Today's chefs have status as well as a secure future
Montpelier, Vt. — At a time when many young people with college degrees are unable to find jobs , chefs are in great demand. A graduate from a good culinary school today has at least four or five job offers and a bright outlook for a future in the food industry despite recent economic trends.
True we do not yet have an American chef with international recognition, but it is a near possibility. Chances are good too, that this kind of honor will come to an American woman.
Cooking now has status, it has become an admirable profession in the United States.
The prestige and honor that once went to foreign chefs are now given to creative young people who are willing to work in a challenging career.
Before they are 30, some young chefs today earn as much as $40,000 a year, according to Francis Voigt, president of the New England Culinary Institute.
This school, off the beaten culinary track in central Vermont, offers a two-year comprehensive course which emphasizes a practical application of skills.
''We provide five different facilities where the students can get this practical experience,'' Mr Voigt said. ''They spend many and long hours in working kitchens preparing food that's being served to a paying public.''
''Kitchen dexterity, hand-eye coordination, speed of execution, stamina, and how to work with others under pressure are the things our students learn in our various kitchens,'' said Michel LeBorgne, executive chef and head instructor, as I talked to him in the kitchen of one of the restaurants.
Out front it was like many pleasant New England restaurant dining rooms, with its sunny windows, maple tables and chairs, and young student waiters and waitresses.
But behind the swinging doors the team of cooks in kitchen whites was equally young, deftly chopping and sauteing julienned vegetables, boning chicken, skimming soup stock, and serving the specialite du jour.
''We have another restaurant, a coffee shop-bakery, a cafeteria, and a catering service, all staffed by students,'' Mr. LeBorgne said.
The philosophy of the school is to prepare qualified students as skilled cooks, many of whom, after more experience, will advance to executive chefs or other supervisory positions.
''Our goal is to admit 30 excellent students each six months. Those 30 will be taught by a dedicated faculty,'' said John Dranow, vice-president and director of admissions.
''With a ratio of six to one, students to faculty, we can provide the close supervision that's needed in this profession,'' he said.
''The primary aim is to turn out cooks who know their way around the kitchen and are at home there,'' he said.
''Some graduates of other culinary schools have a foundation in classroom instruction, but are lacking in a familiarity with a professional kitchen, where things are moving fast and need to be done right the first time and with confidence,'' he said.
''Our students spend a minimum of eight hours a day, five to six days a week, in blocks of instruction in production kitchens, which comprise 85 percent of the program.''
Situated near the school, the kitchen-classrooms are as follows:
The Elm Street Cafe is an attractive, moderate-priced restaurant serving such dishes as Steamed Mussels With Fresh Herbs, Broccoli and Cheese Casserole, and Baked Pork Chops With Apple-Walnut Stuffing.
Tubb's, a small restaurant with a nouvelle cuisine menu, is at the Jailhouse Common, in the downtown area.
Tubb's menu has such dishes as Le Grenadin de Veau aux Champignons Sauvages (Veal Steak With Wild Mushrooms), or Le Plat Oriental, which is Tenderloin Tips, Scallops, and Vegetables, Oriental Style.
Members of the student-operated catering service proudly remember one of their first functions at which they served Julia Child at a theater-benefit in New Haven, Conn., where Mrs. Child gave a talk about cooking.
La Brioche, a small retail and wholesale bake shop, has a large classroom area where students learn to make and sell brioches, croissants, and other high-quality baked goods.
The cafeteria at the Vermont Department of Employment and Training has a customer service area able to handle 150 people.
The day I visited the kitchen at the Elm Street Cafe I looked for the instructor, Mr. LeBorgne, who was as busy as the others, but very much in control of his kitchen brigade.
The place was busy and crowded, a bit steamy with wonderful cooking aromas, but orderly and serious, as the young chefs took orders for Broiled Halibut Steak and sliced fruit tarts and added broccoli to plates of Beef Stroganoff.
In the dining room I had the soup de jour - a delicious Egg-Lemon Soup - and Scallops Provencal, cooked to perfection. A pear tart was so delicious that our photographer requested a slice after he'd finished his chocolate cake.
It was an excellent meal, served well, one of the very best I've ever had in a cooking school dining room.
The school's philosophy is based on very simple concepts determined by the founders, Mr. Voigt and Mr. Dranow, both previously at Goddard College, and Mr. LeBorgne, who was trained and worked in France and was previously executive chef at Yale University.
Learning in an actual restaurant or food service operation prepares students more realistically to be chefs than learning in simulated kitchens, the school maintains.
Students are involved in 8-hour instruction blocks in the kitchens, which operate up to 18 hours a day, 365 days a year. The first term each year is in residence, with students rotating through all phases of basic food preparation.
The second term is a carefully planned paid internship which matches the student's career goals, so he may work an entire term in a particular area of interest and earn a significant part of his tuition.
''I don't give them any illusions about stepping into an easy job when they leave here,'' Chef LeBorgne said.
''In these kitchens students work with the best ingredients available, but the emphasis is on preparing these young adults for the emotional life of restaurant work, the stress and pressure of a busy kitchen, something often lacking in culinary colleges.
''I tell them what hard work it will be and explain that many restaurants where they might work will have small kitchens and facilities that don't come up to ours.''
''I don't pretend to make chefs, but I give them the tools, the foundations, '' he said. ''They need still more experience when they leave here.
''Needless to say, we love what we're doing. We're happy teaching the one thing we know best. In this business you must love what you're doing or you have no business in it.''
For more information about the New England Culinary Institute write Ms. Florence Dalton, New England Culinary Institute, 110 East State Street, Montpelier, Vt. 05602.