MONTPELIER, Vt. • With enrollment in culinary institutes in decline and programs across the country closing their doors, schools such as the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt., which graduated celebrity chef Alton Brown, and the Culinary Institute of Charleston, S.C., are committed to staying relevant and in demand.
“We’re constantly looking for new ways and opportunities to grow our school,” said Michael Carmel, head of culinary arts in Charleston. “It’s not necessarily a numbers game, but a quality game. We need to stay current with trends and have to be able to offer our students opportunities.”
The reasons for the challenges facing the industry are varied, Carmel and others say. Tuition can be relatively expensive, while federal financial aid for these “career colleges” has tightened since 2014. Graduates with a high debt load often move into low-paying restaurant jobs.
In addition, there is an abundance of restaurant positions that provide on-the-job training for those looking to get into the business without accruing debt. Carmel said younger students aren’t necessarily seeking the high stress factor and long hours of restaurant work, instead placing a high value on a regular schedule, benefits and quality of life issues such as time with family.
Despite the challenges, schools such as the New England Culinary Institute, where enrollment has fallen from about 800 in 1999 to around 300 today, are consolidating, cutting expenses where possible and adjusting curriculum to attract students. The school is also expanding instruction about the business side of the industry.
“Even our founding chef has always said a chef is a businessman,” said Philip Stevens, spokesman for the Institute.
New England’s school, which co-founder and former president Fran Voigt recently announced was facing imminent sale but remains optimistic of remaining in Vermont, two years ago partnered with the United States Coast Guard and Sandals Resorts to teach new cooking techniques, another way to expand its reach.
Carmel’s program is also taking steps to attract more students. The Culinary Institute of Charleston, which has seen enrollment fall by 25 percent over the past three years, has begun reaching into high schools to offer college-credit programs, and partnering with local restaurants and the Metro Chamber of Commerce to assist with student tuition.
He hopes those steps will halt the enrollment decline, adding: “We believe it will level out within the next few years.”
Other schools have not been as fortunate, with many well-respected culinary programs shutting their doors. Le Cordon Bleu was founded in the 1800s in Paris. While that school, which Julia Child attended, will remain open, the last of the 16 Cordon Bleu programs across the U.S. have ceased new enrollment and are closing.
In Minnesota alone, three of the five major culinary schools have announced they are shutting down. Southern New Hampshire University’s culinary program announced this year that the program will likely be eliminated, noting that enrollments have dropped by more than a third and applications are down 29 percent over the last four years. A final decision is expected this month.
“This is not just an SNHU phenomenon, it is a national trend, and even better known culinary programs than ours are contracting,” University President Paul LeBlanc said. SNHU’s overall enrollments are strong and growing, he said, “but Culinary stands in stark contrast and in steep decline.”
Rick Smilow, president and CEO of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, said students cannot get the same level of training in a timely manner when learning on the job. Culinary school, he said, provides a “breadth and depth of training that, while possible to get on the job, would typically take years.”
While acknowledging the restaurant labor shortage, Smilow still sounded optimistic for the industry.
“The best restaurants are still looking for the level of commitment and curiosity that a young cook demonstrates by going to culinary school,” he said.
The challenges don’t appear to be discouraging culinary students like Sandra Curiel, 18, of Los Angeles, who was helped by a full tuition scholarship to attend New England Culinary Institute’s certificate program.
“It’s hard work but you know it’s something that I love to do and I want to do that for the rest of my life,” she said.