Culinary training gains popularity as restaurant boom continues

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Cooking used to be something moms slaved over and grandmas perfected. It was the epitome of maternity–then, BAM!

Celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse have transformed kitchens from food factories into entertainment centers, and steady growth in the restaurant industry is heating up a simmering demand for others to work their own culinary magic.

Now help is on the way.

Indiana Business College will launch a Chef's Academy downtown next month, offering an 18-month program intended to produce trained "culinarians."

Ivy Tech Community College, meanwhile, is looking for space to expand its two-year culinary arts program, which has seen explosive growth in recent years. There's even been talk of including a culinary campus for the school as part of a proposed $20 million City Market overhaul.

"We've heard clamoring for this for a very long time," Chef's Academy Executive Director Jayson Boyers said of the need for an intensive culinary training program. "The response has been overwhelming."

It's no wonder.

Indiana restaurant sales are expected to increase nearly 10 percent to $7.9 billion this year, and National Restaurant Association growth projections call for the state's restaurant industry to add 42,300 jobs by 2016–a 14.1-percent increase.

"Our biggest concern is where all these employees are going to come from," said John Livengood, president of the Restaurant and Hospitality Association of Indiana. "These aren't just entry-level jobs. We're talking about owners, managers, chefs–professional positions, not burger flippers. … There are great careers in our industry and they can be lifelong ones."

Enrollment in Ivy Tech's culinary arts program is up 65 percent since 2004, with about 285 students taking classes this fall, said Jeff Bricker, chairman of the college's hospitality administration program.

As a result, its teaching kitchens are operating at capacity. Students rotate in and out weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and this year the school added a Saturday class.

Interest in the IBC program likewise is boiling over. The Chef's Academy will open its doors Sept. 18 with twice as many students as the 36 it planned to enroll.

Although the facility can accommodate as many as 300 students, IBC wanted to start small. The enrollment boom meant organizers had to line up additional instructors to teach courses–in and out of the kitchen.

Students will spend the bulk of their five-hour school days in one of the Academy's three commercial-quality cooking areas, but Boyers said they'll also take traditional classes on topics like food-service math and entrepreneurship.

Veteran local chef Tony Hanslits–who gained acclaim for his work at gone-but-not-forgotten eateries such as Peter's Restaurant, Something Different and his own Tavoli di Tosa–is leading the charge as IBC's director of culinary education.

The 49-year-old has wanted to get out of the heat and into the classroom for years.

"There are plenty of people who can cook, but are they trained?" he asked rhetorically. "Do they understand what sautã© means or how to hold a knife properly? There's definitely a need."

Amen, says Regina Mehallick.

The R Bistro owner said industry demand for chefs who can provide quality food and service will grow as customers become increasingly food conscious.

"We've always needed qualified people, but that's true in any profession," she said. "Now, there are more savvy diners, so it's more obvious."

Productivity payoff

It wasn't that long ago that aspiring chefs had to travel hundreds of miles to pursue a culinary degree. Hanslits, who grew up in South Bend, received his credentials from Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island–"on the other side of the world," as he puts it.

"The accessibility of a culinary education now vs. when I was in school has increased tremendously," he said. "And Indianapolis is a big enough city that it should give people that option."

But why go to school for something Mom could teach?

Hanslits said a formal education can pay off in productivity. A trained chef could conceivably replace two non-trained employees, he said, an important consideration as other expenses–including rent, utilities and even beef–go up.

"You have to be able to cut down on labor costs," he said. "Restaurants are businesses, too."

In fact, the restaurant industry is the nation's second-largest employer, according to the National Restaurant Association. All told, 10 percent of employed Hoosiers work in some form of food services, Livengood added.

That's not going to change as parents shuttle kids to karate lessons and soccer games instead of toiling over a hot stove.

Restaurant association statistics show the average American household spent $2,434 on food outside the home in 2004. Nationwide, the restaurant industry gets 47.5 percent of consumers' food dollars, up from 25 percent in 1955.

"We don't have people eating all three meals at their homes anymore," Livengood agreed. "There's a choice of what to do with the food dollar and more of it is spent in restaurants."

Indianapolis restaurants have experienced steady growth for a decade. In 1997, the metropolitan area was home to 2,195 restaurants. The state association expects that number to reach 3,100 this year–and keep growing.

Another downtown restaurant boom is imminent, Livengood predicted, as development springs up around a new football stadium and expanded convention center. Dining options already are much more robust than they were before Circle Centre mall opened in 1995, he said.

"Maybe we won't see as much [growth], but we will see some," Livengood said, citing plans by St. Elmo Steak House's owners to open a second restaurant near the Indianapolis landmark. Harry & Izzy's is expected to open this winter in Circle Centre. "They're counting on that growth, and I think we'll see others do that, as well."

Changing perceptions

Just as Americans have flocked to restaurants for quality cuisine, foodies have flooded culinary arts program in hopes of becoming the next Giada De Laurentiis.

Ivy Tech's Bricker credits The Food Network–which airs De Laurentiis' "Everyday Italian" and other popular cooking shows.

"The general perception is that chefs have been elevated to almost celebrity status," he said. "It's attractive to be a chef and there's a higher sophistication of food now."

Graduates of the local culinary programs receive associate's degrees in applied sciences. Both programs also offer students the opportunity to specialize in culinary arts or pastry arts.

With such credentials, graduates have a range of employment–and income–options.

An executive chef in Indiana makes an average of $45,000 to $60,000, Bricker said. He's even seen it as high as $75,000. But students also can begin catering careers or become personal chefs–or pursue jobs as so-called "culinalogists," working in food labs to concoct new taste sensations–for as much as $85,000 a year.

Whatever the career path, he said, there always will be somewhere for graduates to go.

"There's so much critical thinking on your feet that can't be replaced with automation," Bricker said. "It's serving people, and that human element will always be there."

And a formal education can separate the weeds from the flowers.

"If you're good at what you do, there's an opportunity," IBC's Boyers said. "This is an industry where, if you're passionate and put work into it, the glass ceiling can be broken."

Incoming Chef's Academy student Matthew Thompson wants to run his own catering company once he finishes the program, leaving behind a career in banking. Thompson, 30, is surprised by how perceptions of the culinary arts have evolved.

"It's almost macho or manly to become a chef now," he said. "They are respected just as much as someone in an executive position in a corporate company."

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