The Union Club of Cleveland’s Lawrence McFadden, CMC, GM/COO, weighs the conundrum of the cost of culinary education with the average salary of a chef.
In Singapore, we called one of the student categories “career changers.” These highly educated degree holders showed up at our culinary academy doorstep looking for their true passion.
Singaporeans generalized the culinary profession as manual labor, looking at food preparations as a task, not an art form. Singaporeans eat out fifteen times a week traditionally. The well-heeled society dined at Singapore’s five-star hotels where European Chefs ruled for generations. In fact, the Swiss and Germans own these titles in Asia, controlling the apprenticeships through a culinary caste system for generations.
Today the highly educated are entering our industry with great expectations regarding pay scales, work schedules and time-ratio dedication. It’s not that others before were different, they just didn’t have the family’s monetary backing to question future choices.
For years, the kitchen provided good jobs for the uneducated or, at times, the undocumented. Even at the Michelin star level, one could work their way up the ladder with entry-level education. Often better kitchens meant longer hours for less pay, touting an endless list of applicants.
Culinary bachelor’s degrees are only a new thirty-year promotion. Prior, community colleges with their low educational costs owned the training grounds for generational cooks. Before and even during these years, apprenticeships proved the second option in work-study for those who could not afford education.
Today an Executive Chef’s salary is half the cost of a four-year education. That average national salary is based on ten years of experience, highlighting that only a small percent will reach an annual salary equal to today’s educational costs. These sobering realities are creating a student dissatisfied backlash in our industry today.
When working in Hong Kong, a CIA instructor advised a young Yale student to visit me when he returned home for an opportunity in our hotel chain. Shortly after email dialogues the young gentlemen eventually sat in my office exploring culinary opportunities.
While very proud of my professional, successful by having educational degrees and certainly selling the positive impact of our industry, I still didn’t understand why this person wanted to work in the kitchen and not own the restaurant.
As the conversations progressed, advising him to work the kitchens for cultural understanding but be an owner, not a chef. I said quite frankly, “If you have the talents, intellect, and funds to make it in Yale how are you going to justify the return on investment?”
My statement rang true years later as Singaporean students wanted to join our culinary academy. Now I was a businessman selling the dream of a culinary arts education versus industry requirements. The advice comes in many directions, based on the need of the advisor’s interests.
Still thinking back to my Hong Kong conversation, the reality of his culinary desire was not aligned with his Ivy League pedigree and upbringing.
Is this industry fair to these blue-blooded families? Are the demands in dedication, questionable conditions, lean pay, or even time commitment of our kitchen life fair? Especially when you consider that many of their childhood economics allowed numerous family vacations, weekends of social sports, or maybe even having private staff cooking from them.
While passion does not have a price tag, normal cooks stay in these harsh conditions because they have no funds, no choice, or simply this is all they know. Often owners know these challenges and exploit them, putting profit first, just to keep the businesses open.
Universities measure student body alignment after five years of graduation, often these numbers show fifty percent of the alumni are no longer in their degreed profession.
The culinary generation now has a high cost of student loans added to a low introductory wage, creating a severe disconnection between the degree and the economics of the industry. Our industry still values experience, over education, naming Sous Chef titles over time spent, not just degrees.
While this can be found in other careers, culinary has one of the most demanding, thankless, and challenging existences in the beginning. Trolling through countless kitchens, national locations, or position opportunities until you arrive at your first Executive Chef job.
A second approach is to work for a specific Chef, not the establishment, often for free, learning tricks of the trade for small compensations. References are degrees for these avenues, moving to another set of culinary hands once released.
How can one work for free if they have a multi-thousand student loan? Why would someone want to work for free if they have rights as a human being? Or even, what does it say for the future of the industry when “free stages” are offered and accepted.
A unique conundrum exists, and while education is paramount in the lifeblood of being human, the reality of economics is a sobering punch to the professional culinary gut.
These one-two punches highlight a portion of culinarians who are disillusioned in what is heard, sold, or viewed on network TV. Educators in partnership with Hollywood have bundled a pitch around degrees if you want to be the next Thomas Keller.
The reality is if you want to be Thomas, bring massive talent, a strong backbone to stand years at a time, and partner with a dedicated family at your side.
If Thomas divided his amazing success into an hourly rate my guess is it would not be America’s minimum wage, which exploits the unfortunate value placed on the culinary art of America. Advertisers continue to bundle or give away fast-food products continuing to dumb down our culinary value.
Food and Beverage average margins are below 10%, leaving the industry to save money wherever possible. And when rent goes up, you move to the next major cost which is labor. That same labor paid thousands of dollars for their degree.