Career paths for aspiring Metro Detroit chefs hot topic

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

On weekend nights at Detroit’s hottest restaurants, patrons can wait hours to get a table as the city’s dining scene evolves into a culinary playground.

Dawn Smith is a student in Henry Ford College’s new four-year culinary degree program.

Not far away in the suburbs of Dearborn and Livonia, Henry Ford and Schoolcraft colleges recently unveiled culinary arts programs with four-year degrees, responding to the growth in food service careers that are projected to increase faster than average over the next decade.

But whether prospective chefs longing for a career in the food and hospitality industry should seek a four-year degree depends on whom you ask. In an era of reality television that has made chefs akin to rock stars, many affordable, educational opportunities are emerging — but not everyone says “Yes, chef!” to four years of a formal education.

For aspiring chefs, four years in college may or may not help, said James Rigato. The former “Top Chef” contestant, who earned an associate degree from Schoolcraft, went on to study under celebrated chefs across the country and now owns Mabel Gray in Hazel Park and The Root in White Lake Township.

“Culinary school in general is borderline necessary. It’s fringe, I don’t think it’s for everyone, ” said Rigato, 31. “I got the foundation at Schoolcraft. But you can get a job at one of the hot restaurants around town without having graduated from high school, cooking. I don’t look for degrees. ... Culinary school holds very little water for hire. It’s literally for skill development.”

But formal training shapes people and their skills, particularly in the culinary world, said John Vermiglio, a Clinton Township native who earned a four-year degree at the culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. He then moved to Chicago, was mentored by celebrated chefs such as the late Charlie Trotter, and opened several restaurants.

“Those years are extremely formative for a human being, especially for someone in the restaurant industry,” said Vermiglio, who recently moved back from Chicago to open a meat-centric restaurant in Midtown, Grey Ghost. “Because of my education and work experience ... that’s what got me interview(s), and that’s what you can hope for with an education.”

Perhaps even more important: Education increases opportunities in a career that undoubtedly will change, said Shawn Loving, former chef at the closed Loving Spoonful in Farmington Hills. He’s now culinary arts department chairman at Schoolcraft College.

“The reality of chefs today is that a lot of them get what is considered hard-knocks training where education is not part of the inner growth,” Loving said. “But it’s very difficult to stay one way as a chef forever. It’s good to have options.”

As Detroit continues to evolve, it’s attracting chefs locally and from out of state to open new restaurants.

The evolution has landed Detroit on many food lists, including the respected Zagat restaurant guide, which last year named the city No. 3 among the nation’s 10 “next hot food cities.”

Metro Detroit’s restaurant scene has finally gotten the attention of the prestigious James Beard Foundation, which named Al Ameer in Dearborn one of five recipients of the America’s Classics Award in 2016. It’s the first Michigan restaurant to be bestowed with the honor since the category was introduced 18 years ago.

In recent years, James Beard also has given a nod to local chefs on its semifinalist list, including Andy Hollyday of Midtown’s Selden Standard, Nick Janutol of Forest Grill in Birmingham and Garrett Lipar, formerly of Torino in Ferndale and most recently Marais in Grosse Pointe. But none has made it as a finalist.

Many local chefs got some of their training from Schoolcraft, one of the most celebrated culinary arts programs in the nation.

Now Henry Ford College, along with Schoolcraft, has begun offering a four-year degree for culinarians, after years of working to get permission from state lawmakers to offer bachelor’s degrees. Community colleges typically offer only two-year degrees, or certificates.

But Henry Ford and Schoolcraft officials say employers want more advanced degrees, while demand for chefs and head cooks nationally is projected to rise a faster-than-average 9 percent from 2014 to 2024, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The industry is changing,” said Kristin Jablonski, a chef and Henry Ford hospitality instructor who graduated from Schoolcraft and also studied in France, Italy and Switzerland before serving at various institutions around Metro Detroit, including as head pastry chef at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham.

“For more job requirements, you are being requested to have a bachelor’s degree, especially in managerial positions. For us, it’s a great opportunity. It’s serving a niche in the community that is needed. And with our food market developing in the city of Detroit, everyone is looking for qualified help.”

Eric Gackenbach, a chef and program coordinator of Henry Ford’s new bachelor’s degree in hospitality and culinary studies, added there is a role for the Dearborn school to play in Detroit’s restaurant scene.

“In Detroit’s resurgence of being a world-class city, one of the things is for it to have world-class hospitality, and being able to grow talent locally versus having to go out of state for it is the biggest contribution we make,” Gackenbach said. “You have students who live close by here, come here for a very reasonable cost and earn a world-class credential and then can work here in the industry and have a great life.”

But he added careers are made not just in the boutique restaurants but also in the corporate world of hospitality, such as hotels and catering services, where the bulk of hiring is occurring.

“They are the ones setting the bar for what they want in a chef,” Gackenbach said. “The industry is much larger than the single-owner restaurants and trendy places.”

Since January, Henry Ford has enrolled 60 students in its program. Among the students who have joined the four-year culinary arts program is Jennifer Schubert, a New Boston resident who was interested in changing careers after 23 years in computer programming.

“Opportunity came up and I enjoyed cooking,” said Schubert, who hopes to open her own restaurant in the region.

Schubert also noted that the price is right. At Henry Ford, tuition for in-state students who live outside the Dearborn Public Schools district totals about $35,000 for a bachelor’s of culinary arts, said Gackenbach. For an associate degree in culinary arts or hotel/restaurant management, he estimated the cost at $15,000.

At Schoolcraft, for students who live outside its district of five nearby school systems, a four-year degree costs $33,392, while a two-year culinary arts degree will cost $18,089, according to Rob Leadley, dean of occupational progams and economic development.

Meanwhile, Michigan Dorsey Schools charges $20,976 for its culinary arts diploma program, which includes books and supplies. The program, which takes one year of full-time study, is offered at Dorsey’s Roseville and Pontiac campuses.

There are 553 accredited post-secondary programs nationwide at 263 schools, including 21 programs at 11 schools in Michigan, according to the American Culinary Federation, the professional chef organization representing 17,500 members.

Besides Henry Ford, Schoolcraft and Dorsey, Michigan has accredited programs at Oakland Community College in Farmington; Macomb Community College in Clinton Township and the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Michigan in Novi.

Meanwhile, the debate over whether aspiring chefs are better served by a certificate program or one offering a bachelor’s degree continues.

There is no data to suggest four-year degrees are a trend or that employers want advanced degrees, said Lori Weber, director of education and programs at the American Culinary Federation. The December announcement of the closing of 16 U.S. Le Cordon Bleu schools — where Julia Child trained in Paris — is also a touchstone in culinary education, Weber said.

That’s why many say it’s probably not necessary for everyone considering a career in the food and restaurant industry to get a four-year degree, said Alexandra Clark, founding chocolatier of Bon Bon Bon, a gourmet chocolate shop with locations in Hamtramck and Detroit.

“People with an education are needed in the current scene,” said Clark, who earned a bachelor’s from Michigan State University, a certificate from Schoolcraft and a master’s in chocolate at a New Zealand school, and also trained at two chocolate schools in Chicago and Vancouver.

“But I don’t think it has to be a formal education. It could be experience or it could be a combination of experience and school.”