Out of the gray gloom of the US job market, a torch of hope beckons from a two-story building in downtown Chicago: "Bring me your downsized workers, your weary clock-punchers, your oppressed professionals."
The nondescript building houses the Cooking & Hospitality Institute of Chicago, also known as "CHIC." Inside, students in white tunics and toques blanches, bubbling with satisfaction, bustle about with kitchen implements.
From computer operators to policemen, and construction workers to therapists, the 550 students at CHIC - many of them downsized workers or people looking for a mid-career change - are engrossed in such tasks as baking cream-filled puff pastries drizzled with chocolate. For most it is a labor of love - and one with excellent career prospects.
"I've always had a passion for cooking," says Deborah Freeman, a former customer service representative for Ameritech. As the telecommunications company downsized last August, Ms. Freeman opted for early retirement.
"I wasn't all that happy, so the idea of staying and getting sacked would have killed me," she confides during a pastry class. Ameritech is now paying half the tuition for her cooking certificate, and Freeman is delighted with her new job at a Chicago cafe.
The United States Labor Department estimates that more than 1 million of the 17.7 million jobs to be created nationwide from 1994 to 2005 will be in food services. That constitutes nearly 80 percent of the projected employment growth for all retail trades.
Cooks, bakers, and other food preparers will have about 500,000 new positions, while another 500,000 jobs will go to waiters and waitresses. The demand, which was even greater during the past decade, arises as families increasingly dine out for convenience. "People just aren't cooking. Even if they are eating at home they are eating prepared foods," says CHIC proprietor Linda Calafiore.
"The industry is so labor intensive. It's one of the few areas where you can't replace jobs with machines," she adds. Graduates easily find work, and many open their own restaurants, catering businesses, or bed and breakfasts.
Still, although salaries can range as high as $100,000 to $150,000 for chefs at big hotels, Ms. Calafiore acknowledges that the occupation "is by no means one you go into to get rich."
The real pull, she says: "The job satisfaction is immediate."
Calafiore herself defected from a job pushing papers at a state education bureaucracy to open the cooking school at a vacant, one-room restaurant in 1983. Since then, CHIC has expanded into a 30,000-square foot, three-kitchen facility with an annual budget of $2.5 million.
But the most striking testimony to CHIC's success is the enthusiasm of its students.
Take James Knowski. A burly policeman from the west Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Mr. Knowski says he enrolled at CHIC because he's tired of dealing with gangs and domestic squabbles and wants to open a restaurant.
"I'm a little burned out," says Knowski, wearing a green baseball cap and navy blue "Pure Sweat" T-shirt. "My job has taken its toll. It hardens you - I'm hard enough."
Knowski says he has loved cooking ever since his mother taught him to make bacon and eggs for breakfast when he was 10 years old. Now he's the police station's informal chef, carting his box of cooking gear to office parties and concocting romantic dinners for his partners and their dates.
He savors the memory of one particularly inspired meal, a butterflied pork loin stuffed with spinach, bacon, and garlic accompanied by a rainbow of vegetables ribboned with Hollandaise sauce. "It was kind of neat," he recalls.
ike Knowski, many at CHIC are adults making a mid-career shift.
"I want to be a bean cooker instead of a bean counter," quips an accountant at a large Chicago firm. Fed up with the rat race, she is clandestinely studying part-time at CHIC and asked that her name be withheld lest clients find out.
Billy Craig, a frustrated guitarist bored with his $10-an-hour day job installing car alarms, dreams of setting up an eatery in a Colorado resort town.
For others, culinary school offers special opportunities for personal growth.
"I was always afraid of yeast," admits Matthew Fawver, a former nursing assistant who says he inherited the phobia from his mother. Learning to bake bread was, well, emotionally challenging. Yet Mr. Fawver's triumph is evident in his choice of a new career: baker.