of it as a career.”

Cable’s Food Network is an invaluable recruiting tool. The immensely popular show “Iron Chef,” in which all-star cooks compete to cook the best multicourse meal in an hour, was first broadcast in America in 2000. Since then, enrollment at the CIA -- as the Culinary Institute is known -- has risen from about 2,000 to 2,450, an all-time high. Faculty members at the institute, which grants associate and bachelor’s degrees, are generally professional chefs -- and a few have doctorates. The course of study is rigid, and includes some courses -- math, writing, economics, foreign language -- that can be found anywhere, with others -- intro to gastronomy, and garde mange -- that cannot. And, like just about every culinary program, students do an externship. 

While the CIA is an independent nonprofit, much of the growth has been, in the for-profit sector and at community colleges, where new associate degree programs have been appearing regularly. Officials at the American Culinary Federation, the largest organization of professional chefs in America, and an accrediting body for postsecondary culinary education, did not have exact numbers on the burgeoning number of programs, but said that the increase, in part, has caused the group to toughen accreditation standards.

Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College, a five-year-old for-profit, is one of those relatively new institutes, and spokesman Don Keith said that Culinard is “definitely playing to that audience” that tunes into the Food Network. In fact, Culinard promoted a cook-off for local high school teams that was the second ranked show in its time-slot when it aired on local TV. “It was opposite a college football game,” Keith said. “In this part of the country, that’s something.”

William Hunt, dean of culinary arts at the for-profit Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, said that the institute has remained stable at about 1,000 students for the last few years, but that “competition is fierce, there are a lot more schools out there now,” he said. To attract students, the institute, as have many others, started a hotel restaurant program, and a pastry arts program. The institute offers 16-month associate degrees – six hours of class a day, five days a week –  and has articulation agreements with Kent State University and Robert Morris College.

The Art Institute of Washington, another for-profit, is expanding programs because of the quick rise in applications. In 2003, the culinary arts associate program received 148 applications. In 2004, that number was 200, and in 2005 it was 227. So far this year, applications are on pace to set another record, according to Sara Cruley, director of admissions.

Every culinary college administrator interviewed had some anecdote about a student who enrolled largely because of his or her enthusiasm for a cooking show. Some administrators said the effect is especially pronounced for older students who, like Janz, were used to thinking of cooking as a hobby, not a career, replete with celebrities and its own version of ESPN (the 24-hour sports network).

Jim Eis, 53, spent most of his professional career as a mechanic. The recession in the late 1980s pushed Eis out of the automotive industry, so he found work as a bartender and then a line chef. As he’s gotten older, Eis’s health has begun to push him away from the long hours of standing that the kitchen demands. “I gotta’ get into something else,” said Eis, now a culinary student at the State University of New York at Cobleskill. “I’m more into teaching.” Eis credits a couple of familiar teachers with inspiring his own teaching.

“[Food Network stars] Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Sara Molton, when they go through things, they really demonstrate what they’re doing,” Eis said. “I tutor students here, and I’m able to do that with them.”

Like Janz, Eis noted that culinary programs are a natural fit for older students, and so are some culinary shows, like “Easy Entertaining,” where each episode features Michael Chiorello hosting his friends in Napa, California’s wine country. “At 35 and over is when you really start to entertain,” Eis said. “That’s when you’re interested in a show like that.”

Of course, life doesn’t necessarily imitate art, especially when the art is on TV. John D. Miller, chef director of the culinary program at the Art Institute of Washington said he’s heard some students say the Food Network has influenced their decision to study culinary arts, but that some of them are in for a rude awakening. “Other than maybe "Iron Chef," the Food Network doesn’t reflect the long hours, the hot conditions,” Miller said. “Obviously, that’s not so glamorous, so you don’t see it.” Still, Miller said, students don’t turn away when they find out that reality isn’t exactly like their favorite shows.

Even when the shows stray from reality, though, Miller said they can be a good teaching tool. “My kids will come in and say ‘would you prepare this like this? Or would that actually happen?’” he said. “They identify the fiction, so it’s a learning tool.” And, according to Miller, there are plenty of helpings of fiction. Take “The Restaurant,” a defunct NBC show, in which New York City celeb chef Rocco DiSpirito launches Rocco’s on 22nd St. In the show, DiSpirito, who obviously knows what it takes to be a successful chef, counts on his elderly mother to help him in the kitchen. “That’s not a decision you would ever make,” Miller said.

Thomas Recinella, a culinary arts professor at SUNY-Delhi, added that the restaurant based shows often talk about the business side of the culinary arts, a focus that Miller thinks sparked interest in some older students who made career changes from business. “A lot of career changers can transfer some of their business knowledge over pretty seamlessly,” he said.

Recinella, the American Culinary Federation’s 2003 chef educator of the year, said that the increase in career-changers is “definitely a trend.” About seven years ago, Recinella began to notice older students, from former firemen to lawyers, taking culinary classes. “It made you ask, ‘What made you choose culinary arts?’” he said. They’d reply, “Ya’ know, I saw such and such on TV and I’m sick of what I’m doing,” Recinella recalled. 
One potential drawback of the culinary spotlight is that some students end up with their own versions of hoop dreams. “We’re seeing kids that they are dead set on the fact that once they graduate they will become the next Emeril,” he said.

“Goals are great and dreams are great, but you have to be able to go from point A to point B without being too far off,” he added.

Recinella’s own favorite show is a bit more subdued. "Essence of Emeril" is his favorite, because “it’s just him in the kitchen with no audience. It’s not so much about the ‘wow’ stuff, it’s more about food than it is the show.”

But chefs on film are served in a variety of dishes these days, and Recinella said that he certainly indulges in a bit of devil’s food cake. “Who doesn’t love 'Iron Chef?'” he asked.


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