Published Online: May 3, 2010

Philly Culinary Schools Change, at What Price?

For nearly two decades, a culinary arts program has taught teenagers from the city's toughest neighborhoods about the art of fine cuisine and the skills for making it a career.

But changes intended to lead graduates into higher-paying hospitality jobs outside of the kitchen are leaving a bitter taste in some mouths — and marking the final course for thousands of dollars in scholarships for future classes of aspiring Julia Childs and Jacques Pepins.

Careers through Culinary Arts Programs, or C-CAP, provides teacher training, cooking competitions for scholarships, job training, college and career guidance, and product donations in seven school districts nationwide including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C.

During its 18 years with the Philadelphia School District, the New York-based organization has channeled $4 million in scholarships from the country's most prestigious culinary colleges to hundreds of high school students.

C-CAP sponsors an annual French cooking competition, where winners receive partial or full scholarships from the schools themselves, as well as cash awards for $500 to $20,000 provided by donors. The district pays C-CAP $15,000 to run the preliminary and final competition, where students get two hours to prepare from memory a two-course French meal for a panel of judge chefs.

"It's really respected in the culinary industry, it would be a shame to see it go," said Lasheeda Perry, 24, a C-CAP alumna and 2004 high school graduate. "We need programs like C-CAP. I'm still blown away by all the things I've been able to do because of it."

Perry, who grew up in poverty and became caretaker of her younger siblings after her mother became terminally ill, earned a full $80,000 scholarship to Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island. She is working as a pastry cook at the Four Seasons in Dallas and hopes to open her own pastry cafe one day.

Among the Philadelphia school district's proposed program changes are a shift from spending less class time on lower paying "back of the house" skills like cooking and preparation and more time on more lucrative "front of the house" jobs like customer service and hospitality, school district officials said.

Officials also say student interest in the culinary program has declined. It's not clear why, but the hope is that the changes will make it more attractive to students.

The district's retooling of its 15-school culinary-arts program, in part, aims to secure a bigger slice of the pie of state funding. Under the complicated new guidelines, schools must essentially show that graduates reach and maintain a certain wage level for five years in the work force.

However, the restaurant industry is known for paying very little to aspiring chefs looking to break into the business.

Valarie Costanzo, who oversees the school district's culinary arts programs, said the changes are designed to give her students a broader set of skills, to include kids with less-than-stellar grades, and to ensure the district would not lose any state funding.

"Employers say to us that they can teach specific skills like icing a cake or food preparation," she said. "We want to be able to look at the whole picture: thinking on their feet, problem solving, communication skills."

The changes also will open the program to "the C+ student who's got some talent" but isn't cut out for prestige schools like Johnson and Wales or The Culinary Institute of America, Costanzo said.

Richard Grausman, the founder of Careers through Culinary Arts Programs, said the proposed change in focus is unrealistic. Philadelphia is the only C-CAP affiliated school district that is cutting the program, he said.

"Many of the front-of-the-house positions that (school district officials) are talking about are not available to people under 21," he said. "How can high school students get their start if they are not willing to start at the bottom?"

As for the potential loss of C-CAP scholarship money, Costanzo said she hopes the organization will continue its work in Philadelphia.

"We value C-CAP," she said. "I want to keep it here as far as Richard Grausman wants to keep us."

The program will not be able to return, Grausman said, "without the district's commitment to C-CAP's goals and sufficient financial support for us to do the job effectively."

Perry, the 2004 graduate, acknowledged that the pay is low, and the work is hard, but she has no regrets.

"It's about having passion for what you do, and knowing that your hard work will pay off," she said. "I love what I'm doing. I don't expect to be making six figures."

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