Sunday, March 9, 2008

My Visit with Western Culinary

Yesterday I went to visit with admissions and get a tour of Western Culinary, a school that has been around in Portland as far back as I can remember. The man who I was supposed to meet with ran late on his appointment, and so the sweet front desk lady spent time chatting with me, building rapport by trading information about our children and telling me a little about the school. I learned that she had been working at the school for eight years in various positions. After she mentioned her history with the institution, I felt that she would be a good candidate to probe about the school's not so good reputation. She mentioned that a lot of what I had read about in the newspapers was fallout from a previous president of the school. I asked her what she thought of the story that I had read about a few days earlier in the Oregonian, in which a couple of the students filed a class action lawsuit against the school, alleging that the school misrepresented the typical salary of a student upon graduation, among other claims. She brushed it off by saying that anyone can sue for anything they want to. I told her that I thought it was strange that in the story they mention that the current president did not comment because he had not seen the lawsuit. She said that was true, that basically they found out that they were getting sued when I did--when they read it in the newspaper.

15 minutes after I was supposed to meet with the admissions officer, the Director of Admissions came to meet with me instead.

The meeting consisted of an interview portion, in which the school gained personal background information on the potential student. I assume that this portion is designed to pump you up about the prospect of going to culinary school, but I am not really sure. The man conducting the interview was clearly not the person who usually did the interviews. He was really very nice and I am glad I was not subjected to the sales pitch that I experienced in the past and was expecting from this institution as well.

We then took a look at the kitchen of the pulic restaurant, in which students spend time at the beginning of the program learning front of the house service, which essentally means learning
how to be waitstaff, how to do table setting, and how to communicate with the cooks. The students also spend several weeks at the end of the program interning in the kitchen by applying knowledge that they gain in classes in a "real"setting. The student cooks do all the purchasing, inventory, design menus, etc., before moving on to their externship--working for an outside business.

The kitchen appeared clean and organized, but given my lack of experience in a commercial kitchen I didn't exactly know what I was looking for. But two observations stuck out in my mind--there was a lingering scent that rubbed me the wrong way. It was a smell that reminded me of a cross between that odd stink from a milk carton at a school lunch, and a musty, nursing home/hospital cafeteria smell. And I noticed that the potatoes were stored out in the light (a no-no because storing potatoes in the light will cause the potatoes to turn green indicating toxicity)
and they were sprouting.

Then he took me on a tour of the school. The personalized tour was excellent in that I was able to ask all the questions I wanted and had individual attention. The mood turned sour, however, when he pointed out student projects in the international kitchen. Taped up on the walls were various construction paper hand made maps of different countries. The man said that the maps that I saw up on the wall were part of the international cuisine course, in which I was informed that as a student I would be constructing these maps along with dishes of a particular region in a presentation for the rest of the class.

Wait a minute. Did I hear that right? I had to clarify. Were these the same type of maps that are reminiscent of social studies projects in elementary and middle school? Oh yes! He asked me if that type of schoolwork interests me. Um.... let me think... NO. Why would that interest me? I would be paying $18k for a 9 month program or $42k for the 15 month program in which part of the curriculum would be making maps out of construction paper. Do the knife kits come with the special safety plastic scissors so I would be sure not to cut myself?

When we got to the baking kitchen, I asked him if the school uses hydrogenated oils. "Sure sure sure! sure!!!" Was his response. I have to admit that I was a bit dumbfounded at his enthusiasm. I would have understood had his response been that hydrogenated oils are unfortunately the industry standard and there isn't any appropriate way to substitute but they fully instruct the student about the oils that they are using. Okay maybe not such a well-crafted response, but perhaps some acknowledgement that hydrogenated oils are pretty much evil. But he didn't have a clue what trans fats were.

At the end of the tour, the man who typically does the interview was finally available, which was a full hour after we were supposed to meet. Would I have just been sitting there in the waiting room for a full hour had the Director of Admissions not been able to meet with me? I don't know.

I asked the man if I could see a copy of the textbook that they use. It seems to me that not many potential students ask that question as he seemed frustrated in having to find a copy of the textbook. Eager to leave, I wrote down the name of the book so I could check it out later at the library.

The whole experience was significantly better than what I had experienced in Rhode Island. However, I am not sure that I can see much value. At this school, there were two programs that I was interested in. The diploma program consists of roughly six months of actual coursework, along with three months of working for restaurant in the internship and externships--all at a cost of $18,000. For the associate degree, 1/3 of the program is academics (all courses I've already taken in college) another third is the internship and externship (courses which I believe could be easily substituted with on-the-job training) and just a handful of additional culinary instruction courses to the diploma program. This program runs 15 months in length and costs a whopping $41,050. If I were to take out a student loan, how much would these figures actually end up being in the long run? And how would I be able to pay the money back, given that the entry level positions after graduation rarely exceed $9/hour with no health insurance? What a scary thought.