Aspiring Top Chefs in a Financial Pickle

It's that time of year when Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen both rank very highly on my TiVo Season Pass list, and catching up on those episodes, I'm reminded of how bone-crushingly physical kitchen-work is. I'm also reflecting on a NYT article I read last month called "Top Chef Dreams Crushed by Student Loan Debt." An excerpt:

In the way that the work of directors like Martin Scorsese flooded film schools with students in the 1970s, and the television show ''L.A. Law'' packed law schools in the 1980s, the rise of celebrity chefs has been good for culinary schools.

But would-be top chefs face a challenge that most lawyers, engineers or nurses do not: few jobs in their chosen field pay enough for them to retire their student loans. As a result, as many as 11 percent of graduates at some culinary schools are defaulting on federal student loans. The national average for all students last year was roughly half that, at 5.1 percent.

Although the restaurant industry is expected to create two million new jobs in the next decade, the Department of Labor reports that in 2005, the latest year for which data were available, the average hourly wage for a restaurant cook was $9.86.

''The problem isn't getting a job, the problem is getting a high-paying job,'' said Susan Sykes Hendee, a dean at Baltimore International College and a member of the American Culinary Federation Foundation Accrediting Commission, which accredits many culinary schools....

''Truly the worst horror stories are from private culinary schools,'' said Alan Collinge, who founded the grass-roots lobbying group Student Loan Justice and collects information from people with student loan problems. ''The story is always the same. The school convinces the student they are going to be the next Julia Child or Wolfgang Puck, and the student will sign anything.''

I'm all in favor of people pursuing their career passions, but, as always, I encourage them to know what they're getting themselves into and to ask themselves whether they really need an expensive degree to get from here to there. Is culinary school worth it? Read the debates at Chowhound, Accidental Hedonist, Portland Food and Drink, and David Lebovitz (former pastry chef at Chez Panisse; check out what his blog posting has to say about culinary school "recruiting techniques").