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In the Polk Street admissions office of the California Culinary Academy, oversized posters display pictures of three of the school's graduates. The three were named "Rising Star Chefs" by the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year, and the school is bursting with pride. The posters make effective recruiting tools admissions representatives can point to them and tell prospective students that a CCA education is the key to gastronomic fame and glory.
Maybe CCA should have asked the three rising stars how they would feel about serving as photo advertisements for the school.
James Syhabout, who heads PlumpJack Café's kitchen, is the most measured in his evaluation of CCA but he graduated in 1999, before the school was purchased by a large for-profit education company. "I know the school has definitely changed since I've been there," he said.
Tim Luym, who cooks at the Poleng Lounge in Nopa, said he found the school "a little deceptive." He says no one explained that many graduates of the expensive school go on to kitchen jobs that pay $10 per hour. "They don't really give you the reality of how much you'll be making," he says. "They never give you financials."
The third chef, Chris Kronner of the Slow Club in Potrero Hill, says the school does not have the best interest of the students at heart. "For me it seemed that it was more about money it was more a body factory, and not as much about education," he says. Kronner also claims that students were pushed along toward graduation with little concern for whether or not they had actually learned anything. "As long as you pay your $50,000, they will give you a degree," he says. When his class graduated in 2003, Kronner and some of his classmates discussed putting together a lawsuit to get their money back.
CCA once had a distinguished reputation for turning out passionate and creative chefs. Many of San Francisco's restaurants are populated with its graduates, and beyond the Bay Area, people still know its name. But the academic atmosphere has changed since Career Education Corporation bought the school in 1999. In the first two years of the company's ownership, the number of culinary students increased from 442 to 1,868. By the time former student Alan Livingston enrolled in May 2005, "it had a factory feel to it," he says, and tuition for the 15-month culinary program was up to $45,000. Today, it's about $47,000.
SF Weekly spoke with more than two dozen applicants, students, and graduates of CCA, and found a pattern of serious complaints. Many former students say admissions representatives told them whatever they thought the applicants needed to hear to get them to sign on the dotted line. The students claim admissions reps said it was a prestigious school that they would be lucky to gain admission to, when it actually admits anyone eligible for a student loan. The graduates say they were misled about the terms of their loans; many have since realized that by the time they finish making payments, they'll have paid more than $100,000 for just 15 months of school. Finally, the students and graduates we spoke to were told that a CCA degree virtually guaranteed them a well-paying job at an elite restaurant. In fact, the majority went on to low-paying kitchen jobs and many soon left the food industry entirely in search of salaries that would pay off their student debt.
Two former admissions representatives who worked at CCA confirm that students were misled. The former employees say admissions reps preyed on students' dreams of becoming celebrity chefs, and glossed over the painful economic realities of the industry. The two women describe a high-pressure sales environment where the reps were focused solely on meeting enrollment numbers, not on finding students who would benefit from the program.
CCA's parent company, Career Education Corporation, has faced similar accusations against some of its other schools the corporation has recently been hit with eight lawsuits from disgruntled students around the country. Federal officials have begun to ask questions, too, and both the Education Department and the Justice Department have ongoing inquiries regarding Career Education. CCA has essentially gotten a free pass from the state regulators, however, as has every other for-profit college in California. The agency's enforcement program is so ineffectual, state officials are allowing it to shut down this summer while they try to create a better alternative.
The president of CCA, Ann Gibson, said in a written response that she was disappointed to hear of the students' complaints. "California Culinary Academy is proud of the Le Cordon Bleu culinary education we have provided to students over the years, and we are proud of our many happy students, graduates, and successful alumni," she wrote. Gibson wrote that students should expect to start in entry-level positions after graduation, but that their CCA training should give them an advantage as they try to climb the career ladder.
You wouldn't know it from talking to Ron Siegel, chef at the Ritz-Carlton's prestigious Dining Room restaurant and one of CCA's most famous graduates. He attended the school around 1990, and went on to win televised glory as the first American to win Iron Chef. Siegel says he doesn't want any more CCA students in his kitchen. "The last one I took from there, the person came one time, and no-showed after that," he says. "I don't need that. So I probably wouldn't take anyone from there again."