Burnt Chefs

Former admissions representatives at CCA say they preyed on students’ dreams of becoming celebrity chefs and glossed over the painful economic realities of the industry

Abdel Lebbar, 41 years old, immigrated from Morocco 14 years ago. He was working in graphic design when the dot-com crash made the jobs in his field disappear, forcing him to make a new plan. "All my friends told me, 'Abdel, you're missing your calling. You're a great cook,'" he remembers. So in spring of 2002 he called up CCA, he says, and the admissions people told him it was the best culinary school in the West. When he went to the office for an interview, he claims the counselor who sat down with him lied to him.

"She said, 'When you graduate, you're probably going to make $45,000,'" he says. "She showed me statistics on how their students were doing. I thought, 45 to start with, that's great." He knew he'd be paying back his student loans after graduation, he says, "but I thought, 'With 45, I can manage. I can have roommates and start repaying my loans.'"

Lebbar's parents weren't in a position to help him out, and he had no savings and bad credit. But the financial aid counselor told him not to worry, and signed him up for $42,000-worth of Sallie Mae loans to cover school tuition and fees. Then he got another $15,000 loan to cover his living expenses during the program.

The enormity of what he'd done didn't hit Lebbar until after he graduated in 2004, when he started looking for work. He says that several times, when a chef saw the name CCA on his resume, her eyebrows would lift, or a smile would flit across her face. "I realized, CCA doesn't mean anything," he says bitterly. "It's one of the most expensive cooking schools in the nation — but I didn't realize, expensive doesn't equal a good reputation."

Now, he works on the management side of a catering company, and makes $15 per hour. (He stopped looking for cooking jobs several years ago, because many pay even less.) He has put his loans in forbearance several times, but in July he has to resume making monthly payments of $1,250. The money left over from his paycheck won't be enough to cover his rent, car payments, and other bills, Lebbar says. "I foresee it," he says, "I'm going to be living in my car." He has already worked out the contingency plan — his company has an on-site gym, so he'll arrive at work early to shower and shave in the locker room each day.

When Lebbar decided to go to CCA, he was full of optimism. "I wanted to better myself, I was looking for the American dream," he says. Now, with his loan balance up to $83,000, he's not looking anymore. "What is the American dream?" he asks bitterly. "Is it to be covered in debt?"

His complaints are echoed by many of the students and graduates whom SF Weeklyspoke with. Looking back on the admissions process, many say the counselors pressured them or misled them. Many remember being told that an admission board would have to consider their application, and say they brought in transcripts and resumes to convince their admissions reps that they were worthy of an elite school.

Most graduates said that they had some excellent chef instructors who were devoted to their craft and dedicated to their students. But the former students also told of instructors who had no business in a classroom. Brook Gossard, who now works at Bar Tartine, remembers an instructor from France who barely spoke English, and who didn't know what a syllabus was. Another former student, Daniel (who asked that his last name not be used), remembers the teacher for his advanced wine studies class. "She said, 'I've never drunk anything in my life. I had a glass of wine on my 18th birthday and I threw up.'"

Then, there were the classmates. Serious students complain that CCA's open-door admissions policy was combined with a policy of passing everyone through to graduation, regardless of performance. They tell of students who made it to the final class without learning basic techniques, like how to julienne a vegetable (to the kitchen-averse, that means to cut it into thin strips), or how to make a consommé (a slowly simmered soup made from meat and bouillon).

The most disturbing story comes from a culinary class that graduated in August 2006. Alan Livingston recalls a student who was transferred into his class who had severe learning or mental disabilities; it was clear to everyone that he didn't belong in school. Livingston remembers one day in their baking and pastry class, when each student brought their finished product to the front of the room for critique. "He made a peanut butter and jelly pizza ... it's hard to describe," he says.

Another student from Livingston's class confirmed the account of the troubled student, and added that in the last class, the student got yelled at because he literally couldn't figure out how to boil water. Both say they thought it was outrageous that the student was passed through to graduation without learning basic skills. "Someone should have said, 'Stop, save your money,'" says Livingston. "I thought it was very unethical."

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