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An Inside Look at America’s Finest Culinary Schools

by Matt DeLucia

Joel Robuchon

Imagine, if you will, a place of employment where individuals with varying skills and cultural backgrounds gather to work for 8, 10, 12 hours or more a day, 6 or 7 days a week. Working for that long, and in such close quarters literally until your legs are numb and your feet hurt and your toes start to curl, seems to be a rather challenging way to make a living. Somehow, the experience ends with the development of a family-like atmosphere, where strong relationships are formed between its participants, turning the small crowded room of stainless steel and tile into a second home for many of its workers - and into the only home for many others. Discovering this sense of community is to many the defining moment for chefs, waiters, and dishwashers alike. It is the glue that binds them, the invisible force that keeps people coming back every day to a job that usually pays less and demands more than most others might.

Before I visited the three culinary schools that are the subject of this article, I read through their brochures, visited their web sites, and looked through their lists of alumni. After significant research, I found equal shares of traits that these schools all shared, yet I also found just enough to set each one apart from the other; some subtle, others not so subtle. But after a visit and a tour of each campus, one revelation stood out head and shoulders above all else, as I walked past the long windows that provided glimpses into the student chef’s classroom activities. These were college students, yet everyone looked so...happy! Just like the restaurants where many of these students will one day begin their careers, a powerful sense of community was as evident as the wonderful smells that were escaping from the kitchen classrooms and into the long hallways. In addition to their educational goals, each of these school’s work environment seemed to have found a way to recreate the feeling of “belonging” to a special group of people, yet on a scale 10, 50, even 100 times larger than even the largest restaurant.

But the sight of so many joyous students doesn’t imply that the road to a culinary degree is easy – or inexpensive. While culinary programs are one of the hottest college programs in the nation (many culinary programs have seen consistent year to year double-digit percentage increases in new applicants), the cost for such programs has gone up considerably. Financial aid is available at all three of the schools we visited, and for many students this aid can make the difference between training for their dream job, or finding another road to travel. But for those willing and able to start the journey – and then finish it – the road generally ends in that most elusive of goals for many other colleges; a good job in the graduate’s chosen field. Most quality culinary schools boast placement rates in the high 90’s; numbers that most ordinary colleges and universities can only dream of.

One of the most important driving forces behind the increase in culinary students and the college programs that offer programs in culinary arts seems to be – well let’s just call it the “Food Network factor.” While we can only assume that very few young chefs or career-changers have realistic dreams of actually becoming the next Emeril, there’s no doubt in the minds of the marketing directors and admissions officers I spoke with that the star-chef phenomenon has not only increased the number of students in culinary arts, but it has also raised the bar of the quality of the students who are applying.

While searching through other expert’s recommendations on which culinary school to attend, some of the tips included “look for the best placement rates” or “find the school with the lowest teacher to student ratio.” While these are certainly laudable goals, the best advice I can offer is to not take anyone’s advice or pick a school based on the claims of the school’s marketing department. Visit the campus, talk to the teachers, and absorb the lifestyle, even if just for a few hours. The campus or facilities, the teachers, and the lifestyle of each of the three schools we are featuring here have their own style, their own traditions, their own inherent benefits. At least one of them should make any prospective culinary student, no matter how selective, rich beyond their wildest imaginations – that is, rich with knowledge.

The Institute of Culinary Education

New York, NY

The Institute of Culinary Education is New York City’s largest and most active center for culinary education. Its 31 year history began in 1975 when Peter Kump began a modest culinary school operation where he and a few other teachers taught small classes in rented apartments through the city. Kump had taken cooking lessons with James Beard, and would eventually help to create the James Beard Foundation before passing away due to liver cancer in 1995 at the young age of 57.

Enter Rick Smilow. Instead of the school losing its sense of direction after the death of its founder, Smilow energized it. Since 1995, the school has grown tremendously in terms of enrollment, programs and physical space. After moving from its original East 92nd street building to its present location on 23rd street in late 1995, ICE had subsequent expansions in 1999 and 2005, bringing the facility’s total square footage to over 42,000, spread out over five floors.

The facilities include twelve teaching kitchens and four traditional classrooms, all outfitted with optimum equipment, including Vulcan ranges and ovens, Traulsen refrigerators, and Hobart mixers. The kitchens used for recreational classes on the 12th floor include Viking ranges and KitchenAid mixers. On the 5th floor, the two professional pastry kitchens include steam-injected Bongard triple-deck ovens, and a professional-quality dough sheeter. The wine room was specially designed as a 900 square-foot facility with full ventilation. The school’s brand new, expanded reference library and career services offices are also on the 6th floor. Computer terminals are available to all students seven days a week.

Walking through the halls during our tour, it became quite clear to us that a large percentage of students at ICE were older career changers, as opposed to the younger college-aged crowd we saw at the other two culinary schools. Here, we saw young men in classrooms and kitchens, along with men and women who could have been their parents. When we took a photo of some of the students, the teacher asked if anyone in the class objected, explaining to us that many students are there in their spare time, and their other job’s bosses don’t know they are training for a new life/career change. ICE also has developed their recreational cooking program into the largest in the nation, offering over 1600 “hands-on” courses per year to the general public.

The Institute of Culinary Education is a major supporter of C-CAP (Careers Through Culinary Arts Programs), a New York based, national non-profit organization founded in 1990 by culinary educator and author Richard Grausman. The mission of C-CAP is to train teachers to work with at-risk youth to seek careers in the food service industry through culinary arts education, classroom instruction and work-based learning opportunities. C-CAP’s programs take place in high schools in cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. School President Rick Smilow is a board member of C-CAP. We asked president Smilow to answer a few questions to give us his view on what ICE has to offer and what makes his school stand apart from the crowd.

A Restaurant Insider Q&A with ICE president Rick Smilow

 Q: What experiences in your past led to your becoming the president of a major culinary school?

A: Growing up, I always enjoyed school and learning. Meanwhile, I loved the world of food and restaurants. Professionally, in my thirties, I made the switch from corporate executive to entrepreneur. So, in 1995, when I had the unexpected opportunity to acquire a culinary school, it was a natural and easy decision.

Q: What roles and responsibilities do you perform as president, and what steps do you take to continually improve the quality of your school?

A: My main role is to provide overall direction and strategy, as well as to serve as the quarterback of quality control. To improve quality, we are always evaluating and/or implementing change. In my 11 years at ICE, the biggest manifestation of change and improved quality has been three physical expansions within our building - projects which I spearheaded.

Q: Besides the people – instructors, students, etc –what do you think makes your school stand out from the hundreds of other culinary schools in the U.S.?

A: Three thoughts come to mind - our passion, location and market. The ages of our student body range from 18 - 60, but our primary market focus is the 20-30 year old career changer. We offer them highly effective, successful diploma programs which are shorter in duration and lower in cost than the typical culinary school’s degree program. Therefore, we save our students tremendous time and money. Furthermore, New York City is America’s culinary capital. This is reflected in our teaching staff, ingredients and environment, and it means our externship sites are some of the most noted restaurants in America. We frequently place students at Per Se, Union Square Café, Nobu, Jean-Georges and Restaurant Daniel. With regards to our passion, everyone who works and teaches at ICE really enjoys being in the culinary education world. This is all we do - we don’t have other programs competing for our attention and are not part of a larger college or corporate structure. ICE is a big school that offers students an intimate learning environment.

Q: What qualities do you look for when hiring new instructors?

A: Over the years, we have continually raised the bar and have been more selective in the process of hiring new Chef-Instructors. Candidates need the “hard skill” of great cooking technique and food knowledge. We also require the “soft skill” of communication, patience and the ability to inspire diverse groups of students.

Q: When a prospective student walks in off the street to apply, can you tell if he or she will become a good student?

A: Yes and no. It’s like any other personality evaluation process. First impressions are usually accurate, but some people are better at making a first impression than at long-term follow through. Obviously, it takes a lot of hard work and commitment to succeed in the culinary world. More times than not, hard work is fueled by passion. One of the reasons people come to culinary school is to find out if they have the passion to make it and succeed.

Q: What upcoming changes in your school are you most excited about in the coming years?

A: As for our core business in New York City, we don’t have plans to change much, as we are very proud of what we offer and have built. It took a lot of time, effort and investment to get to this point. On a macro basis, it’s time to consider more dramatic, new initiatives that may include: schools in new markets, long distance learning programs, foreign joint-ventures or entering the catering or restaurant business.

Q: Does your school go through any evaluation of accreditation process in your state?

A: Yes, we are licensed by New York State and accredited nationally by the ACCSCT (Accrediting Commission of Career Schools & Colleges of Technology). Recently, we received a great honor, a “School of Distinction” designation, from the ACCSCT. In the last five years, only ten culinary schools in America have received this award, and ICE is the only one in New York City. What does it say about ICE when 100% of the students surveyed would “recommend the school to a friend?”

The Culinary Institute of America

Hyde Park, NY

Culinary Institute of America  The Culinary Institute of America is the country’s oldest culinary school, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, and its history is as diverse as the school’s educational offerings. CIA first opened its doors in 1946 as the New Haven Restaurant Institute, a small regional cooking school created to help train and integrate veterans returning home from the Second World War back into America’s growing postwar economy. The school quickly outgrew its first downtown New Haven building after only a year, and moved into a larger one nearby on the Yale campus, where its name was changed once again – to the Restaurant Institute of Connecticut. By the late 1960’s the culinary facilities were bursting at the seams with over 1000 students, and the school’s administrators began an exhaustive search for a newer, more permanent place to call home. They were very fortunate to find an empty 150-room building situated on 80 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Hyde Park New York, and bought it for $1 million in 1970. The building was St. Andrew-on-Hudson, a former Jesuit seminary, and the new location certainly had its advantages – beautiful grounds and incredible architectural elements among them – but it also required a substantial $4 million renovation over two years. Just recently, another renovation was completed, including new classrooms and kitchens, five new residence halls, an admissions center, and Anton Plaza – all in all a spectacular new outdoor center for campus life.

The CIA campus now boasts more than 41 kitchens and bakeshops, 5 student run restaurants, 135 full-time faculty members, and the nation’s largest private culinary library. The college enrolls more than 2,400 students in its degree programs. Roth hall is the centerpiece of the now 170-acre facility. It contains teaching rooms, a kitchen theatre, administrative offices, the campus store, and three of its five restaurants – American Bounty, Escoffier Restaurant, and the Apple Pie Bakery. Next door is the Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine, a colorful villa-style building that contains hands-on classrooms and several training kitchens, as well as the Ristorante Caterina De’ Medici. Just across from the Colavita Center is the Conrad Hilton library, a 1993 new addition to the campus, boasting among its brick walls over 70,000 volumes and 3,500 videos. At the far end of campus sits the CIA’s state of the art 52,000 square foot recreation facility that offers students a gymnasium, raquetball courts, a 6-lane natatorium, fitness center, and dozens of other intramural activities.

The Culinary Institute has four residence halls sprinkled throughout the campus site, where over 1,100 students reside. Angell, Pick-Herndon and Rosenthal Halls were built in the early 1970’s and house approximately 240 to 300 students per building. Hudson Hall opened its doors in 1986 and houses 350 students.

The CIA offers 2 degree programs: a 4-year bachelor’s degree (B.P.S.) and a 2-year associate degree (A.O.S.). With more than 37,000 alumni, even a short list of its alumni reads like a “who’s who” of the food world, including Alfred Portale, Charlie Palmer, David Burke, Larry Forgione, , Waldy Malouf, Anthony Bourdain, Sara Moulton, Cat Cora, Rick Moonen, Gary Danko, Roy Yamaguchi, Jonathon Benno, Todd English, Shea Gallante, Andrew Carmellini, Scott Conant, Don Pintabona, Sam Hazen, Grant Aschatz, Michael Mina – these are just some of the more notable examples.

Tim Ryan, who graduated from the CIA in 1977 and helped to create the American Bounty Restaurant, was named president of the school 5 years ago. Ryan has the distinction of passing the Certified Master Chef examination from the American Culinary Federation at the age of 26 – still the youngest person to reach this accomplishment – and he also earned a doctoral degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

A Restaurant Insider Q&A with CIA president Tim Ryan

 Q: What experiences in your past led to your becoming the president of a major culinary school?

A: My story is unique, but like many people in the restaurant industry, I started young—at age 13, washing dishes at a restaurant in Pittsburgh, which is where I grew up. From the moment I stepped into that kitchen—I loved it. Soon, I was doing prep work, then cooking. I threw myself into the work, came early, stayed late, and read everything about food, cooking, chefs, and the restaurant business that I could lay my hands on.

By the time I was in high school, I had decided that I wanted to be a chef, but wanted to continue my schooling. I went to the library and started doing research, I also spoke to many industry people—and all sources pointed me in the same direction---to The Culinary Institute of America. I applied, got accepted—and spent several wonderful years as a student at the CIA.

Following graduation, I built my professional experience as a chef in the restaurant industry. During that time, I traveled extensively in France, because at that time—the greatest chefs were French, and young Americans like me aspired to be the American version of Paul Bocuse. I was happily engaged in running a French restaurant, and focused on pursuing my dream of becoming an American Bocuse when I was approached by the CIA and asked if I would consider joining the faculty and helping to develop the CIA’s American Bounty Restaurant. While I had not contemplated teaching, or focusing on American cooking , especially given the fact that there were few quality restaurants featuring American cuisine, I decided that it would be an interesting assignment for a couple of years. We opened The Amercian Bounty in 1982, which was right at the beginning of what some now refer to as the American Food Revolution, and I’ve been at the CIA, serving in a variety of capacities since that time. Seems like yesterday!.

Q: What roles and responsibilities do you perform as president, and what steps do you take to continually improve the quality of your school?

A: A college president wears many hats! I am the ultimate champion of our mission and values to all audiences. I envision new educational and industry services, and lead the strategic thinking and planning that make them a reality. I expect CIA excellence to permeate everything we do, and charge my leadership team to deliver superior value to our students and industry partners accordingly. I guide our internal staff culture to be student-centric, innovative and performance-based, and have them measure, measure, measure results to assure we are moving ahead. I work to assure that our resources and endowment are ever growing, and invite support from the greater food world. Oh, and I pick up the stray cigarette butt I see on my campus rounds – no kidding! Why? because if you are dedicated to excellence in education and hospitality the details count, and setting that example starts at the top.

Q: Besides the people – instructors, students, etc – what do you think makes your school stand out from the hundreds of other culinary schools in the U.S.?

A: No other culinary school has our depth of resources. More than 125 full-time instructors from 16 countries make up the CIA’s prestigious international faculty, which has the broadest base of foodservice experience of any culinary school in the world. Some other schools have done a clever job of affiliating themselves with big name food personalities, often giving them titles such as “Dean”. Unfortunately, these big names have many other priorities, and as such - are not full-time faculty members or administration. They may make several appearances a year, which is nice, but CIA does not take that approach. Our faculty and administration are highly qualified, and dedicated full-time to ensuring that CIA provides the world’s best culinary education. The CIA’s education team includes the most American Culinary Federation – Certified Master Chefs (C.M.C.’s) in culinary education, and CIA faculty are also distinguished as certified culinary educators (C.E.C.’s) In addition, culinary stars from around the world visit the campus and provide demonstrations and lectures.

Our 170 acre campus perched above the Hudson River is unparalleled. With more than 41 kitchens and bakeshops and five public restaurants at our Hyde Park, NY campus, the CIA environment offers both an extraordinary culinary education and a traditional college experience. In addition to our first-class educational facilities, the New York campus features nine contemporary residence halls, one of the world’s largest culinary library collections, a student recreation center and sports fields.

Q: When a prospective student walks in off the street to apply, can you tell if he or she will become a good student?

A: Prospective students ask me all the time for advice. When I meet a student, some of the more important characteristics I look for are a willingness to learn, a passion for food, and a dedication to personal goals, as well as flexibility to capitalize on opportunities as they present themselves.

Q: What upcoming changes in your school are you most excited about in the coming years?

A: I am excited about recent advances, such as our accelerated degree program for students with advanced experience and the growth in our Bachelor’s program resources and enrollment. I am even more excited about new work to further innovate our curriculum and broaden the professional reach of our degrees. Beyond this, our future definitely holds a Master’s degree offering. I can’t go into details yet, but there is much more to come.

At our California campus, located in the Napa Valley, I am excited about our opportunity to advance wine education and launch new initiatives for professional development and industry research. We have recently opened the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies; The Ventura Foods Center for Research and Development; and The Williams Center for Flavor Discovery.

Johnson & Wales

Providence, RI

Johnson & Wales Providence, RIThe people at Johnson & Wales like to say that they are “More than a cooking school,” for they offer a culinary career education with a full university experience. Since its opening in 1914, their first and largest campus has been in Providence, Rhode Island, with over 9,000 students. Johnson & Wales is a private, nonprofit, accredited institution offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs in business, food service, education, hospitality and technology. The College of Culinary Arts was established in 1973 in Providence, and has evolved into one of the most respected in the world. Johnson & Wales has created chefs who are leaders in the field, including Tyler Florence, Emeril Lagasse, and Michelle Bernstein, and boasts a 98% employment record within 60 days of graduation.

Johnson and Wales has grown over the years to include four other campuses in North Miami, Denver, and Charlotte, North Carolina. Associate degrees offered at the various schools include culinary arts, bakery and pastry arts, and culinary nutrition, and they also have top-notch continuing education programs for culinary professionals, as well as work-study programs in Thailand, Singapore, and Germany. The Providence campus is home to the Culinary Archives and Museum, where a collection of more than a half million food-related items are stored. The Providence campus also features specialized labs that help culinary students achieve their goals of a well-rounded culinary education. A mixology lab that simulates a nightclub, a microbiology lab to study nutrition, a computer lab with 128 networked and Internet-ready multimedia computers, and a temperature-controlled meat lab dedicated to the fine art of butchering are four examples of this dedication.

If you qualify, you can also work at some of the most famous places in the world by participating in a selective career cooperative (co-op) education assignment, and receive pay in addition to academic credit. Co-op employers include hotels, restaurants, country clubs, resorts, spas, contract food service providers and casinos. A sampling of recent co-op placements for culinary students include the French Laundry, Ritz Carlton at Amelia Island, The Breakers Palm Beach, Charlie Trotters, The Mansion at Turtle Creek, John & Celeste, Per Se, Grand Geneva Resort, Marriott Marco Island, Italy’s Le Tre Fonti, France’s Chateau du Montriel, and Ireland’s Sheen Falls Lodge.

When we asked Johnson & Wales President John Bowen what type of student might succeed at J&W, he said that “If a student is goal and career-oriented, that is usually a strong indicator for success at J&W. There are students you can point to on day one and say, ‘they’re going places,’ and then some students definitely surprise you – those who improve and grow under the guidance and education of the faculty members at the University.”

Johnson & Wales is also committed to making college more affordable, making a significant investment in financial aid which will help to eliminate some of the debt burden that students would otherwise accumulate. For the 2005-2006 academic year Johnson & Wales gave students $75 million in institutional aid alone.

A Restaurant Insider Q&A with Johnson & Wales president John Bowen

John Bowen

Q: What experiences in your past led to your becoming the president of a major culinary school?

A: I enrolled at a culinary school, aspiring to be a chef. On day 2, I had an epiphany and wanted to be president of a culinary college. I went on to receive a culinary arts associate degree, bachelor’s degree, and an advanced degree and was later awarded an honorary doctorate degree. Additionally, I gained industry experience and taught at CIA in the international food research and educational center. I am enjoying my 33rd year of service at Johnson & Wales University.

Q: What roles and responsibilities do you perform as president, and what steps do you take to continually improve the quality of your school?

A: Create a strategic vision for the future and develop a plan to successfully accomplish it. Over the last year and a half, I have led the effort of setting the course for our new strategic plan – FOCUS 2011 – and we are on the brink of launching this effort to take Johnson & Wales to the next level of accomplishment. Inherent to this plan are the ideals of raising the bar for ourselves, and enhancing the quality in all that we do. FOCUS 2011 will help us ensure we deliver on the promise we make to our students and to remain a respected contender in the higher education arena. Between now and 2011, we will use numerous quantitative and qualitative measures of our achievement, not only to assess progress, but also to promote improvement. Our milestones will center around the areas of academics and student life, admissions and enrollment, career services and resource development. I also develop alliances and partnerships with professional and industry contacts, and take steps to ensure open lines of communications between myself and students, myself and administrators, and faculty & staff and students – by establishing groups such as University Leadership Team, Campus Leadership Teams, and by maintaining an open door policy.

Q: Besides the people – instructors, students, etc – what do you think makes your school stand out from the hundreds of other culinary schools in the U.S.?

A: The College of Culinary Arts as part of a university system allows J&W to offer our culinary students many advantages they would not have at most other culinary schools. Over 60 clubs & organizations; competitive sports; the chance to experience life in residence halls; exposure to a diverse population (students from more than 90 countries); study abroad opportunities, etc. Students have six bachelor’s degree tracks to choose from, including baking & pastry arts, culinary arts, and culinary nutrition, when converting from an associate to a bachelor’s degree in the College of Culinary Arts. Partnerships with industry are also different from other culinary schools; not just about co-op, externships, and placements – also about deeply investing in each other’s businesses (e.g. covenant agreements; performance transcripts).

Q: What qualities do you look for when hiring new instructors?

A mix of education and industry experience is essential. We’re always looking for accomplished and talented chefs with top-notch industry experience. All prospective instructors are asked to complete a two-day bench test where department chairs and faculty have an opportunity to assess the candidate’s knowledge and skills – this gives current faculty the opportunity to participate in the selection process and to help guide the direction of the University.

Q: What upcoming changes in your school are you most excited about in the coming years?

A: J&W has made significant changes to its curriculum over the past couple of years to capture what is relevant to the industry and to focus more on basic skills and techniques mastered by students during their first year of studies. We are also in the process of developing plans for a new culinary laboratory and academic center on our Providence Campus which will give the University the facilities needed to continue setting the standards for culinary education and excellence.

Q: Does your school go through any evaluation of accreditation process in your state?

A: J&W has been evaluated in each of the states in which it operates for licensure/degree granting authority, thus our culinary program has undergone extensive review in a variety of settings. In particular, the Culinary Nutrition program offered at the Providence and Denver campuses has received programmatic accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE) of the American Dietetic Association, thus ensuring that students who graduate from that program are eligible for the internship required to become a registered dietician. The University itself is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the oldest of the six regional accrediting associations. Because it is regionally accredited, J&W undergoes periodic evaluations which include on-site visits by NEASC and preparations for reaccreditation include an extensive self-examination of all operations against NEASC’s Standards for Accreditation. J&W was first granted regional accreditation in 1993, and has been continuously accredited since that time.



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