What was the recipe for Le Cordon Bleu's US school closings?

It was announced this week that the culinary school is closing its doors in the US. Are American culinary students better off in a classroom or restaurant kitchen?

A modern-day Julia Child’s recipe for kitchen success might leave out the expensive culinary school education that could lead to the bad aftertaste of student debt.

Student walk-outs and lawsuits alleging false claims of job prospects for graduates coupled with a recent shift by the federal government to demand job prospects match a high-priced education, may have led to Wednesday’s announcement by Career Education Corporation that it intends to close all 16 Le Cordon Bleu culinary schools in the United States.

The last day for enrollment at Le Cordon Bleu's US locations is January 4, 2016, according to NBC Chicago, for those who wish to be among the last to hold a degree from those institutions.

In an effort to protect students at career colleges from becoming burdened by student loan debt they can't repay, the US Department of Education (DOE) tied access to federal aid to graduate success, thus making these programs accountable for putting their students on the path to success and to protect consumers from "fraud, waste and abuse, particularly at for-profit colleges," according to the DOE website.

A spokesperson for Le Cordon Bleu wrote in a statement to The Christian Science Monitor that "Le Cordon Bleu is built on a storied tradition of high-quality culinary education. Like in many fields, working in the culinary arts often requires working your way up. Those with education training often have the foundational skills to help them better begin that journey."

As Buzzfeed reported, the institutions' degrees were threatened by the Obama Administration's gainful employment rule, a new regulation that establishes tougher standards for career training programs in order to help protect students from being saddled with difficult-to-repay debt. 

The Le Cordon Bleu spokesperson told the Monitor that "uncertainly created by the future effect of the regulations on career colleges like Le Cordon Bleu certainly factored into the considerations by every party that expressed interest in possibly assuming ownership of the schools."

While Ms. Child famously graduated from the rigors of a Le Cordon Bleu Paris-based education, it was her personality and advice to would-be cooks to “have the courage of your convictions” in the kitchen more than her education that won her acclaim.

Jehangir Mehta, a New York City restauranteur, says that formal education is not what he looks for in his culinary staff.

“School always helps, all education is great,” writes Mr. Mheta in an email response. “But on the other hand if you are a student who likes to absorb and learn I feel you just need to work with an experienced chef as an apprentice and you shall learn masterfully. I know of numerous cooks who have graduated in this manner and are brilliant chefs.”

While numerous would-be employees come to him bearing culinary school degrees he says, “I hire based on attitude. For me, attitude is everything. An open mind and hard work will get you wherever you need to be.” 

The question arises on culinary discussion boards like Chef Talk whether would-be chefs aren’t better off working in a kitchen and learning on the job, while gaining their knowledge from top chefs like Mario BataliAlton BrownLe Cordon Bleu and others providing free, in-depth classes via YouTube and iTunes University channels.

Although few question the benefits of education in general, the value of a costly culinary school diploma has come into question as more graduates fail to find employment that keeps their heads above water, let alone repays massive student debt.

According to Eater’s breakdown of National Center for Education Statistics data, Le Cordon Bleu is actually one of the least expensive culinary schools with annual tuition costs in the $30,000 range, while the International Culinary Center (ICC) charges fees upwards of $70,000 per school year for 2014-2015.

In June of 2013, Le Cordon Bleu's Pasadena, Calif., campus settled a lawsuit with alumnus graduate Annie Berkowitz and her father Martin Berkowitz to the tune of $217,000, for allegedly making fraudulent claims of the employment available after graduation and for encouraging the student to take out loans she would not be able to repay after training, according to L.A. Weekly.

In April 2013, students at the Culinary Institute of America's Hyde Park, New York location staged a walkout to protest what they perceived as weakening academic standards alongside massive debt accrual.

In 2014, former ICC students filed a lawsuit in the US District Court of New York against the school.

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