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

CCA also uses its career services as a selling point; the course catalog brags about the school's active job-placement assistance and its "industry connections" at the finest resorts and restaurants. What that translates to, say graduates, is career counselors who hand you lists of places where their students have gotten jobs in the past. When Sarah, who also asked that her last name be omitted, went to career services at the beginning of the school year to inquire about part-time work, the counselor suggested a job at the Gap. "I actually left crying," she says. Meanwhile, of the 11 people who finished the restaurant management class with her husband Daniel in 2006, three went to work at Starbucks afterward, two as baristas.

Many graduates believe that CCA is flooding the Bay Area market with graduates who aren't properly trained and who bring down the reputation of the school, thus damaging the job prospects of all graduates. "I've gone to interviews and had people raise their eyebrows and say, "I have my own opinions about CCA,'" says Jennifer Browning. She remembers specifically interviewing at the Café Cacao at the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory in Berkeley, and seeing the pastry chef's interest wane when she saw CCA on Browning's resume. Browning didn't get the job.

Graduates say their first loan payment statements made their jaws drop. Former student Ross Johnson says the financial aid counselor who set up his loans told him that his monthly loan payments were likely to be about $300 a month. When he got his first statement six months after graduation, the monthly charge was $1,100. He has six loans from Sallie Mae, four with interest rates above 13 percent — one with the staggering rate of 19.8 percent.

Both Jennifer Browning and Matthew Jarvis say that CCA is a bad career move.
Paolo Vescia
Both Jennifer Browning and Matthew Jarvis say that CCA is a bad career move.
Both Jennifer Browning and Matthew Jarvis say that CCA is a bad career move.
Paolo Vescia
Both Jennifer Browning and Matthew Jarvis say that CCA is a bad career move.

Johnson worked a few restaurant jobs after graduation, including a stint as the sous chef at Nordstrom's Bistro Café. But with his total debt up to about $88,000, he had to give up on low-paying cooking work and search for a better salary. Now he's making decent money — he makes $20 per hour installing beer kegs and cleaning taps.

CCA President Gibson wrote that she was prohibited by federal privacy regulations from commenting on individual students, or their complaints. However, she wrote that it's CCA policy to give students "a realistic understanding of the realities of the industry." She wrote that advancement in the culinary field requires not only the skills learned in culinary school, but also "a strong work ethic, a commitment to excellence," and several other attributes. Regarding student loans, Gibson stressed that CCA helps students get all the federal and state aid they're eligible for before turning to private lenders. It's school policy to inform students that private loans generally carry higher interest rates than federal student loans, she wrote.

Finally, Gibson denied the general allegation that the school puts its own financial interests ahead of the students' welfare. "Providing a valuable service and managing a well-run, profitable business are not mutually exclusive events," she wrote.

The admissions reps often work a bit about the Culinary Academy's distinguished history into their sales pitch. CCA was founded in San Francisco in 1977, which makes it one of the oldest culinary schools in the West.

The school had immediate cachet: Both James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher, two demigods of American cuisine, spoke at the first graduation ceremony. Back then, CCA had stricter admission standards that required applicants to have some experience in the restaurant industry — so they knew what they were getting into. The school grew steadily until the late '90s, when it embarked on an ambitious expansion plan. It created three satellite campuses in California to teach basic cooking skills, and also bought property in New Orleans, planning to spend $18 million on a large campus there.

But it soon became clear that the school had bitten off more than it could chew. By 1999 the school was in default on its San Francisco tax payments, and the annual report warned investors that bankruptcy was a looming possibility. A group of unhappy shareholders called a halt to the school's expansion schemes, and started talking profits. They brought in Career Education Corporation, a young but rapidly expanding company in the for-profit education business.

Career Education was a favorite of Wall Street investors. In 1995 it had revenues of about $19 million; by 1999 revenues were up to about $217 million, according to annual reports. It grew through a decade-long buying spree, snapping up small or struggling schools and rapidly expanding their programs and enrollment. CCA was a typical acquisition. Career Education had already bought six culinary schools, and considered them a profitable and growing sector.

The corporation paid about $31 million for CCA, then quickly nixed the New Orleans deal and shut down the satellite campuses. It steered a course toward the high end: The company had already secured a deal with Le Cordon Bleu, the elite Parisian cooking school, which allows CEC to use the name to boost its brand at all its culinary schools. In 2006 alone, the company paid royalties of $14.4 million for that privilege.

In essence, the company was buying its credentials, claims Emily, the former admissions representative. "CEC bought the Culinary Academy, and the Culinary Academy had a really good reputation," she says. "They bought the rubber stamp of Le Cordon Bleu. They put those two together, and they just marketed them like wild."

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