- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2007

The question is a hot topic in certain food circles: Why are outsiders being hired to open certain top-drawer Washington restaurants? Isn’t the reputation or education of home-grown talent good enough?

Celebrity chefs Eric Ripert and Wolfgang Puck are scheduled to head up two first-class eateries in the District next year, following others who have come to the region from other large cities.

It’s not the quality of local cooking schools that is in question, suggest District chefs Jeff Tunks of Passion Food Hospitality, a restaurant group that includes Ceiba, DC Coast and TenPehn, and Vikram Garg of Indebleu, but the high stakes of being successful in an extremely competitive field where problems include keeping young chefs who often think moving from job to job builds a more impressive resume. They point to the changing nature of the restaurant trade, which, to some extent, reflects the changing nature of students entering the profession.

“Restaurants are becoming more and more big business, and using a big name improves the possibility of doing well from day one,” says Mr. Garg, a graduate of a culinary school in India who compares life in a restaurant kitchen to life on a stage. “When you open the dining room, the show starts and there is no way back.”

Actors emote where chefs create, with the difference that “most chefs are not just cooks, but entrepreneurs who want to own restaurants,” he says. Ambitious chefs must be skilled in management as well as food handling and preparation — all the more so if they want jobs in corporate settings that promise better hours and often better salaries.

Hence, the nature of the offerings at several area institutions of higher learning, such as Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus, where “culinary arts” is one of only six courses listed in the hospitality management program. Half the graduates of Stratford University’s seventeen-year-old culinary arts and hospitality management program are working in restaurants and half in corporate settings, estimates program dean Glenn Walden, citing a recent graduate who holds a supervisory position as executive chef at the Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va.

At the Art Institute of Washington, one of a network of 36 similarly named institutions around North America specializing in the applied arts, students take a course in facilities that requires them “to develop a concept, write a business plan and do the financials down to scheduling,” says Paul Magnant, chef-director of its culinary arts program. One of the institute’s recent graduates develops new ice cream flavors for Gifford’s of Bethesda. Another opened a catering business after contracting to feed local firemen in exchange for use of their kitchen space.

Both Stratford University, in Falls Church, and the Art Institute of Washington in Arlington are commuter colleges geared to students who often hold down day jobs. Both offer a range of culinary arts-related degrees, ranging from a diploma to a bachelor’s degree for management-track programs. NOVA partners with the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation to offer an apprenticeship program that earns a student accreditation as a “certified culinarian,” according to Greg Sharpe, the chef at Finn & Porter restaurant who is the local chapter president of ACF.

Like other culinary school directors, Mr. Walden finds an increasing number of so-called job changers among applicants. Mr. Tunks, who began as a dishwasher before graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, sees TV’s Food Network as a dangerous lure to such people “who already have developed their social circle and don’t understand the demands and lifestyle. Cooking is very much a blue-collar skill, a trade like a manual job, and dexterity comes from practice,” he says.

The latter is reinforced during apprenticeships — learning while working for no or low wages in a busy restaurant kitchen — that are very much a part of any entrepreneurial chef’s training, either apart from or in conjunction with formal schooling.

Where Stratford University requires a 10-week paid externship with journal-keeping and evaluation by superiors, L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg insists on a 24-week externship, a monthly visit back to the classroom, journals, and a final demonstration project that is graded by the faculty. The latter include founder-director Francois Dionot, Gerard Pangaud, Patrice Olivon and Michel Pradler, all of whom have had considerable experience in French restaurants of note.

At L’Academie, which prides itself on graduating mainly “fine dining” chefs trained largely in classic French techniques, the externship is the final part of a yearlong, three-phase degree program that costs a minimum of $24,505. Classes are small — no more than 20 or 24 can work together in the specially designed kitchen. The students’ average age is 28, and half of them have had experience in the field.

Each Friday morning during the second three-month phase, five teams of three each scramble to create a meal centered around three ingredients told to them only the night before. Avocados, pineapples and loin of lamb were the staples one recent day, out of which came diverse presentations in mouth-watering combinations to be tasted and judged in turn by Mr. Dionot, Mr. Olivon, Mr. Pradler and visiting chef Tony Chittum of Alexandria’s Vermilion restaurant. Tension was high, remarks terse.

“No technical bloopers,” pronounced Mr. Dionot at the end. “Which is good and important at this point.”

Students took the comments in stride. Katie Wolffe, 24, a graduate of the College of William and Mary, one of six women in the group, previously worked in government relations for a lobbying firm. Does she aim for celebrity chef status? she was asked. She has “no five-year plan,” she replied, saying that for now she is content to learn a new craft.

As Otto von Bismarck is reported to have said, “I’ve seen how laws are made, and I figured sausages were better.”

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