Culinary School Is Hot

Chef students cooking school
AP
Enrollment is heating up at cooking schools across the country.

Aspiring chefs are braving the heat of the kitchen in record numbers. Just five years ago, there were about 250 culinary programs offering degrees. Today, there are over 400.

And, as The Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen reported on The Saturday Early Show, it's not just a hobby. Many people are cooking up second careers.

"There's definitely a rush when you're working in a hot kitchen," said culinary school student Mimi Klaric.

Cooking is Klaric's first love, but it wasn't her first career choice.

"I have an undergraduate degree in economics and I thought that I wanted to work in the money industry," she said.

After four years, Klaric left a successful career in finance to pursue her dream of becoming an executive chef. Like thousands of others, Klaric enrolled in culinary school.

"It is scary to start over," Klaric said. "I had a good paying job. Now, I'm kind of like scratching by to make ends meet."

When the California School of Culinary Arts first opened its doors in 1994, only three students applied to the school. Today, there is nearly 1,300 students - ample evidence that food is in fashion. But it's not just cooking that draws culinary acolytes - it's television.

The popularity of shows such as "Oliver's Twist," "Emeril Live" and "The Iron Chef" have fueled the interest in cooking careers.

"My ultimate goal is to own my own restaurant and eventually, I want to own my own television show," said culinary school student Micah Fields.

Culinary school instructor Brad Owen says many people shape their perception of a chef from television, but it is a distorted image of what a professional cook really is. He says cooking school is a baptism by fire.

"It's a lot of heat, a lot of running, a lot of preparation, a lot of hours," he said. "It is a very intense industry to work in."

But that doesn't discourage aspiring chefs with an appetite for fame.

"My goal is to cook for movie stars," said culinary school student Daniel Lopez.

Located just minutes from Hollywood, many of the California School of Culinary Arts instructors have served cuisine to the rich and famous.

"I've cooked for Harry Belafonte, Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, and the entire cast of 'Friends,'" said culinary School Instructor Richard Hyman. "I've cooked for the Queen of England - how about that?"

Graduates of the California School of Culinary Arts can earn a salary of $10 to $14 an hour on their first job. But if they pay their dues, the earning potential may be much more impressive.

"You're not [going] out of school and start as an executive chef somewhere," warned Hyman. "You're going to have to learn, and it helps get you through the paces a lot faster."

A head chef at a successful restaurant can make from $50,000 to $60,000 a year. An executive chef in the finest hotels can earn up to $120,000 annually.

From former accountants and police officers to retired broadcast engineers, people from all walks of life are getting into cooking careers.

But, achieving the culinary skills does not come cheap. A 15-month program at the California School of Culinary Arts can cost about the same as a year at New York University - about $35,000. And, just as in prestigious colleges, candidates for culinary schools have to go through a tough admissions process.

While applications to cooking schools are on the rise, restaurant sales in 2003 are expected to reach record numbers. Business is booming.

"People go to a restaurant because it's theater," said California School of Culinary Arts founder Christopher Becker. "It's the theater of food. And we're the performers on that stage. And when the curtain goes up and they're there for dinner, they want more than just food. They want an experience."

"I love to make something for someone else and know that they're happy," said Klaric.