Tin Chefs
Jacqueline Carini

Tin Chefs

The Seven-Minute Chicken
Look at Rachael Ray. Isn't she cute? And quite a "chef" too, with her top-rated $40 a Day and 30 Minute Meals Food Network programs, best-selling cookbooks, national talk show.... Hey, look out! Bam! Ha, ha! It's Emeril! What a gig he's got: TV star, cookbook author (natch), owner of a string of eponymous restaurants he doesn't even have to step foot in — and the guy's a millionaire to boot. Then there are those bad-ass gastronomic gangstas Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain. Are they having fun or what?

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.

Gravy Train
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."

The J&W alumni office paints an even rosier scenario for students who have spent some time in the industry: "It is common to see executive chef and food and beverage director postings from employers seeking J&W alumni to run between an average of $70,000 and $80,000, with some offering compensation as high as the six-figure range." What it fails to mention is the length of time fortuitous grads must wait to board this gravy train. Susser estimates that workers "can move up to twelve to fourteen dollars an hour in about one to four more years, again depending upon talent," but adds that "until you're in the role of sous chef or chef de cuisine, you're an hourly employee."

Not that achieving sous chef standing is reason to uncork champagne: The Bureau of Labor lists the average salary for this position at $25,000 to $35,000 per year, a figure seconded by Michael Schwartz, chef/owner of Afterglo, who pays his sous chefs "in the low thirties." And reaching even this modest plateau can be time-consuming, as Jeffrey Brana, executive chef at Norman's, attests: "It took seven years before I earned $30,000."

Sous status also opens the door to finally receiving health insurance and basic benefits — the latter of which, in the food service industry, basically means a week or two of paid vacation. Overtime? Don't be silly. Holiday pay? Yes, but you'll have to work the holidays to receive it — and you will always, without choice, work the holidays. Sick days? There's an old restaurant adage: Call in sick only if you're dead.

When asked about such perks, Juliana Gonzalez, newly minted executive chef at Mosaico, laughs as she replies, "Not in here." Dewey LoSasso, chef/owner of North One 10, likewise chuckles at the notion. How long has it been since he's had Thanksgiving Day off? "Let's see, I've worked in restaurants since I was 13, now I'm 42...." But LoSasso draws the line come Christmastime: "In my job interviews I'd explain that I was from a large Italian family, and how it was a big thing. Because I was the sort of worker who'd come in when he wasn't on schedule and be fanatical about his work, I was given the day off — when I was a dishwasher, prep cook, always. Truth is, I like playing with my toys."

LoSasso still likes working in a kitchen, too, and does so six days a week. "That doesn't include all the computer work you do at home when you can't sleep — financial data, budgets, menu ideas. But for me it's always been fun, never about the work. It's always been Disney World," he says. According to Susser, that's the only attitude which will get you through: "The restaurant world looks romantic and sexy, but there are only a handful of star chefs out there. You'd better love to cook before you enter the business."

Of Iron Chefs and Tin Cooks
"How many of you want to be a chef?" asked an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America. Most of those in the class raised their hands (the few who didn't no doubt aiming for other positions in the ever-expanding food and beverage business). "Too bad," tsked-tsked the teacher, "because I'm here to make you cooks." Jonathan Eismann, chef/owner of Pacific Time restaurant, relates this story to illustrate the importance of learning to walk before you run, and the impatience of students to do so.

"Nobody wants to put time in to really learn the trade," says Schwartz. "Now they go to school two years, come out, and they're öa chef.'"

Relates Sindaco: "It's a joke. Take a look at the help-wanted pages; you'll see ads for line chefs and salad chefs. Nobody wants to be a cook anymore." Michelle Bernstein, Johnson & Wales's most accomplished North Miami alumnus, wishes that students "would be taught a little more humility. They shouldn't put it into these kids' heads that they're going to graduate and instantly become chefs, or even really good line cooks. The school should give them a glimpse into the workloads they can look forward to, and let them know they have to be open to working many hours without pay, and to be sponges, to absorb what people teach them rather than show off what they've learned in their two or four years."

In this age of the seven-minute chicken, maybe it shouldn't shock that students are eager to leapfrog into the elite strata of professional chefdom. Yet arriving at that level doesn't necessarily mean an end to the drearier aspects of the job. Brana notes how "there have been many days when a dishwasher doesn't show up, and the recent grads in my kitchen are taken aback to see me and my sous chef in the back washing pots. They are even more surprised when, being the low men on the totem pole, they are asked to peel potatoes or mop floors with the dishwasher at the end of the night."

They'd likely be stunned to witness the trials endured by those toiling in an Old World apprenticeship. Only in recent decades, and most prominently in America, has a culinary diploma been deemed de rigueur. Most who eyed careers in the kitchen trade worked their way into the field via a system of indenture that dates back to medieval times (when, in order to avoid forgeries, apprenticeship certificates were torn in half and the ripped edge of the student's copy then matched with the master's for verification of proper training).

Apprenticeships, still held in wide esteem throughout Europe, are generally understood to be an employment relationship lasting between two to four years in which services are rendered in exchange for instruction and training (and sometimes a small stipend) in the master's discipline. Tim Andriola, chef/co-owner of Timo, isn't sold on the idea. "With school you get knowledge from a number of sources, in all different ways, shapes, and forms. Provided that you work during your schooling, you will walk away with practical knowledge as well. With an apprenticeship you get the view of the chef you are working for, and his opinions only — right or wrong."

In a sense, all would-be chefs start out apprenticing in one manner or another — nowadays it just means working with one or more talented culinary craftsmen either before, during, after, or in lieu of formal training. We spoke with some of this town's top toques — all of whom jumped from the frying pan of culinary schooling into the fire of professional restaurant kitchens — to see how they managed the transition.

Toque Talk
Allen Susser is the man who put the mango in the Mango Gang. Nationally recognized via his Chef Allen's restaurant, cookbooks, food publications, television appearances, and extensive charity work, he is precisely one of those star chefs whom J&W students aspire to become. Susser began by earning a degree in hospitality management at New York City Tech, followed by a bachelor's in restaurant management from Florida International University.

"That was 30 years ago," Susser recalls, "when there was no glory in cooking. I went to cook because I love to cook. The school prepared me pretty well, not at a high end, but the basics of what was going on in kitchens." Just the same, he attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris afterward "to find out more about food. Back then, Paris was still the center of the culinary world." His first job was making souffles at Le Cirque in New York City ("I just wanted to be in the best restaurant in town"). He would spend a couple of years honing his craft at that legendary establishment, but would "work ten years before I looked at myself as being a chef." Susser has since been accorded another academic credential: an honorary doctorate in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales.

It wasn't long ago that the busboy swabbing Chef Allen's floors at the end of each evening was a skinny chef-wannabe named Tim Andriola. He was a dishwasher at age fourteen, moving his way to prep, salads, and hot foods at the restaurant while attending high school. His boss suggested he go to culinary school, and he didn't know of anything he liked to do better than cook, so he applied to and ultimately attended the Culinary Institute of America (a.k.a. the CIA). He moved to South Florida shortly after graduating in 1992 and was offered employment by a few of Miami's most notable chefs, but was adamant in his desire to work for Chef Allen.

"Of course he was the one that didn't have a job for me," says Andriola, "so I told him I would do anything — wash dishes, whatever it would take. He told me to talk to the maitre d', who hired me as a busboy. I worked for $4.25 an hour and tips." That was at night, but every morning he would volunteer his time and help the chef de cuisine. "After about two months, I had worked my way into the kitchen, getting paid $9.50."

While working at Chef Allen's, Andriola also studied and earned a degree in hospitality management from FIU, but didn't consider himself a chef "until I was given that title from Mark Militello at the Nash in 1999 — or maybe a little before that, when I was a chef de cuisine at Allen's. It kind of got heaped on my shoulders at the ripe old age of 24. I knew I was way too young and inexperienced, but I grew into it." Andriola has since teamed with Rodrigo Martinez to open Sunny Isles' smashingly popular Timo.

The maitre d' who gave Andriola his break was Dale LoSasso, who now collaborates with husband Dewey at their North One 10 restaurant in North Miami. Like Andriola, Dewey also went directly from high school to the CIA, graduating the institute in 1983. He had worked in restaurants since before his high school days, and continued to do so, without pay, while at culinary school. "I drove an hour each way two days a week. I also worked for free at fish houses on the Jersey Shore to learn about fish while working my other jobs, and I still work for free in kitchens when I go away for the summer." Dewey's first chef position came at a restaurant on Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton. "I was the sous chef there and was promoted because the chef was drinking a little too much. Plus I was a cheap fix for them. That happens a lot; they promote a sous chef because it's cheaper. I was okay with that. I was like 23, 24 at the time." He'd go on to work as Donatella Versace's private chef, spend ten years as executive chef at Mickey Wolfson's Foundlings Club, and another decade at China Grill Management, where he "got to travel all over the world doing food research."

North One 10 is considered among Miami's prime venues for contemporary American cuisine, so Johnson & Wales student Andrew D'ambrosi volunteered to help out there "whenever I had free time" to learn a thing or two from the veteran LoSasso. D'ambrosi graduated J&W in May of last year and hadn't worked in restaurants prior to acceptance, "so as soon as I arrived at the school," he says, "it was my concern to try to get a job in the field." He found one with China Grill and worked there throughout his schooling. "I started at the very bottom, making $8.50 an hour. I was the dessert plater, because they didn't know if I could do anything with food. I didn't even touch the food. By the time my two-year tenure was done, I was at $11.50."

If he hadn't worked in a restaurant while attending classes, D'ambrosi contends he "would have gotten out of school in a little bit of a pickle." Indeed his time at North One 10 paid off in more than one way: When Schwartz was looking for a sous chef at the cutting-edge South Beach restaurant Afterglo, LoSasso told D'ambrosi to give Schwartz a call. He interviewed, got the job, and has been at Afterglo since it opened six months ago.

D'ambrosi landed a plum position relatively quickly, but Juliana Gonzalez's ascent has been downright dizzying. She graduated Johnson & Wales in 2002 and, like Andrew, had no food experience before entering the university. If Gonzalez had to do it over again, "I'd work first in a restaurant and then go to school. As a student, you have no idea of the speed and endurance that is going to be needed in the kitchen." Her initial job was at La Broche "as the tournet [roundsperson], doing a little bit of everything." When the brash Spanish restaurant closed, Gonzalez moved to Norman Van Aken's Mundo, and when that venture shuttered, she moseyed over to Mosaico as sous chef under Jordi Valls. Now, less than four years removed from putting on her houndstooth pants for the first time, Juliana is executive chef at one of the city's prize dining establishments.

Such exceptions notwithstanding, the climb upward, as we've duly noted, is slow and arduous. But for all the tribulations, kitchen work can also deliver a nightly dose of intoxicating, pressure-cooked, adrenaline-fueled fun — assuming you're employed in a large, bustling establishment. There is likewise a quiet, life-affirming gratification in the very act of feeding others, more often than not manifested in smaller, chef-driven operations. Michelle Bernstein is due to open such a restaurant, Michy's, this month.

Grading J&W
If you take a pinch of Johnson & Wales students past and present, and a dash of chefs who've either graduated from the school or have had experience working with grads, you end up with a stockpot of opinions as to how things might be improved. Every chef we spoke with was supportive of the school and believes it's a boon both to the community and the food industry. Plus, as Andriola points out, "I love having a pool of workers to draw from less than five miles away from my restaurant. As long as you have the time and patience to weed through the bad, there are plenty of diamonds in the rough. My right hand at Timo, Frederica Schael, is one hell of a cook who definitely learned her lessons there."

Others cite similarly mixed results with interns and grads. LoSasso puts the ratio at "70 percent great, 30 percent not so great." Says Schwartz: "The range is so wide. Some are amazing; a few are so horrible that you wonder what the hell is going on over there." Jonathan Eismann, too, has had "fantastic workers" as well as "some who talk a good game, know all about foams and things like that — and they've got a complete understanding of the Food Network schedule — but they can't make rice."

The most common gripe concerns the school's admissions policy. D'ambrosi tells of the euphoric moment he walked into the university office and learned he was accepted. "I began jumping up and down. The lady looked at me like I was a maniac. She said, öAlmost everybody gets accepted. You have the money, you fill out the paperwork, you're in.' I didn't know that. I said oh, and sat back down."

LoSasso says that when he attended the CIA, "I had to interview and show hours of work. I've heard it's gotten lax up there, and I know it's definitely lax at Johnson & Wales." D'ambrosi remarks, "They're letting too many people in that you just know don't belong there," meaning those who lack prior culinary background, experience, and knowledge. This, in turn, can dull the learning curve of others in the class, which doesn't sit well with those who applied to the school seeking a more enlightened education.

Donald "Mac" McGregor, J&W's Florida campus president, dismisses the notion of an open admissions policy. "It's not like you apply and get accepted. We require a high school diploma, and while SATs and ACTs are not required, they are strongly advised, because we use them for the basis of awarding academic merit scholarships." Prior food service experience isn't a requirement either, but McGregor believes that those without intense interest in the business wouldn't have reason to aspire to culinary school: "I'd be surprised if 99 percent of our students don't come in with some sort of background in food service."

McGregor is justly proud of Johnson & Wales's efforts to help youngsters from low- and middle-income families obtain a culinary education, even if it means being a little overly inclusive. The university offers a slew of grants and scholarships, and works closely with numerous programs such as ProStart, which offers high school students who desire to work in food service the chance to train in those culinary basics that the aforementioned chefs believe to be so vital.

The student population at the North Miami campus is composed of a wide array of ethnicities that hail from every state and 50 foreign countries, and their views of J&W are almost as diverse. One issue that troubles quite a few is the quality of ingredients used in classes. Bob, who along with all other students interviewed asked that his last name be withheld, complains that "food is brought in by companies like Sysco, and much of the product is either canned or frozen. At this price tag, you would expect the absolute best." Jill, who is seeking a bachelor's degree, says, "You might be assigned to make a gazpacho, then handed unripe tomatoes that have no flavor to them. Cooking should be about receiving beautiful products and showcasing their natural beauty and flavor. Johnson & Wales should be more aware of the great local farms out there." And a former student, now working at one of the city's best restaurants, bemoans the lack of a specific seafood cookery class, adding that "the fish comes in frozen, cryovacced packages already filleted and skinned."

Chris Wagner, director of culinary operations and a certified master chef, flat-out denies these allegations. "All of our fish comes in whole. We get them from Sysco as well as local fish houses and other seafood wholesalers." And he insists the students "cut and fillet their own fish in a number of classes." An impromptu tour of the walk-in fridges and storage facilities appeared to back his contention: Cases of fresh red snapper were neatly stacked on a shelf. The tomatoes could have been riper, and a few less-than-stellar brand names were on display (some of which were given to the school by corporate sponsors), but high-end products were in evidence as well. Still the lack of a formal fish course, as there is for meats, does seem puzzling.

Some, like D'ambrosi, think there's something fishy about the campus eatery: "When I first got there, they shut down the old school cafeteria for almost a year and made a huge project of renovation. I thought maybe they'd open up something interesting, but to my surprise they unveiled The Mix. The architecture was real nice, but I remember seeing it and saying, öHoly shit: a mall food court!'"

The Mix is indeed a food court, a lineup of colorful, sassily designed take-out stalls serving an array of popular fast foods: coffee, subs, Mexican snacks, brick-oven pizzas, pastas, and so forth. The operation is run by Chartwells, a spinoff of the institutional food service company Compass. D'ambrosi doesn't so much object to the choice of menus (although he does note they could have shown some innovation even within this genre), but that The Mix is used as a practicum facility for students who aren't eligible for more challenging placement.

The practicum is training experience, usually on campus, that is controlled by the university; if a student's grades are good enough, he or she can choose to go on co-op instead, which is an internship (or externship overseas) at any of a number of dining establishments that participate in the program. The Johnson & Wales online catalogue defines the practicum phase of education as a means of helping students "attain meaningful work experience" that "will look best on your resumé." But D'ambrosi wonders, "Do the chefs of the future, who pay $40,000 to go to school, really need to learn how to make sandwiches at Mondo Subs?"

"No student is spending the entire time making subs," responds Jordan Fickess. "One week they may be preparing sandwiches, but they'll be making filet mignon the next for a catering event. And they learn more than just cooking at The Mix; they learn about running a restaurant, how to order and store the food, how to do costing, and so forth."

McGregor relates how students, when they first arrive at Johnson & Wales and are asked if they want to eventually own their own restaurant, almost unanimously raise their hand. "But by the time they've gone through the school, they see that the breadth of the culinary industry is much wider than just à la carte restaurants," he says. "There are a lot of students who don't like the idea of being at work 8:00 in the morning and closing at 2:00 a.m., of burning the candle at both ends. They would prefer something with more structure, whether it be corporate dining or institutional foods or whatever. Like Chartwells."

Whether Johnson & Wales places too much emphasis on feeding the corporate food service industry can remain fodder for foodie debates. Juliana Gonzalez, Michelle Bernstein, Michael Bloise ('98, executive chef at Wish), Anthony Zamora ('03, executive banquet chef at the Biltmore), Adrianne Calvo ('04, restaurant owner and cookbook author with a Food Network show currently in the works), and numerous other notable graduates from the North Miami campus have used their education as a springboard for successful careers. The most important thing, it seems, is the students' own grit and determination.

As Andriola says, "There is only one proper way to sauté, deep-fry, et cetera. Both the CIA and J&W teach that. One may teach it better or reinforce it more, but responsibility ultimately falls on the student."

"The students," echoes D'ambrosi, "get out of school what they put in."

So dream on, tin chefs, dream on. Just remember: If you want to be like Emeril, you're going to have to kick it up a notch. Again. And again. And again. And for a while, at least, you will have something in common with Rachael Ray: $40 a day. Bam! Ha, ha!


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