Van Putten was hired for this $14-an-hour job in April, a month before she graduated from the Charlotte campus of Johnson & Wales University. She started in mid-May, one of about 30 cooks working the kitchen at the upscale restaurant, which bills itself as serving “New American fare in a refined venue.”
Drawn by the idea of “leading a team, being able to create an environment, a concept,” she wants to be an executive chef. Van Putten, a soft-spoken woman who grew up in St. Martin, says her father, Humphrey, 58, has worked various front-of-house restaurant jobs and is also a talented home cook. “I was always in the kitchen with him,” she said. “Seeing him is what inspired me to be like him.”
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This particular ambition sets van Putten apart from many graduates of her four-year program, she said. When she started at Johnson & Wales in the fall of 2017, many classmates also wanted to work as executive chefs in restaurants, but by graduation most of her peers, she said, had chosen different paths — studying hospitality management, sustainable food systems or culinary nutrition to prepare for jobs in such places as assisted-living centers and hospitals, with meal-delivery companies, or in catering.
Van Putten’s enthusiasm for back-of-house restaurant work sets her apart in the job market nationwide, too.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, the need for chefs and head cooks is far outpacing the number of students interested in pursuing those careers. Observers say the reasons include relatively low pay compared with the costs of education, and a pandemic that decimated the restaurant industry and prompted a younger generation to reconsider erratic work hours at places that often do not offer paid sick time or health insurance.
The bureau projects that the need for head cooks and chefs will rise 25 percent from 2020 to 2030, far faster than the forecast 8 percent average growth rate for all occupations. Those projections were developed in the fall of 2021 and so include the start of the pandemic in March 2020, said William Lawhorn, an economist in the bureau’s Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections.
As Lawhorn explained, the dramatic need for chefs and head cooks is a result of the restaurant industry shutdown during the pandemic. “You’re starting from a really low base,” he said. “Much of the projected employment growth in this occupation is due to recovery from the covid-19 recession. We’re just trying to get back to where we were.”
Meanwhile, interest in culinary careers appears to be waning.
The Culinary Institute of America, often cited as the nation’s most revered culinary school, now accepts 97 percent of all who apply, a much higher rate than the 36 percent it accepted for the 2001-02 academic year. The number of applicants rose less than 1 percent between the 2001-02 academic year and the 2020-21 academic year, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. Over the same time frame, the school’s yield — the percentage of admitted students who ended up enrolling — dropped from 91 percent for the 2001-02 academic year to 33 percent. The institute did not respond to requests for comment.
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During the same 19-year period, Johnson & Wales’s flagship campus in Providence, R.I., saw a 23 percent drop in applicants and a decrease in yield from 21 to 14 percent. The university’s Charlotte campus opened in the fall of 2004, following the consolidation of its Charleston and Norfolk locations. It closed its Denver and North Miami campuses in 2021.
Nationwide, the number of postsecondary institutions with culinary programs dropped by 20.5 percent between 2017 and 2020, from 264 to 210, according to the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation.
One factor limiting student interest in culinary school is that a four-year culinary degree isn’t cheap. A 2015 survey by Eater showed that tuition at culinary schools can be several times higher than rates charged by four-year public universities. The tuition (excluding room and board) for Johnson & Wales’s Charlotte campus, for example, rose during the 2021-22 school year to $36,274, a 4.4 percent increase from the prior academic year. That compares with in-state tuition of $7,188 per academic year at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Those statistics don’t tell the full story, said Althea Carter, a culinary instructor in the Hoover, Ala., public schools. Not all executive chefs earn undergraduate degrees at culinary schools, she said. Many want to know the business side of running a restaurant, given the high rate of failure for restaurants.
“I was an executive chef for a while,” she said. “But my bachelor’s degree was in restaurant management. … More and more people are wanting to learn the business of it, because here’s the thing: It’s a dog-eat-dog world.”
Of the 14 students who graduated from her high school’s culinary program this spring, Carter said, one went straight into the culinary workforce, and eight are beginning programs in hospitality and tourism, culinary arts, or food science.
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Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, agrees with Carter that enrollment in culinary programs is not an accurate way to measure career interest among young adults. “Our industry is one that allows people to start in a position as a dishwasher, as a server, as a line cook and work their way up without the need for that sort of formal education,” she said. “The data about admissions certainly tells part of the story, but you have to remember that going to an institution like CIA or Johnson & Wales is insanely expensive, right? … So why take on that debt burden when you can go to the graduate school of life and get a job in a kitchen and work your way up?”
Saru Jayaraman, founder of One Fair Wage, a national restaurant worker advocacy group, blames low wages for the lack of candidates for chefs and head cooks. The restaurant industry already faced a labor crisis before the pandemic because of low pay, she said. “The workers know it’s the wages. Employers know it’s the wages,” she said, and only raising the federal minimum wage for both front and back-of-house workers would ease the shortage.
Van Putten’s education was paid for through a grant from the government of resort-rich St. Martin, with the expectation that she will return to work on the Caribbean island. Her supervisor at Gallery, executive chef Charles Gardiner, 33, earned his degree from a community college in Asheville, N.C. “I graduated debt-free,” he said, and had earned his certification as an executive chef by age 23.
Jason Evans, dean of the College of Food Innovation and Technology at Johnson & Wales, was not surprised to hear that many of van Putten’s classmates are following career paths other than that of executive chefs. His university has reshaped its curriculums over the past decade to reflect the changing market for culinary-adjacent jobs.
“One of the reasons that they may pivot from those traditional hospitality back-of-the house or executive chef jobs is less about pay and more about work-life balance,” he said. “The hospitality and food-service industries are built on late nights and weekends. I’m not a sociologist, but … this newest generation of college students maybe don’t value that.”
The solution, Evans said, is “professionalizing the industry.” The companies that hire graduates “are going to have to add a different incentive structure … which includes not only wages but time off and benefits,” he said.
That’s the kind of package van Putten’s employer offers. Gardiner said many upscale independent Charlotte restaurants pay $17 an hour — $3 more an hour — for jobs like hers. But, he said, they tend to offer no benefits. The Ballantyne, which is operated by Denver-based Northwood Hospitality, offers all its employees health insurance, sick leave and short-term disability, he said. While younger employees might not be concerned about those benefits, the package has enabled him to retain more seasoned employees, he said.
Van Putten said it wasn’t the Ballantyne’s benefits package that prompted her to accept the job offer. It was the work culture. She said she interviewed for a similar job at a Charlotte-area country club, and the hiring manager didn’t even show her the kitchen. “When I came here, I got a tour of the entire place. I felt welcomed here, knowing I am not just the labor; I am a person who is valued,” she said.
While the growing dearth of executive chefs poses a challenge to restaurant owners and managers, Christophe Le Chatton, general manager at the Ballantyne, says it also offers opportunities for aspiring chefs. Positions that took a decade or more of dues-paying now might be available in three to five years.
“Today it’s more about showing your skill set. You can go so fast so much more quickly,” Le Chatton said. “It’s a great time to enter the industry.”