It’s been more than 20 years since Lars Johnson graduated from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. Some things have changed in the industry and in its educational methods, but Lars’ career has been the stuff culinary brochures are made of: travel, variety and job opportunities.
Culinary schools have traditionally attracted both recent high school graduates and the over-21 crowd — and sometimes the well-over-21 crowd. The creativity and flexibility of a career in the culinary arts have always appealed to men and women who have found their work unfulfilling and who are looking for a change of pace.
In recent years, however, the percentage of students enrolling directly from high school is on the rise. The Cooking & Hospitality Institute of Chicago (CHIC), for example, is welcoming more “career changers,” as they call 25- to 50-year olds, reports Erin Lough, director of marketing of CHIC, a Le Cordon Bleu affiliate.
CHIC has experienced rougly a 34% increase in the 35 to 50 demographic group over recent years, correlating with a general increase in the number of students.
This trend is not restricted to CHIC, although the growth there may have been larger than at other similar institutions after the school received North Central Accreditation for general education. The accreditation is believed to have made high-school seniors (and their parents) more comfortable with the concept of culinary school. “It is no longer viewed as ‘simply a trade school.’ It is a college with a culinary/baking major,” says Lough.
New York’s CIA has offered various associate degrees since 1946. Lars Johnson, graduated with an Associate in Occupational Studies degree, then spent a summer season cooking in Germany and a winter season cooking in Switzerland. After returning home to the states, he rose through various posts in the kitchens of well-known New York hotels including Parker, Meridian Hotel, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Crown Plaza Times Square. He has since left the kitchen for the broader hospitality industry. He is currently general manager of a high-end banquet and conference facility in New Jersey.
Lars met his pastry-chef wife, Holly, when they shared a demanding CIA externship at the Meadowlands Racetrack in New Jersey. After graduation and a stint in the New York Hilton pastry shop, Holly began creating special-order cakes for weddings, christenings, etc. She has taken advantage of the flexibility of her education and career choice and is currently on a child-rearing sabbatical. But she knows she can return to a business that always has a ready market for talent.
Culinary educations have permitted the Johnsons to move between venues as they chose. They have worked in the front of the house and the back of the house, and have developed a broad network of friends and resources. “No matter what job you take, you know someone there,” Lars Johnson reports. “You’ve worked with them somewhere else, or they’ve worked with other people you know. It feels like a small community.”
Like any community, the culinary world has support organizations in place. The International Association of Culinary Professionals, for example, is available to the chef, the sommelier, the general manager, the pastry chef – as well as to the food columnist, the cookbook writer, and the domestic arts teacher. It maintains a job bank for members, offers networking and educational experiences, and broadens horizons.
Variety, flexibility, support — and more lucrative opportunities — combine to make culinary degrees the goal of an increasing number of students.