Sunday, September 4, 2011

Culinary grads in San Francisco say they were ripped off

Aspiring chefs have been enrolling in culinary school in big numbers, with dreams of being gourmet or celebrity chefs or having their own restaurants.
But for many, those dreams have turned into real kitchen nightmares,nightmares, with the loans and just trying to find work.

It seems some of these graduates these cooking schools to get their money back, saying they were misled by the schools about the value of the culinary schooling and job prospects after graduation.

"They just oversold it and pushed it. They made misleading statements to lure you in," said Emily Journey, 26, a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against San Francisco's California Culinary Academy, part of Career Education Corp.'s chain of 16 Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools.

Journey, however, may get some of her money back. Under a pending $40 million settlement in state court, Career Education has agreed to offer rebates up to $20,000 to 8,500 students who attended the academy between 2003 and 2008.

In 2004, Journey was a recent high school graduate, dreaming of opening her own bakery, when she enrolled in a 7-month program in pastry and baking arts at the San Francisco school. Recruiters convinced her it was a worthwhile investment and helped her borrow $30,000 to pay for it.

After finishing the program, the only job she could find paid $8 an hour to work the night shift at an Oregon bakery — "something anyone could have gotten without a culinary certificate," she said.

"Was it worth the money and the time to have this loan hanging over my head?" she asked. "Absolutely not."

Two other Le Cordon Bleu schools — the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena and the Western Culinary Institute in Portland — also face lawsuits from former students who say they were duped by deceptive advertising, particularly the schools' job placement rates.

Schaumburg, Ill.-based Career Education denies its recruiting and marketing practices are illegal, but its schools recently changed their policies to "ensure that students understand that we are not promising any specific job outcomes or salaries," said spokesman Mark Spencer.

Le Cordon Bleu officials defend the value of a culinary education, saying many restaurants, hotels and hospitality companies don't have the time or money to train employees.

"Culinary arts education today gives people a much-needed foundation they need to be successful," said Edward Leonard, vice president and corporate chef for Le Cordon Bleu Schools in North America.

The academy's tuition and fees range from $21,000 for a certificate in pastry and baking arts to $43,000 for an associate's degree in culinary arts. Those costs don't include books, supplies, or room and board.

The school's website says 48 to 100 percent of graduates find work in their field of study or a related field, depending on the program or methodology.

Critics say many of those jobs don't pay much more than minimum wage and don't require formal culinary education.

"Unfortunately, it's really a buyer-beware environment for people seeking higher education at culinary schools or other kinds of training programs," said Lauren Asher, who heads the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success.

Matt Foist, 46, regrets his decision to borrow $45,000 to attend the California Culinary Academy in 2005, when the Silicon Valley software engineer was looking for a career change.

"They did a great job of selling it to me," Foist said. "I was kind of tricked into believing that I would become a highly regarded chef in the San Francisco area and that I would make a lot more money than the reality turned out to be."

After realizing he wouldn't be able to earn enough to cover his student loans, he decided to stick with software engineering. Five years later, he said he's barely made a dent in paying off his culinary school debt, though the settlement money will help if it comes through.