Monday, October 19, 2009

Michigan Chef Schools Packed Despite Lack of Jobs

The Detroit News

Warren -- After 22 years as a contract employee at the General Motors Tech Center, Tim Jarrell found himself laid off and looking for another career about four years ago.

Instead of hunting for a new job in his field, Jarrell followed his passion.

He went back to school -- cooking school. He signed up for the two-year culinary program at Macomb Community College. Now, 46, he serves as a sous-chef, handling orders and food preparation at his alma mater.

"I had a personal interest in food," Jarrell said. "When I went into this field, I thought, 'You can go anywhere with it.' The program here is not just learning to stand behind a stove. It's a well-rounded education."

He's not alone in turning to culinary arts for a second career, even as the restaurant industry statewide simmers down due to the economy and chef jobs are tough to find. Cooking schools throughout the state are at capacity. Many have waiting lists of a year or longer. Instructors say the programs have never been more popular. Students of all ages jam the 60-odd schools in the state. New culinary schools have opened and existing ones are expanding.

The new Culinary Institute of Michigan in Muskegon began classes Sept. 28. The program, part of Baker College, saw enrollment swell to 500 from 300 students last year with the completion of the $11-million, three-story, 39,000-square-foot institute.

"We started the program in 1997, and we outgrew our old space," said Mary Ann Herbst, president of Baker College of Muskegon. "Students looking to come to culinary school knew we were opening, and they followed us." Officials predict enrollment will grow. The institute can accommodate up to 750 students a day, six days a week.

Locally, Dorsey Schools -- career training centers offering courses at six Metro Detroit locations -- opened a culinary arts school at its Roseville campus last year. The 12,000-square-foot building boasts three production kitchens, cooking equipment and classrooms and has about 175 students.

And at Macomb Community College's Culinary Institute, David Schneider, the department coordinator, said: "In every single program where enrollment starts at midnight, within an hour, everything is jammed. We've had students waiting for a year and half."

"The schools are absolutely packed," he added.

But as students flock to cooking schools, the restaurant industry struggles statewide.

Well-known eateries have changed menus, lowered prices or simply closed. This summer, for instance, Milford's Five Lakes Grill became Cinco Lagos, a Mexican-themed restaurant with lower prices. Less than a month ago, Seldom Blues in Detroit filed voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And on Sept. 29, Tribute Restaurant in Farmington Hills closed its doors.

Schneider said he has seen an uptick of students like Jarrell -- people without employment looking for a second career. A small percentage -- about 3-4 percent of new students -- are receiving tuition aid from the federal No Worker Left Behind act.

Schneider also has seen people who always have loved food, and now with time on their hands, are looking to sharpen their cooking skills.

The Food Network also has contributed to the crush of students. But it's a mixed blessing, Schneider said.

"It's misleading," he said. "This is leading to a rock star chef theory. They believe they're going to be the next big thing. It's sort of like playing the lottery."

Read the complete story here.

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