Toque Off

Written by Marilyn Hawkes Category: Lifestyle Issue: May 2014

Corbie Thorpe, enrolled nearby at the Scottsdale Community College (SCC) Culinary Arts program, agrees that Le Cordon Bleu has the “pedigree,” but was ultimately swayed by low tuition and transferable credits. “My goal is to attend ASU and get a bachelor’s degree. I need my credits to go with me,” she says.

The Valley of the Sun has several respected culinary schools (see sidebar on page 119), but two in Scottsdale seem naturally matched as rivals – not only for their mile-and-a-half proximity to one another, but their equally impressive alumni rosters and wildly disparate tuition rates.

In the publicly-subsidized corner: the plucky SCC Culinary Arts program, which was launched 28 years ago and has graduated Valley superstars Aaron May (The Lodge, Over Easy), Tracy Dempsey (Tracy Dempsey Originals) and Conor Favre, who recently replaced Michael O’Dowd as executive chef at Kai at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa.

In the for-profit corner: Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Scottsdale, formerly known as the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, alma mater to James Beard award finalist Kevin Binkley, Barrio Cafe matriarch Silvana Salcido Esparza, and Rich Hinojosa, executive chef at The Wigwam Resort. Owned by Career Education Corporation, the Scottsdale campus is one of 30 Cordon Bleu schools worldwide, including 16 in the United States.

Both programs churn out an annual crop of bright, ambitious culinary aces. Both have rigorous academic standards. So what sets them apart?

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Le Cordon Bleu Scottsdale chef Anthony Songin instructs students in pastry craft, left; lead instructor Jon-Paul Hutchins flambés a poultry dish, right.

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SCC Culinary Arts students learn butchery skills, left; preparing lamb tenderloin, right.


The Classrooms
On a weekday afternoon at Le Cordon Bleu, students whisk Hollandaise sauce – that mythically rich plasma of egg yolk, butter and lemon juice – while their culinary instructor patrols the kitchen classroom, stopping from time to time to offer advice on whisking technique. In an adjacent kitchen, students look on as a chef demonstrates how to zest a tangerine, liberating the fragrant citrus oils with swift, efficient abrasions of the rind.

Later, on a similarly average school day at SCC, students execute tourné cuts on carrots, paring them into oblong, football-like shapes under the watchful eye of a chef-instructor. Other students plate chocolate amaretto eclairs for lunch service, while another group poaches shrimp to pair with mango for a salad.

Both kitchen-classroom facilities buzz with seriousness and productivity. Walk into either school, and you’ll find students in freshly-laundered chef’s jackets and toques practicing knife skills, beating egg whites into soft peaks, making veal stock and sautéing garlic. Similarly, both schools stress the importance of professionalism and are sticklers about attendance and showing up in full uniform, which includes a clean hat and chef’s jacket, a neckerchief, chef’s pants and the proper footwear. Now and then a student will come to school after waking up late or without shaving, says Chef Jon-Paul Hutchins, Le Cordon Bleu Scottsdale lead instructor and administrator. “Everyone gets a 'get out of jail free' unless it’s something that’s potentially a safety or health hazard. So if they have sneakers on, they can’t get in.”

SCC has the same demanding standards. Students who have excessive unexcused absences won’t pass the class and points are taken off for not showing up in full uniform. When students venture out into the industry, employers won’t put up with that kind of behavior, according to Karen Chalmers, SCC’s Culinary Arts program director.

The kitchens at each school are stocked with the same basic equipment – industrial gas stoves and 30-quart mixers, walk-in refrigerators and freezers, gleaming stainless steel counters, an abundant supply of pots, pans and mixing bowls and a mountain of cutting boards. Students pack their own knives and other supplies, such as thermometers and pastry tips.  

Naturally, the razor-sharp cooking utensils can be dangerous in the hands of culinary greenhorns. Untested students routinely slice their fingers and burn their forearms learning the fundamentals of cooking, more often after they have a few weeks under their belts and an inflated sense of confidence. “It’s like the kid who just took his driver’s test,” Hutchins says. “He doesn’t get into a car accident right away – he has one six months later. That’s when he’s the most dangerous person on the road. And that’s when you start getting cuts and burns in the kitchen… when you think you own it.”

Of the two programs, Le Cordon Bleu boasts the larger dedicated facility, with four kitchens on its main campus at Hayden and Camelback roads and another set of kitchens for its baking and pastry program located at a satellite campus in Old Town Scottsdale. Which isn’t to say SCC is cooking out of a shed. The college’s kitchens are housed in a 10,000- square-foot facility under one roof with areas for specific classes, including a butcher room kept at 33 degrees, where students learn to cut meat and fish.

Advantage: Le Cordon Bleu

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Scottsdale Le Cordon Bleu students stand ready for inspection., left; Eytan Zias of the Phoenix Knife House displays proper technique at a knife sharpening seminar at Le Cordon Bleu., right.

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SCC students prepare vegetables; student Michele Rinck on baking duty.


The Programs
Both schools emphasize the fundamentals of classic French cuisine, but approach it from slightly different angles. Le Cordon Bleu stresses technique and professionalism. Students follow a comprehensive, top-to-bottom series of six-week foundation classes in its certificate program: an introduction to the kitchen that includes familiarization with equipment, knife cuts, safety and sanitation and other kitchen basics; soups, sauces and starches; proteins; baking; cuisines across cultures; and catering. Associate degree students – who enroll at the school for 21 months – also study contemporary cuisine, wine and beverages, and restaurant operations.

SCC takes a slightly more food-centric approach, with a program modeled to expose students to various disciplines, similar to medical school rotations. Students learn the basics of cooking during five-week rotations of baking and pastry, hot foods and garde manger (cold foods) and dining room operations. In the second semester, they take advanced versions of the first semester classes, building on what they’ve learned. Like Le Cordon Bleu, SCC offers an associate degree in culinary arts, in addition to various, less time-intensive certificate programs. Unlike Le Cordon Bleu, it doesn’t offer an online bachelor’s program in culinary management.  

SCC administrators are proud of the program’s emphasis on immersion. At SCC, students are in the trenches on day two to cook and serve for the school’s two on-site student-run restaurants, the Artichoke Grill and Desert Oasis. “That’s the way the industry operates,” says SCC’s Chalmers. “It’s a hands-on profession and we’re preparing them. Here, it’s immediate.” Le Cordon Bleu Scottsdale no longer operates a student-run restaurant that’s open to the public.

SCC’s immediacy appeals to Michele Rinck, who’s attending culinary school after graduating from ASU with a nutrition degree to bridge what she sees as a disconnect between nutrition and knowledge about food preparation. “I picked this program because it was more rigorous, more hands-on. You’re thrown into the kitchen right away,” she says.

Le Cordon Bleu’s Hutchins is equally proud of his school’s emphasis on technique and craft, and advanced pedagogical culture. A one-time New York City punk rock guitarist who performed with Blondie and the Ramones – and once had a fist-fight with goth-metal legend Glenn Danzig –  Hutchins got his first restaurant job as a dishwasher in the late '70s, steadily climbing through the ranks of the industry while playing gigs on weekends. Today, he’s a full-time chef-instructor – and so is the rest of Le Cordon Bleu’s faculty, which he says sets the school apart from the Valley’s other culinary programs. “All of our professional chefs are full-time teachers,” he says. “You can’t have a part-time mentality at this school...  and if our instructors don’t get certificated by [the] American Culinary Association, they’re not employed here.”

Both institutions have a seasoned faculty with many instructors logging more than 10 years at their respective schools, and some logging more than 20.

Hutchins verbalizes a fondness not only for cuisine, but also the unique psychology of culinary professionals, which he says most serious students share. “[We] tend to be less cognitive learners,” he says. “[Some people] learn best from a book. They read the information and ingest it, and they get terrific grades in high school. Others learn better if they can taste it, see it, smell it, do it. Those are kinesthetic learners. Those are the people who typically gravitate toward culinary school.”

 Hutchins believes many kinesthetic learners are mistakenly herded into four-year university classroom environments, where they perform marginally, ultimately landing in “meaningless cubicle jobs.” Some of the “courageous” ones, he says, hit the eject button and try something more suited to their native talents – like culinary school.

Indeed, many students enroll in culinary school in search of a fulfilling second career. SCC’s Chalmers says that about 30 to 40 percent of her students are re-careering from medical, IT and sales jobs. Le Cordon Bleu’s Hutchins says his tally is close to 50 percent.

Advantage: Even


The Value
A key difference between the two schools is cost. To attend Le Cordon Bleu Scottsdale, a student will pay around $19,500 for a certificate and up to $40,000 for an associate degree. At SCC Culinary Arts, in-state students shell out $2,750 for the certificate tuition, plus another $2,200 in lab fees, knives and uniforms. Add the associate degree, and you tack on about $2,400 – all told, still far less than Le Cordon Bleu.

Earning an associate degree is key for students with designs on a professional culinary career, as it prepares them for supervisory roles and growth within their organizations, according to SCC’s Chalmers: “It helps prepare them for management positions in the industry.”

As such, culinary students need to think about how much money they want to owe when they’re finished with culinary school, says SCC Executive Chef Dominic O’Neill, noting that entry-level jobs for cooks start at about $10 an hour. “If you took out a student loan for $5,000, you can easily repay that. But if you take out a $40,000 loan and you’re making $10 an hour – how are you going to repay that? You’re getting the same level of education, so why would you pay more when you don’t have to?”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2012, the median pay for an experienced cook or chef was $20.42 per hour and $42,480 per year.

For Ryan Swanson, a 2006 SCC Culinary Arts graduate who is now the sous chef at Kai at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, price was a major consideration. “SCC only cost me around $5,000 total and then I was done,” he says. “I didn’t want to take out a $40,000 loan.”

But Le Cordon Bleu’s Hutchins says most of the students he teaches aren’t fixated on debt, and in numerous cases are just chasing happiness. “What do they make when they graduate? Hopefully, they make happy,” he says. “I think people pay the money because we prepare them very well for the future.” They’re also attracted to the Cordon Bleu name, he says, because it opens up a lot of doors. “[Our alumni] do well. We have a career services department, and graduates can use the career department at any Cordon Bleu campus nationwide, which is ideal if you want to relocate. And we used to be the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, so if you fall in any direction in this town, you will collide with a graduate.”

Hutchins says Le Cordon Bleu students get value on their tuition in other ways, too – for example, access to a career advisor who helps them cultivate résumés and portfolios, teaches them interview skills and helps them land their “dream jobs,” according to Kathleen Doeller, director of career services at Le Cordon Bleu Scottsdale. SCC doesn’t provide culinary-specific career counseling, but many skills, including résumé and portfolio building, are part of the curriculum. As for networking: Industry professionals from hotels and restaurants around the Valley – including The Phoenician, The Four Seasons and Westin properties – regularly contact Chalmers to hire SCC’s graduates.

One of the values of SCC’s program, O’Neill says, is the small class size. The SCC Culinary Arts catalogue states that laboratory (kitchen) classes have a maximum ratio of 13 students to one instructor. “Any more than 13 and the students get lost,” he says. While Le Cordon Bleu’s catalogue says, “Students attend laboratory classes for their program with class sizes not to exceed 40 students,” Hutchins says the classes run about 12 to 16 students per instructor.

Financial aid is available at each school as well as numerous grant and scholarship opportunities, empowering students like Jenny Ossovicki. The Le Cordon Bleu Scottsdale student feels good about pursuing a profession she’s passionate about. Her long-term goal is to own a restaurant and write a cookbook. “The money will come eventually,” she says. “I’m just going to have to work for it.”

Advantage: SCC

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Coup De Grâce
All differences aside, what really matters when students go in search of jobs in the industry? According to SCC’s O’Neill, the ultimate question employers want to know is: “Can you do the job?”

 “A sauce bordelaise is a sauce bordelaise no matter what school you go to,” he adds.

According to graduates of both institutions, where you go is not as important as what you do with the skills you’ve acquired. The Wigwam’s Hinojosa, a 1997 graduate of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, says he’s had about 34 interns/externs throughout his career from many different programs and says the success rates are pretty close from school to school. Many students graduate from culinary school and expect to be a sous chef or executive chef in nine months, he says. His advice: Learn and see as much as possible and season yourself. “Sink your teeth into everything and spend some time reflecting.”

Kai’s Favre attended the SCC culinary school and then worked his way up the culinary ladder in resort kitchens. “I don’t think it matters which school. Certain culinary schools have better reputations, but it all comes down to the individual.”

Ultimately, success correlates with how hard you work, your dedication to your craft and what you do with the knowledge, according to Valley restaurateur Binkley. “You don’t graduate from culinary school and instantly become a chef. You have to apply yourself. Culinary school is just the tip of the iceberg.”

 

Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts Scottsdale and Scottsdale Community College Culinary Arts program aren’t the only places in town where you can learn to baste, bake and brine.

Arizona Culinary Institute, located in north Scottsdale, offers eight-month diploma programs in culinary arts, baking and restaurant management. All include a six-week paid internship. Tuition: $27,820 per program. Graduates: Russell La Casce, executive sous chef at Elements at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort; and Tyler Romine, operations manager at il Tocco Food.

Art Institute of Phoenix offers 44-week culinary arts and baking and pastry diploma programs. Tuition: $29,231 per program. Graduates: Jared Porter of Clever Koi; and Robert Stevens, executive chef at Wyndham Hotel Chandler.

Estrella Mountain Community College Culinary Studies program has certificates of completion in baking and pastry and basic culinary studies. Tuition: $81 per credit up to 61 credits for an associate degree. Graduates: Ivan Jacobo, executive chef at The Raven Golf Club; and Jay Kueny, pastry chef at Renaissance Hotel and Spa, Glendale.

Phoenix College Culinary Studies Program offers a certificate of completion in baking and pastry, culinary studies and commercial food preparation; and an associate degree in culinary studies. Tuition: $81 per credit up to 60 credits for an associate degree. Graduates: Stacey Carson, owner of Nosh in Chandler; and Yvonne Gonzales, pastry chef at Hyatt Regency Phoenix.