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No wonder culinary institutions are spreading across the country faster than well-yeasted dough. The American Culinary Federation, the nation's foremost organization of industry professionals, alone has accredited 97 such programs, including the one at Johnson & Wales University, which opened its North Miami campus in 1992 with a mere handful of culinary students and whose current graduating class will number more than 1000. These future food service employees will be taught to dice, slice, baste, bake, and broil; make stocks, sauces, soups, stir-fries, and stews; carve ice, compose menus, and compute costs. What many won't learn until after they graduate, however, is that their first job out of the university, with a two-year associate's degree in culinary arts in hand, will likely net them about ten dollars an hour if they're lucky. And any other white-collar scenarios they may be dreaming of will shortly be interrupted by the roar of a restaurant industry's blue-collar reality.
Emeril Lagasse is, in fact, a Johnson & Wales alumnus, from the original Providence, Rhode Island university. What began as a business school founded in 1914 by Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales grew first to a junior college, then to a senior college, and ultimately to university status. There are campuses in six states with more than 16,000 students attending either the College of Business, Hospitality College, or College of Culinary Arts. The culinary curriculum, not instituted until 1973, dishes out a two-year associate's degree in baking and pastry or culinary arts, which can be followed up with a two-year bachelor's in either these or other food-related fields such as nutrition, management, marketing, and entrepreneurship. Tuition for the basic nineteen-month associate program runs just over $40,000, which doesn't include room and board.
The North Miami branch of Johnson & Wales is a converted hospital site, which doesn't make for a particularly picturesque campus: no ivy-covered walls, no towers bearing clock or bell, no tree-shaded commons where students loll with open books. The future bears a brighter blueprint, however, for between 1997 and 2003 the school purchased $39 million worth of contiguous property, and administrators have recently unveiled a ten-year master plan for expansion into a more cohesive landscape.
Current campus land use includes dormitories, parking lots, and two facilities where school-related activities take place. The Academic and Student Center houses executive offices, computer labs, nonculinary classrooms, and a so-called bookstore, which is really a general store that carries a better selection of snacks than cookbooks. The other main building is the University Center, which contains academic and admissions offices and the student dining area (The Mix), but is mostly occupied by a long, winding row of kitchen labs where students receive hands-on training. The equipment here is top of the line, with several of the hot labs (classrooms where hot foods are taught) outfitted this past summer with brand-new, state-of-the-art tools. Among the high-tech gizmos are a nifty TurboChef oven that roasts a whole chicken in seven minutes, and a computerized oven that links with a laptop computer, allowing a chef to operate the equipment remotely "even while in an airplane," boasts the product brochure. If you could connect a TurboChef with your laptop, you could begin roasting a chicken while waiting in line for the security scanner at the airport, and have the bird cooked before you've even slipped your shoes back on.
J&W lays claim to being "America's Career University," and administration officials are quick to mention the school's ability to maintain, over the past 28 years, "a 98 percent employment rate within 60 days of graduation." The food service industry is certainly contributing its part toward ensuring work for all: The U.S. Bureau of Labor says we've reached the point where "the demand for food service workers is about to exceed supply," and predicts the number of positions for skilled culinary professionals will increase by 46 percent over the next ten years. But what kinds of jobs are we talking about? Or, more specifically, what can a graduate look forward to in his or her first few years out of the Johnson & Wales culinary program?
"Well, they've got to pay their dues," admits Jordan Fickess, the school's director of communications, who then cites figures from the Alumni Relations Office: "The average salary from one of our associate degree candidates in their first position is more than $29,000; the average starting salary for our bachelor's degree graduates in their first position is between $33,000 and $34,000."
"Not even close," says Anthony Sindaco, chef/owner of Sunfish Grill in Fort Lauderdale, which recently received an astonishing 28 rating in the 2006 Zagat Survey no eatery in South Florida scored better. Tony starts his line cooks, "diploma or not," at nine to ten dollars per hour. According to Allen Susser, whose Chef Allen's restaurant has long been recognized as one of South Florida's finest: "Grads are beginning line cooks, and truthfully that's not a great dollar base. They're starting off anywhere from ten to twelve dollars an hour, depending on talent though talent varies a lot." The grimmest assessment comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, whose studies show that "those right out of cooking school generally make seven to eight dollars an hour."