Chefs' Surprise

The California Culinary Academy calls a student assembly to respond to our June 6 expose. We sneak in and listen

Since our critical article came out about the California Culinary Academy ("Burnt Chefs," June 6), the school's administration has been dealing with a barrage of complaints from angry students and graduates. So last week, CCA President Ann Gibson held a community forum to address student concerns. About 40 students and a handful of chefs and administrators gathered in a basement room at the Polk Street campus, and spent almost two hours hashing things out. Grievances were aired, and many promises were made. Thanks to a tip from a student, I was there to catch it all.

A quick rehash: In the article, graduates and former admissions representatives alleged that standards at the school had dropped drastically since it was bought by the Career Education Corp. in 1999. Graduates said that the number of students skyrocketed, while requirements for admission and graduation eroded. Graduates said that when they applied to the school, they were told that the $47,000 tuition was an investment that would lead to culinary superstardom on the Food Network. Instead, they found $8-per-hour kitchen jobs waiting for them after graduation, and crushing student loan payments that often forced them to give up cooking.

At last week's meeting, President Gibson listened to students' complaints about dishonest admissions reps, overcrowded kitchens, and listless classmates who graduated without doing the work. Several times, Gibson made statements about conditions at the school that were immediately refuted by students in the room. When several students told her that they had 21 students in a classroom and only one chef, in contradiction of school policy, Gibson was apologetic. "I can't go back and make it better for you," she said, "but I can make sure that doesn't happen in the future."

Unhappy students take note: Gibson also promised restitution to any culinary student who felt cheated by a substandard class. "If you felt like there was something in the program that you needed that you didn't get, you feel that you needed to know more, we would work with you," she said. The school will offer students the chance to repeat classes for free, she said.

As you might expect, Gibson was not exactly grateful to this paper for bringing problems at the school to light: The article was called biased and sensationalist, and I was roundly condemned. For example, Gibson accused me of sneaking into the building to take photographs of students. While I could quibble over the details (a photographer did that), as this reporter sat there quietly after sneaking into the student assembly, I had to admit the president had a point. Sometimes, however, a little sneaking around is required to get the real story.

But Gibson's charge that we knowingly published false information has to be taken more seriously. One student asked about a statistic in the article showing that the number of students in the culinary program quadrupled in the two years following the school's purchase by the Career Education Corp. Gibson claimed that those statistics were inaccurate, and said the school had provided SF Weekly with the correct statistics, but that we had chosen instead to print lies.

Just to set the record straight for that student who asked the question: CCA never gave our paper any statistics, and the numbers used came from the annual reports the school is required to submit to the state regulator. If those numbers are wrong, President Gibson has some explaining to do to the state.

 
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