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Burnt Chefs 

Former admissions representatives at CCA say they preyed on students’ dreams of becoming celebrity chefs and glossed over the painful economic realities of the industry

Wednesday, Jun 6 2007
In the Polk Street admissions office of the California Culinary Academy, oversized posters display pictures of three of the school's graduates. The three were named "Rising Star Chefs" by the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year, and the school is bursting with pride. The posters make effective recruiting tools — admissions representatives can point to them and tell prospective students that a CCA education is the key to gastronomic fame and glory.

Maybe CCA should have asked the three rising stars how they would feel about serving as photo advertisements for the school.

James Syhabout, who heads PlumpJack Café's kitchen, is the most measured in his evaluation of CCA — but he graduated in 1999, before the school was purchased by a large for-profit education company. "I know the school has definitely changed since I've been there," he said.

Tim Luym, who cooks at the Poleng Lounge in Nopa, said he found the school "a little deceptive." He says no one explained that many graduates of the expensive school go on to kitchen jobs that pay $10 per hour. "They don't really give you the reality of how much you'll be making," he says. "They never give you financials."

The third chef, Chris Kronner of the Slow Club in Potrero Hill, says the school does not have the best interest of the students at heart. "For me it seemed that it was more about money — it was more a body factory, and not as much about education," he says. Kronner also claims that students were pushed along toward graduation with little concern for whether or not they had actually learned anything. "As long as you pay your $50,000, they will give you a degree," he says. When his class graduated in 2003, Kronner and some of his classmates discussed putting together a lawsuit to get their money back.

CCA once had a distinguished reputation for turning out passionate and creative chefs. Many of San Francisco's restaurants are populated with its graduates, and beyond the Bay Area, people still know its name. But the academic atmosphere has changed since Career Education Corporation bought the school in 1999. In the first two years of the company's ownership, the number of culinary students increased from 442 to 1,868. By the time former student Alan Livingston enrolled in May 2005, "it had a factory feel to it," he says, and tuition for the 15-month culinary program was up to $45,000. Today, it's about $47,000.

SF Weekly spoke with more than two dozen applicants, students, and graduates of CCA, and found a pattern of serious complaints. Many former students say admissions representatives told them whatever they thought the applicants needed to hear to get them to sign on the dotted line. The students claim admissions reps said it was a prestigious school that they would be lucky to gain admission to, when it actually admits anyone eligible for a student loan. The graduates say they were misled about the terms of their loans; many have since realized that by the time they finish making payments, they'll have paid more than $100,000 for just 15 months of school. Finally, the students and graduates we spoke to were told that a CCA degree virtually guaranteed them a well-paying job at an elite restaurant. In fact, the majority went on to low-paying kitchen jobs — and many soon left the food industry entirely in search of salaries that would pay off their student debt.

Two former admissions representatives who worked at CCA confirm that students were misled. The former employees say admissions reps preyed on students' dreams of becoming celebrity chefs, and glossed over the painful economic realities of the industry. The two women describe a high-pressure sales environment where the reps were focused solely on meeting enrollment numbers, not on finding students who would benefit from the program.

CCA's parent company, Career Education Corporation, has faced similar accusations against some of its other schools — the corporation has recently been hit with eight lawsuits from disgruntled students around the country. Federal officials have begun to ask questions, too, and both the Education Department and the Justice Department have ongoing inquiries regarding Career Education. CCA has essentially gotten a free pass from the state regulators, however, as has every other for-profit college in California. The agency's enforcement program is so ineffectual, state officials are allowing it to shut down this summer while they try to create a better alternative.

The president of CCA, Ann Gibson, said in a written response that she was disappointed to hear of the students' complaints. "California Culinary Academy is proud of the Le Cordon Bleu culinary education we have provided to students over the years, and we are proud of our many happy students, graduates, and successful alumni," she wrote. Gibson wrote that students should expect to start in entry-level positions after graduation, but that their CCA training should give them an advantage as they try to climb the career ladder.

You wouldn't know it from talking to Ron Siegel, chef at the Ritz-Carlton's prestigious Dining Room restaurant and one of CCA's most famous graduates. He attended the school around 1990, and went on to win televised glory as the first American to win Iron Chef. Siegel says he doesn't want any more CCA students in his kitchen. "The last one I took from there, the person came one time, and no-showed after that," he says. "I don't need that. So I probably wouldn't take anyone from there again."

Next to the posters in CCA's bright and modern admissions office, there's a flat-screen TV that's perpetually tuned to the Food Network. Around lunchtime, there's the Barefoot Contessa. A few hours later, along comes Emeril.

The sheen of celebrity that clings to chefs these days is one of the best things CCA has going for it. People with dreams of prime time flock to CCA's admissions office, where the school's representatives know just what to do.

"They sell them this dream that they're going to have their own cooking show," says a woman who used to work as an admissions counselor, whom we'll call Emily. She asked to remain anonymous because she now works for a competing school. In 2004 she quit her CCA job and sent a whistle-blowing letter to the state regulatory agency. "You tell them, "We have this graduate who has a TV show ... and this graduate who has a show.' That's how you sell it," Emily says.

To channel leads to the admissions office, the school engages in a marketing campaign that includes ads on daytime TV, when people who are trying to figure out their lives are likely to be flipping through the channels. CCA also sends representatives out to speak at high schools, to recruit fresh-faced seniors who aren't interested in college, but have no idea what else to do. On the Web site, prospective students can fill out a survey to determine if they're a "candidate for acceptance," which channels them straight into an online enrollment process.

Jennifer D'Ambrosio also saw it all from the inside. She worked as an admissions rep in San Francisco for five months in 2004, after transferring from a Los Angeles school also owned by parent company Career Education Corporation.

D'Ambrosio says the CCA admissions office was a pressure cooker, and that the admissions representatives would go to whatever lengths necessary to meet their numbers — each rep needed 15 enrollments per month to stay in the administration's good graces. Both D'Ambrosio and Emily said that representatives believed that they would be fired if they didn't hit their numbers for a few months in a row, and they were rewarded if they did. Emily recalled getting a free dinner at the Ritz-Carlton and gift certificates to the school store for hitting her enrollment numbers. Under federal law, it's illegal for schools to pay recruiters based on the number of students they enroll, but CCA could be skirting that line.

In CCA President Gibson's written response, she denied that the school compensates its reps based on the number of enrollments, but said that their bonus policy is based on student retention and graduation rates. She wrote that she could not speculate on the circumstances surrounding the specific allegations being made, but that admissions reps were expected to deal with students with honesty and integrity.

But both former employees say they worked at CCA at a difficult time for the institution — the school had just started a new program in hospitality and restaurant management, and was trying to expand into a new building on Potrero Hill. The admissions staff apparently wasn't roping in enough students to fill those classes. During the year Emily worked there, the number of admissions reps doubled, from about 15 to more than 30. Today, there are 37 admissions reps listed on the office roster.

To close a sale, admissions reps engaged in tactics worthy of a used-car dealership, the two insiders say. Both women say the administrators were obsessed with meeting the numbers for the next start date, and admissions reps were told to pressure students who wanted to delay enrollment to start as soon as possible. They always told students that classes were filling up fast. And when the school didn't have enough students signing up for the management program, Emily alleges that her supervisor in admissions told reps to steer all their applicants to that program — by whatever means necessary. "Every student you interview today is going to hospitality and restaurant management," Emily claims her supervisor said. "Tell them that's the most marketable degree."

Finally, the admissions counselors tried to make the program seem worth its exorbitant price tag by giving students the impression that the school was selective. "We were advised to tell the students that because it's such a prestigious school, Cordon Bleu recognized, yadda yadda, you have to tell me why you should be accepted," D'Ambrosio says.

The two women claim that actually, anyone with a high school diploma who could get a loan was in. At the Los Angeles school that D'Ambrosio worked at prior to CCA, she says the admissions reps joked that all a prospective student needed for admission was the $50 application fee and a pulse. At CCA, the situation was a little different: "The admission fee was more than $50 — but you still just needed a pulse." Emily adds, "They were enrolling people who don't speak English, who tell you they have a very serious learning disability. It's like, 'Yeah, uh-huh, can you sign up for a loan? Then you're going to school.'"

The CCA graduates who now feel the most ripped-off have one thing in common: They went in to CCA with a strong desire to better themselves, and to rise in the world, but came out weighed down instead.

Abdel Lebbar, 41 years old, immigrated from Morocco 14 years ago. He was working in graphic design when the dot-com crash made the jobs in his field disappear, forcing him to make a new plan. "All my friends told me, 'Abdel, you're missing your calling. You're a great cook,'" he remembers. So in spring of 2002 he called up CCA, he says, and the admissions people told him it was the best culinary school in the West. When he went to the office for an interview, he claims the counselor who sat down with him lied to him.

"She said, 'When you graduate, you're probably going to make $45,000,'" he says. "She showed me statistics on how their students were doing. I thought, 45 to start with, that's great." He knew he'd be paying back his student loans after graduation, he says, "but I thought, 'With 45, I can manage. I can have roommates and start repaying my loans.'"

Lebbar's parents weren't in a position to help him out, and he had no savings and bad credit. But the financial aid counselor told him not to worry, and signed him up for $42,000-worth of Sallie Mae loans to cover school tuition and fees. Then he got another $15,000 loan to cover his living expenses during the program.

The enormity of what he'd done didn't hit Lebbar until after he graduated in 2004, when he started looking for work. He says that several times, when a chef saw the name CCA on his resume, her eyebrows would lift, or a smile would flit across her face. "I realized, CCA doesn't mean anything," he says bitterly. "It's one of the most expensive cooking schools in the nation — but I didn't realize, expensive doesn't equal a good reputation."

Now, he works on the management side of a catering company, and makes $15 per hour. (He stopped looking for cooking jobs several years ago, because many pay even less.) He has put his loans in forbearance several times, but in July he has to resume making monthly payments of $1,250. The money left over from his paycheck won't be enough to cover his rent, car payments, and other bills, Lebbar says. "I foresee it," he says, "I'm going to be living in my car." He has already worked out the contingency plan — his company has an on-site gym, so he'll arrive at work early to shower and shave in the locker room each day.

When Lebbar decided to go to CCA, he was full of optimism. "I wanted to better myself, I was looking for the American dream," he says. Now, with his loan balance up to $83,000, he's not looking anymore. "What is the American dream?" he asks bitterly. "Is it to be covered in debt?"

His complaints are echoed by many of the students and graduates whom SF Weekly spoke with. Looking back on the admissions process, many say the counselors pressured them or misled them. Many remember being told that an admission board would have to consider their application, and say they brought in transcripts and resumes to convince their admissions reps that they were worthy of an elite school.

Most graduates said that they had some excellent chef instructors who were devoted to their craft and dedicated to their students. But the former students also told of instructors who had no business in a classroom. Brook Gossard, who now works at Bar Tartine, remembers an instructor from France who barely spoke English, and who didn't know what a syllabus was. Another former student, Daniel (who asked that his last name not be used), remembers the teacher for his advanced wine studies class. "She said, 'I've never drunk anything in my life. I had a glass of wine on my 18th birthday and I threw up.'"

Then, there were the classmates. Serious students complain that CCA's open-door admissions policy was combined with a policy of passing everyone through to graduation, regardless of performance. They tell of students who made it to the final class without learning basic techniques, like how to julienne a vegetable (to the kitchen-averse, that means to cut it into thin strips), or how to make a consommé (a slowly simmered soup made from meat and bouillon).

The most disturbing story comes from a culinary class that graduated in August 2006. Alan Livingston recalls a student who was transferred into his class who had severe learning or mental disabilities; it was clear to everyone that he didn't belong in school. Livingston remembers one day in their baking and pastry class, when each student brought their finished product to the front of the room for critique. "He made a peanut butter and jelly pizza ... it's hard to describe," he says.

Another student from Livingston's class confirmed the account of the troubled student, and added that in the last class, the student got yelled at because he literally couldn't figure out how to boil water. Both say they thought it was outrageous that the student was passed through to graduation without learning basic skills. "Someone should have said, 'Stop, save your money,'" says Livingston. "I thought it was very unethical."

CCA also uses its career services as a selling point; the course catalog brags about the school's active job-placement assistance and its "industry connections" at the finest resorts and restaurants. What that translates to, say graduates, is career counselors who hand you lists of places where their students have gotten jobs in the past. When Sarah, who also asked that her last name be omitted, went to career services at the beginning of the school year to inquire about part-time work, the counselor suggested a job at the Gap. "I actually left crying," she says. Meanwhile, of the 11 people who finished the restaurant management class with her husband Daniel in 2006, three went to work at Starbucks afterward, two as baristas.

Many graduates believe that CCA is flooding the Bay Area market with graduates who aren't properly trained and who bring down the reputation of the school, thus damaging the job prospects of all graduates. "I've gone to interviews and had people raise their eyebrows and say, "I have my own opinions about CCA,'" says Jennifer Browning. She remembers specifically interviewing at the Café Cacao at the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory in Berkeley, and seeing the pastry chef's interest wane when she saw CCA on Browning's resume. Browning didn't get the job.

Graduates say their first loan payment statements made their jaws drop. Former student Ross Johnson says the financial aid counselor who set up his loans told him that his monthly loan payments were likely to be about $300 a month. When he got his first statement six months after graduation, the monthly charge was $1,100. He has six loans from Sallie Mae, four with interest rates above 13 percent — one with the staggering rate of 19.8 percent.

Johnson worked a few restaurant jobs after graduation, including a stint as the sous chef at Nordstrom's Bistro Café. But with his total debt up to about $88,000, he had to give up on low-paying cooking work and search for a better salary. Now he's making decent money — he makes $20 per hour installing beer kegs and cleaning taps.

CCA President Gibson wrote that she was prohibited by federal privacy regulations from commenting on individual students, or their complaints. However, she wrote that it's CCA policy to give students "a realistic understanding of the realities of the industry." She wrote that advancement in the culinary field requires not only the skills learned in culinary school, but also "a strong work ethic, a commitment to excellence," and several other attributes. Regarding student loans, Gibson stressed that CCA helps students get all the federal and state aid they're eligible for before turning to private lenders. It's school policy to inform students that private loans generally carry higher interest rates than federal student loans, she wrote.

Finally, Gibson denied the general allegation that the school puts its own financial interests ahead of the students' welfare. "Providing a valuable service and managing a well-run, profitable business are not mutually exclusive events," she wrote.

The admissions reps often work a bit about the Culinary Academy's distinguished history into their sales pitch. CCA was founded in San Francisco in 1977, which makes it one of the oldest culinary schools in the West.

The school had immediate cachet: Both James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher, two demigods of American cuisine, spoke at the first graduation ceremony. Back then, CCA had stricter admission standards that required applicants to have some experience in the restaurant industry — so they knew what they were getting into. The school grew steadily until the late '90s, when it embarked on an ambitious expansion plan. It created three satellite campuses in California to teach basic cooking skills, and also bought property in New Orleans, planning to spend $18 million on a large campus there.

But it soon became clear that the school had bitten off more than it could chew. By 1999 the school was in default on its San Francisco tax payments, and the annual report warned investors that bankruptcy was a looming possibility. A group of unhappy shareholders called a halt to the school's expansion schemes, and started talking profits. They brought in Career Education Corporation, a young but rapidly expanding company in the for-profit education business.

Career Education was a favorite of Wall Street investors. In 1995 it had revenues of about $19 million; by 1999 revenues were up to about $217 million, according to annual reports. It grew through a decade-long buying spree, snapping up small or struggling schools and rapidly expanding their programs and enrollment. CCA was a typical acquisition. Career Education had already bought six culinary schools, and considered them a profitable and growing sector.

The corporation paid about $31 million for CCA, then quickly nixed the New Orleans deal and shut down the satellite campuses. It steered a course toward the high end: The company had already secured a deal with Le Cordon Bleu, the elite Parisian cooking school, which allows CEC to use the name to boost its brand at all its culinary schools. In 2006 alone, the company paid royalties of $14.4 million for that privilege.

In essence, the company was buying its credentials, claims Emily, the former admissions representative. "CEC bought the Culinary Academy, and the Culinary Academy had a really good reputation," she says. "They bought the rubber stamp of Le Cordon Bleu. They put those two together, and they just marketed them like wild."

The company now owns 16 culinary schools around the country, but CCA, with its 30-year history, is its crown jewel. Some former professors say the purchase benefited the school, because it brought an influx of capital that allowed the school to upgrade the kitchens and facilities. Some also say that the formerly independent school was disorganized, and that the corporate takeover helped students by introducing a standardized curriculum.

But the school changed in other ways as well. In 2003 it launched an 11-month program of hospitality and restaurant management. The culinary program, which had previously offered day and evening class schedules with seven hours of instruction each, switched to a schedule of three shorter classes each day. Career Education leased an empty building in Potrero Hill in anticipation of the influx of new students. Yet in 2005 the school laid off 23 associate chefs, who students said helped the chef instructors provide one-on-one instruction in the crowded kitchens.

Meanwhile, tuition and fees sneaked upward for all three programs that the school offers: the culinary arts and the restaurant management degree programs, and a baking and pastry certificate program. The culinary program's rise in total price was most dramatic: It went from about $36,000 in 2002 to a high of $48,251 earlier this year. The price just dropped about $1,000, but only because the school is eliminating its student dining facilities.

CCA isn't the only game in town. The City College of San Francisco offers a two-year culinary program that has students in school for eight hours a day, five days a week. At that program's end, the students have earned an Associate in Science degree, which means if they transfer to a four-year university, they're halfway through. In contrast, CCA awards students an Associate's Degree in Occupational Studies, the same degree that massage therapists get. The credits earned at CCA can't be transferred to any other institution.

Edward Hamilton, head of the Culinary Arts and Hospitality Studies department at City College, is proud that his program has a reputation for turning out work-ready students. And while he says that CCA also produces "reputable and qualified" students, he doesn't think they're any better than his. "Our students and their students compete for the same jobs," he says.

The total price for the two-year program at City College, including tools and uniforms? About $2,200.

In California, for-profit schools are regulated by the state's Bureau of Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education, a watchdog agency that is universally derided for its lax enforcement, and which legislators are allowing to shut down this summer as they put together legislation to create a new, reformed agency (see sidebar). However, the Bureau does have a few explicit requirements for information that must be given to prospective students. Each applicant must be given a copy of the school's "completion rates," or the number of students who finish the program, as well as the school's "placement rates," defined as graduates who are working full time in the industry within six months of graduation.

CCA graduates who kept their application material show that they did receive this information — but the statistics they were given are highly questionable, if not outright fraudulent.

A page from a 2003-2004 catalog insert states that of 601 culinary students who graduated the year before, 98.5 percent had full-time jobs in their field. That's the information that convinced Sarah to sign up. She didn't question the numbers until after graduation. Sarah is now selling knives to try to pay off her student loans, and says that only two people from her class of 16 are still cooking. "We all feel like we can't afford to cook!" she says.

That high figure must have seemed like a stretch to the school, too. In the 2005 catalog that students received, a 2003 figure of 98 percent is covered by a stapled-in page that drops the placement rate down to 89 percent. Today, the school's materials claim an 81 percent placement rate. Graduates say the new figure might be accurate — if the school is including every Starbucks barista in its count of positive outcomes.

The complaints and allegations against CCA should sound familiar to its parent company, Career Education Corporation. Over the past few years, the company has been hit with a succession of student lawsuits, and federal investigations are underway. All take issue with admissions policies and question the truthfulness of admissions representatives.

In 2005 people began asking questions about the company's business model, and investigating how it made such spectacular profits. A 60 Minutes report on the company aired that year, and blasted several of its schools for lying to students, and providing a shoddy education. The TV team sent an undercover reporter to apply for a medical assistant training program, and showed that an admissions counselor was willing to enroll an applicant who couldn't pass the entrance exam and who had both a history of drug use and a fear of blood.

Through 2005 and 2006, former students from eight different Career Education Corporation schools filed lawsuits. All but one of the suits against the company are still pending; a case in Missouri was settled out of court in May with an undisclosed payment to the former students. While the education programs in question range widely — from medical billing to photography — the allegations in each case are strikingly similar. Each suit accuses a school of intentional misrepresentations and consumer fraud, and most specifically mention false statements regarding admission criteria and student job-placement rates. Career Education has denied the allegations made in the lawsuits.

In November 2006 the federal Education Department told Career Education that it would conduct program reviews at 10 of its schools — including the California Culinary Academy. In these program reviews, the department looks at a school's compliance with rules governing the federal student aid programs. An Education Department spokeswoman confirmed that the review is in progress at CCA, but said she can't comment until it's completed.

Meanwhile, a Justice Department investigation is believed to be underway in Washington, D.C. According to Career Education's most recent annual report, the Department's Civil Division wrote to the company in May 2006 asking for certain documents. Specifically, according to the annual report, the feds are interested in information given to prospective students regarding job-placement rates and the costs of attending school, and also want details on how admissions personnel were compensated. A spokesman said the Justice Department had "absolutely no comment" on the matter.

All this has made investors somewhat queasy. A report by a financial analyst for Bank of America did note that Career Education claims to have turned over a new leaf: The company has a crop of new executives to replace those tainted by the recent lawsuits and inquiries, and placed new directors of compliance at each school (although the position is currently vacant at CCA). However, the report questioned whether the company's commitment to "learning outcomes" had improved and noted that the ratio of admissions representatives to career counselors throughout the company is still 15 to one.

None of the CCA students we spoke with knew much about Career Education or its legal troubles. But almost all of them say they wished they had done more research on CCA and studied the terms of their loans more carefully. Several say they have thought about taking legal action, but don't know where to start. Their outrage has found various outlets. Some graduates have resorted to posting diatribes on and other online review sites, trying to warn off potential students. Former student Matthew Jarvis, the manager at Zazil restaurant in the Westfield Mall, has another idea: "I've sometimes thought about going to the school on my days off with a picket sign: 'Don't go to school here, come ask me why.'"

About The Author

Eliza Strickland


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