On a crisp October morning, few students are out and about on the Johnson & Wales campus in east Denver. Of the 1,400 or so enrollees this fall, most are either in class or at a job fair sponsored by the soon-to-open Gaylord Rockies Resort & Convention Center. The Denver economy is booming, especially in the hospitality industry, where hotels and restaurants keep opening at such a relentless pace that finding employees to fill all the positions has become a tough task. In fact, enrollment in post-secondary education of nearly every type drops along with the unemployment rate. So not only are restaurants and hotels fighting for employees, but culinary schools are competing for potential students who don't need a degree to secure a job in the industry.
The Denver branch of Johnson & Wales University, one of four campuses run by a private, nonprofit institution, is well aware of the cyclical swing in enrollment, and is taking measures to ensure that the number of students doesn't drop too drastically. Food-service management, the hospitality industry and nutritional science give students more to consider than life as a line cook, so while many aspiring chefs are skipping culinary school to jump right into the kitchen, J&W offers an opportunity to learn about aspects beyond cooking.
It offers two-year associate's degrees in Culinary Arts or Baking and Pastry Arts, and while the reputation of these programs is well known to Colorado restaurateurs, they're only a small part of the curriculum. Recruiters visiting J&W today are considering candidates who'll soon have associate's degrees as well as those earning bachelor's degrees in hotel and lodging management, business administration, restaurant, food and beverage management, marketing and similar fields.
"I learned from many of my chef friends that they don't have a plan B," says Jorge de la Torre, dean of Culinary Education at the school. "We focus on a career rather than a first job."
The celebrity-chef life looks sexy on the many TV shows dedicated to cooking and the restaurant world, and de la Torre notes that culinary-school enrollment soared in the early 2000s (so much so that J&W had to expand Vail Hall, its main culinary building, twice in that decade). But the majority of graduates land jobs with larger corporations, he points out, so de la Torre focuses on building relationships with such companies as Disney, Marriott and Chipotle, and food producers that need employees educated in food science (including product development and flavor research).
Inside Vail Hall, several kitchen classrooms are dedicated to cooking, baking and even beverage management. Students in crisp chef coats roll pasta, break down meat and bake pies. Sure, they could be doing all of this in a restaurant or hotel kitchen while earning money, but then they wouldn't have the chance to study microbiology under Dr. Judy St. John to learn about both foodborne illnesses and beneficial cultures in a laboratory environment, and they wouldn't have access to a semester-long class in food writing.
Samuel Wells is an associate professor of English at the university, and he teaches several classes geared toward both culinary and non-culinary students. For his Food Writing class, Denver publications are required reading, as are the works of such celebrated food writers as MFK Fisher and Anthony Bourdain. Wells also teaches a course called "Denver as Text," which goes far beyond the restaurant scene to explore urban planning, the socio-economic factors of individual neighborhoods (life expectancy can be charted by zip code, he notes, and there's as much as a ten-year variation in Denver's zip codes) and even the live music scene.
De la Torre knows firsthand that a bachelor's degree can open doors that a diploma from a cooking school might not. As a high school graduate in New Mexico, he wanted to become a chef, but his parents insisted that he go to business school before they would pay for culinary classes. So he earned a business degree and then went off to culinary school, but once he started applying for jobs, he only had to mention that he had a bachelor's degree: Nobody cared about the cooking classes he had taken.
Culinary school is rarely inexpensive. De la Torre points to the maintenance of heavily used classroom kitchens filled with millions of dollars' worth of equipment as a major expense, as well as food costs that keep classrooms stocked with simple staples like flour, onions and salt as well as such high-end ingredients as steaks, lobster and caviar that students must learn to prepare. The cost of an education is another reason that cooks might prefer hands-on experience over two or four years of school, especially when wages may not be enough to justify the expense.
And there's also the decline in the birth rate, the dean adds. Lower numbers of kids coming out of high school result in fewer applicants. Johnson & Wales looks abroad for enrollment and currently has students from more than twenty countries on the Denver campus.
The galleys of Denver's many restaurants are getting harder to fill, and so are culinary classrooms. And yet there are still young men and women who love to cook, who are drawn to the fast pace and camaraderie of professional kitchens, who envision a career in food and hospitality. Johnson & Wales offers a path that may lead them to a James Beard award or a spot as a cooking-show host, but they also might also become the scientist behind the next packaged soup, fast-food menu item or frozen pizza.
Either way, they'll be prepared for life after the line.
Johnson & Wales isn't the only school offering educational training, but it's certainly the biggest in Denver. Downtown, the Emily Griffith Technical College has a nine-week Culinary Arts program with a resulting certificate, and the August Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Boulder offers a sixty-week Associate of Occupational Studies Degree in Culinary Arts program. For a more in-depth education, students at the University of Denver's Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management can earn a bachelor's degree with a focus on business and management. Metropolitan State University of Denver also offers a hospitality program with bachelor of science degrees in Hotel Management, Restaurant Management and Travel and Tourism Management; the downtown campus even has a Springhill Suites hotel and a restaurant, Degree Metropolitan Food + Drink, where students can learn and earn.
But one option is no longer available: The Art Institute of Colorado, which will close its doors on December 28, with just a handful of students graduating from the fall class. The Art Institute, which has operated in Denver since 1952, had added a culinary arts program in 1993. Assignments, the student-run restaurant in the Denver Design Center, has already shuttered.