- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

LASALLE, Ill. (AP) - Osvaldo “Ozzy” Martinez of La Salle tuned in regularly to TV chef Gordon Ramsay and came to admire his culinary skills, if not his notoriously foul mouth.

Martinez decided he’d like to walk in Ramsay’s footsteps someday and maybe own his own restaurant someday. He enrolled in the culinary program at the Area Career Center, housed on the La Salle-Peru Township High School campus.

“Ramsay does all these crazy dishes, and it’s not as easy as it looks,” admitted Martinez, an L-P senior who plans to study advanced culinary technique at Kendall College. “But I like the challenge.”

Ramsay and other TV chefs inspired a food craze in which legions of young people decided to learn to be chefs; but to hear it from the culinary schools now closing their doors, that era may now be drawing to a close.

The Associated Press reports that enrollment at culinary schools is dwindling thanks to a fatal combination of climbing tuition, decreased financial aid and low pay at the entry level. Le Cordon Bleu, which graduated Julia Child, is closing 16 schools in the United States.

“It’s not cheap,” observed Justin Witalka, a 2006 graduate of L-P, now a partner of two restaurants, Brownstone Tavern and New Line Tavern, both in Chicago. “For me, after 2½ years I’m in debt more than $100,000 and it’s not as if you graduate and you’re a chef, you have to prove yourself. Having a degree is great, but it’smore about experience and work ethic.”

Nevertheless, the shrinking of post-secondary schools hasn’t had any impact on the local culinary program, which is doing just fine, thank you. The ACC had a down year in the 2015-16 school year with just 12 students; but otherwise enrollment has held steady with an average 21 students per year.

And local interest in becoming a chef remains as strong as ever. Chef Susan Stiker oversees the ACC’s culinary program and said the TV portrayals remain a draw for students interested in cooking professionally - although those programs also require her to set kids straight about what life in a kitchen really is like.

“These TV chefs are not realistic,” Stiker said. “Their sanitation and safety skills are atrocious. Things that I would chew my kids out for here, they’re doing on national TV.”

Why has L-P defied the trends that have culinary schools closing their doors? Stiker attributes three main reasons.

The ACC makes sure that its students graduate holding two certificates, one for safe food handling and one for food management.

Restaurants in Illinois need people with both, so those certificates make L-P graduates instantly marketable. Stiker said the certification gives students a shot at competitive kitchen jobs after graduation or with better odds at getting financial aid from a post-secondary culinary school.

“I’ve had students go to Kendall College or Cordon Bleu and a lot of them were able to get college scholarships because of this program,” Stiker said. “You come here and you’re a step ahead already.”

Chef Michael McGreal, chairman of the culinary arts department at Joliet Junior College, where many ACC students complete their culinary education, acknowledged ACC students come in with a stronger foundation than even some enrollees who’ve worked professionally.

“The great thing is they know this is something they really want to do, and they know a lot of things about knife skills, sanitation and people skills,” McGreal said.

“We see their students are much more successful because they have more realistic expectations.”

College tuition continues to climb even as wages remain stagnant, pressuring college-bound students to defray their future debt load by gobbling up Advanced Placement courses. All that time hitting the books comes at the expense of enrichment courses such as music, art and cooking.

Jocelin Islas-Garcia, a Hall High School junior, gravitated to the ACC culinary program because she needed a break from the relentless grind in the classroom. Islas-Garcia said she wants to be a veterinarian and has her plate full with college prep classes, but she also loves to cook and the culinary program provided a welcome respite from math and science.

“When I’m here it doesn’t feel like I’m at school,” Islas-Garcia said. “It feels like I’m at work and I’m enjoying it, and my days go by way faster. This class is so much fun and it’s a great experience.”

Not all Stiker’s students plan to open restaurants or become full-time chefs. Many students learn cooking as a life skill and turn their attention to a four-year college.

But those who do graduate from the ACC often find they can command better wages than other entry-level service workers, and therefore stock away more cash for college.

“If they’re going to a four-year college, now they have the skills to earn their tuition,” Stiker said.

Area chef Tim Freed said L-P provided him with “a good starting point,” insofar as his instructors focused not just on how to use knives and mix ingredients but about the business side of being in food service.

“While I was there, they took a real-life approach to it,” Freed recalled. “It wasn’t just about learning to cook, it was about running a bakery or a restaurant and learning the basics of industry.

“A lot of kids think about the glory side of it and not the nuts and bolts and side of it.”

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Source: (LaSalle) News-Tribune, https://bit.ly/2lJYe6e

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Information from: News-Tribune, https://www.newstrib.com

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