Although each writer offers variations in perspective and argument, they all question the fitness of Millennials for the working realities of the professional kitchen, the impact that food media has had on the perception of what it takes to be a chef, and current standards in culinary education.
Chang himself takes aim squarely at culinary schools. He charges that they need to raise enrollment standards “a little bit higher.” He posits that schools focusing exclusively on graduation and placement rates are in the business of manufacturing hope. He wants schools to practice more truth telling and reveal five year retention rates. Chang wants educators to produce—and attract—graduates who can survive longer in the hospitality business than a few years. He wants educators to invest in the industry and to be career-builders, not simply career-launchers.
Institutions counter the charge of declining enrollment standards by claiming that program entry is tied to restaurant experience. The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) asserts that it “requires students to have had at least six months experience working in a restaurant—front or back of the house—for admission.” In the case of the CIA this may hold true, and their application rates likely run high enough to support this. But in general, overstating a commitment to ensuring that a candidate is suitable is often little more than institutional rhetoric. Will a school that has developed enrollment goals sacrifice bums in seats to meet those ideals?
Institutional budgets are based on enrollment projections set long before students show up. For most schools, those projections will guarantee that a healthy portion of the student population comprises indiscriminate enrollees, students lacking in maturity and commitment and not well suited to the career of cooking. Chang is onto something. Stemming the tide may very well go a long way toward building a more career-oriented chef.
In Canada, the swell of applicants in culinary institutions has run parallel to the gutting of the apprenticeship system. Financially, it’s more viable for institutions to have full-time students rather than apprentices. There are very few schools in Ontario that still fully embrace apprenticeship; most now treat it like the forgotten container at the back of the fridge. New York chef Daniel Boulud has joined David Chang in echoing the sentiments of many of their peers in advocating for a return to this tradition as a part of a plan for building a more robust industry.
Internship has become the academic replacement for the vital practical experience that is the cornerstone of apprenticeship. Unfortunately, in the process, the work-study ratio has been inverted. Where once, apprentices would spend most of their time in professional kitchens, supplementing their practical learning with a moderate dose of in-school academics, now many students have a seven-week period of internship in a two-year full-time academic program. Experience-wise it’s little more than an amuse-bouche-size bite of reality. A young person gets barely enough time to understand the complex workings of a professional kitchen, let alone form the important bonds that build careers. That may very well be one of the most important losses in this transfer: the commitment between a chef and an apprentice to a shared professional experience.
Curiously, what unites all chefs is a measured disdain for food media. A common refrain takes aim at the negative impact that Food Network has had on the attitudes of potential young recruits. In another Eater article, “Culinary Schools: The Pros and Cons of Culinary Education”, chefs express fear that Food Network leads young people to believe that a career in cooking is “glamorous,” a “pathway to celebrity,” or a “shortcut” to the proverbial pot of gold. If that were true it makes another great case for a more rigorous process of entry. Why collect culinary academic fees from young people better suited to an acting program?
What’s of greater concern here is the broad brush strokes used to paint this caricature of our young as fame-mongers. How gullible do we believe young people to be? Even at the tender age of eighteen most will understand that life is not like an episode of Top Chef.
And what of the rise in professional esteem that Food Network has offered our profession? Many chefs must temper their criticism so as not to bite too hard on a hand that has fed them so well. There is no denying the rise of Food Network and its link to many swelling bottom lines. Most often the network serves as little more than a flimsy shield for all chefs when the slings and arrows of criticism are firing a bit too close for comfort.
That the Millennials are not the same as other generations in terms of aspirations, ambitions, and motivations shouldn’t be a surprise. Generational gaps have existed forever and the realm of cooking is not exempt. Do we really believe that there are fewer young people who love to cook and want to build a career as a chef? Do we worry that at a very early stage in career development many of our young will become disillusioned enough to abandon our trade?
Perhaps the restaurant business needs better PR to counter persistent and problematic industry stereotypes that Millennials balk at and that we need to outgrow. Those cultural mythologies include the beliefs that cooking professionally is filled with hardships and abuse, that it’s a difficult life, not lucrative, and often takes years of working as a line cook on grim hourly wages before earning a decent salary.
Maybe young people are expressing a healthy wariness of this perverse championing of long hours and low—or no!—wages. Our business has adopted a very unhealthy form of heroic martyrdom that prevent us from moving beyond the most significant issues related to long career life—work-life balance, and earnings in line with the cost of living. Think what could be achieved if we dropped the one-note marketing campaign glorifying hardship and, instead, celebrated chefs who have built healthy and happy careers.
If chefs are to assume more responsibility for training and actively promote apprenticeship, there needs to be awareness that the investment is mutual. The learning needs to be constant and progressive, young people need to be paid and fed and—if commitment and loyalty warrant—sponsored in international study. But are we really ready to walk that particular walk?
Any professional career of length and substance should present challenges, but our inability to retain the next generation of chefs is a crisis we should take note of. We’d do well to hold up mirrors in our own schools and businesses and search for the reasons young people are driven out. This current exodus should be a cause for shared concern, not an opportunity for siloed attack.
 Amy McKeever, “Culinary School: The Pros and Cons of Culinary Education”, Eater, http://eater.com/archives/2013/07/11/culinary-schools-pros-cons.php, July 11, 2013.