You’d think watching Gordon Ramsay curse out lowly waffle-flippers on Hell’s Kitchen would be enough to deter anyone from a career in the kitchen. Not so. Enrollment in culinary schools throughout the country is on the rise, powered, industry observers say, by the rising popularity of reality-television cooking shows such as Bravo’s Top Chef, Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen and the Food Network’s Next Food Network Star. We asked three local culinary school executives if reality TV has boosted enrollment, and if students take the shows seriously or view them as entertainment.
Nevada Partners/Culinary Training Academy Executive Chef Sterling Burpee (named one of Ebony magazine’s Top 15 black chefs in America in 2007): They have had an influence on increased interest in the culinary arts, particularly in terms of awareness of salaries. When I grew up, you wanted to be a doctor, lawyer or Indian chief, not a chef. Back then, waiters made all the money. When Wolfgang Puck, David Burke and others came along and started making money, career interests changed. Chefs made more money and became celebrities; suddenly, a kid from a low-income family who didn’t pass eighth grade could now dream of being a chef. Reality cooking shows hit at the right time and right place. A lot of young people come to our table at job fairs and think being a chef is an easy job, glamorous. My daughter asked why I couldn’t make shrimp like Rachel Ray, but there are many things that I can do that Rachel Ray can’t. The age of persons watching these shows plays a role. Teenagers may think what happens on Hell’s Kitchen is true. That’s not my style, and that’s not truly a kitchen. If you watch Iron Chef America, they take breaks to make sure everything fits well for TV.
Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Las Vegas President Kenneth Hause (Le Cordon Bleu is among the world’s most respected culinary arts programs): I can’t tell you if they’ve had an impact on enrollment, but they have absolutely had an impact on interest, which would translate to enrollment eventually. Not only do students take the shows seriously, the industry does, too. Roy’s restaurant recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. [Proprietor] Roy Yamaguchi came to Le Cordon Bleu, and he paired four local top chefs with four students and they had an Iron Chef competition. There are parts of the shows [Ramsay’s tirades, for example] that are more for entertainment. However, in the old days, chefs were more about command and control: my way or the highway; if you want to be creative, get your own restaurant. There’s more democracy in the kitchens now, but there are probably still kitchens [like Ramsay’s]. The shows have been a good thing for culinary schools and for culinary in general. As a kid, most mainstream restaurants I went to served bland fare; a slice of orange on the side and that was fancy. Nowadays, chain restaurants serve far superior food, and I think that’s due in large part to a focus on the arts part of culinary arts and the media.
Chef David Hendricksen of the Culinary Schools at the Art Institute of Las Vegas (the institute is part of North America’s largest system of culinary schools): I’m not sure if the heightened interest in culinary careers is a result of the reality-television shows. More so, I think it’s because food has moved front and center in our lives and has taken on an entertainment position in our culture. Our students take the reality shows with a grain of salt; they realize that [television producers pick] certain personality types to manipulate the situations and to make the shows work. A lot of our students have worked in the industry. Many of the high school students we see have been through programs or have someone in the family in the food industry, so they’re more educated. They’re more interested in the educational programs than the competition shows. Alton Brown’s show [Good Eats on the Food Network] is the type of show that a lot of students watch, because there’s a lot of good information in it. They’re not so interested in chefs being given a bunch of strange ingredients and having to do something with them. That is fine, but becoming a chef isn’t about that; it’s about mastering basic techniques and learning about world cuisines.