RALPH SALES no longer spends his days driving bulldozers and operating cranes on the streets of St. Louis. Instead, he's been fine-tuning such skills as garnishing platters, boning chicken, and sauteeing vegetables in a Vermont kitchen.
Mr. Sales, a second-year student at the New England Culinary Institute (NECI), is one of a growing number of folks who are dropping their careers to enroll in cooking school.
Reasons vary: Some lost their jobs during the recession and are exploring the option of going full-time with a favorite hobby. Others yearn to work in an environment vastly different from the office job that has left them disillusioned. Still others are chasing what Money magazine, U.S. News & World Report, and other publications have dubbed "a fast-track career for the '90s."
These media reports are based on findings such as that of the National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that food service jobs will increase 30 percent and chef positions 42 percent between 1990 and 2005.
NECI's success rate alone is often enough of a lure: Five attractive job offers await every one of its graduates, says co-founder John Dranow.
Four students from this spring's recent crop of graduates have already landed sous-chef positions at Maxwell's Restaurant, Blacksburg, Va.; La Colline, Washington, D.C.; Blantyre, Lenox, Mass.; Keystone Resort, Keystone, Colo.
But to Sales, who will graduate in November after interning at Blackhawk restaurant in Kirkwood, Mo., the rosy job market is merely "icing on the cake."
The decision to leave his construction job of 15 years was triggered primarily by a desire to "nurture his love of cooking," he says during a break from making pork tenderloin in his banquet class. His growing weariness with the instability ("we never knew when we might go on strike") and hope for more appreciation ("as a cook, you're always getting a pat on the back") also influenced him to make a change.
In Mr. Dranow's opinion, Sales's situation is optimum. "If what you really want to do coincides with a tremendous job picture, that can be quite miraculous," he says.
Both Dranow and his partner Francis Voigt are career-changers themselves, having left jobs - Dranow as a teacher and Voigt as an administrator - at nearby Goddard College in 1980 to launch the institute.
Dranow is also an accomplished fiction writer, having published his second novel, "The Magic Step," just last year. His wife is Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Gluck.
Dranow attributes the strong enrollment, which has grown at about 10 percent a year in the last decade among the nation's 625 accredited culinary and food-management schools, to a recession that rolled through various industries since the early '80s (first auto and steel, then farming, then oil and gas, and most recently, financial services and retail), leaving its displaced workers plenty of time for self-assessment.
With each wave NECI gained an influx of students - usually older, better educated, and more savvy to the working world, Dranow says.
Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I. also got a boost from the weak economy. Assistant director of public relations Linda Beaulieu has been so intrigued by this trend at her school that she's profiled some of these students for several small New England newspapers. One man was a CPA before enrolling at Johnson & Wales. "His [new] boss loves it because he not only knows how to cook, but he also understands the bottom line," she says.
Dranow explains that the decision to switch careers might have grown out of an exchange such as this: "What did you like to do? Well, I love food, and I love to cook, and I love to make people happy, and what I really like to do is go home with my Julia Child cookbook or my Larousse and make dinner for my friends and family."
It's this sort of soul-searching that led Will Combes to step forward when his company, B.P. Oil in Cleveland, asked for lay-off volunteers last year.
Now, with his first six months at NECI behind him, the self-proclaimed "avid amateur" cook recently returned to his home state of Ohio.
Mr. Combes is continuing his schooling as an intern (each year of NECI's 2-year program consists of six months on campus, followed by six months off, working as a paid intern) at the newly-opened restaurant "Pastabilities," just outside Cleveland.
Whereas Sales was hardpressed to draw any similarities between his past and present vocation, Combes says both his old job as a mid-level manager and the rigors of culinary school demand interpersonal skills as well as a keen sense of logic and organization.
Both career-changers acknowledge that, at least starting out, their salaries will be much lower than they're used to.
"But, what a difference in the quality of my life; I'll be doing something I really enjoy," Combes says, radiantly, during an interview in the elegant dining room at Tubb's restaurant, one of four public establishments run by NECI students in Montpelier.
According to Money magazine, the average salary for a chef is $35,000; for an executive chef it can sometimes climb as high as $200,000. But, cooking-school graduates usually start in entry-level line-cook jobs that pay between $18,000 and $20,000.
And a culinary education doesn't come cheap. At $16,175 per year, Mary Ceglarski had to take out a loan when she enrolled at NECI in 1991 after six years on the trading floor of the Boston Stock Exchange.
But the former market analyst has no regrets. Taking a break from cake decorating at the NECI-run gourmet bakery La Brioche, she speaks enthusiastically about her choice and determinedly about her goals, which are tinged with altruism.
"I want to teach people about food ... to help children and people who are financially hampered," she says.
Ms. Ceglarski is inspired by the strides women have made in the culinary field, which has traditionally been dominated by men.
Topping her list of role models are Alice Waters, chef and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. ("for her belief in organic and home-grown foods"); Julia Child ("she has made it easier for women to get into cooking professionally"); and M.F.K. Fisher ("for her sense of humor and view of food as a vital part of life").
Ceglarski's aspirations don't stop at chefdom; she also plans to own a restaurant. She holds no illusions about the challenges, many of which she has already faced.
"It's culinary boot camp here, much more intense than I expected," she says. When she's not poaching and dicing in the kitchen, she's researching German and French puff-pastry recipes or crunching numbers for her math homework.
But Ceglarski's efforts have already begun to pay off. Just this week, she began making appetizers, pastries, and pastas at Hemingway's in Killington, one of Vermont's two four-star restaurants where she cinched an internship for her final term at NECI.
Her new boss, Hemingway's owner and executive chef Ted Fondulas, is a big fan of career-changers . "They seem to be more centered and more mature," he says. "They have a vision or a goal, and they're clear about it."