FEATURE ‌ Prepping the Line 

Two culinary schools hope to fill Charleston's line cook shortage

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Sweating for 10 hours over a sweltering grill, simmering this and sautéing that, is not an easy job. Ask any line cook in town to show you their forearms, and you'll likely see a collage of souvenir burns from boiling pots and grease explosions. For an aspiring master chef, however, training and knowledge come with time spent on the line. Just as an athlete suffers grueling training regimens for the prize of competition, or photographers and writers spend years working for pennies before a big break, becoming a true culinary artist requires hard work and paid dues.

Not long ago, Johnson & Wales enrolled 3,000 aspiring chefs at their downtown location, all of whom were eager for externships at local restaurants. It was during their tenure that Charleston began its rise to an identifiable, national culinary destination. Currently, 17,000 employees work at 1,170 restaurants throughout Charleston, and a significant number of those are cooks. In a March 2006 article, the late R.W. Apple of the New York Times declared Charleston a formidable rival to New Orleans. We'd reached the "gastronomic big time," he asserted, and establishments like Peninsula Grill, High Cotton, and Magnolia's continue to garner nationwide media attention.

Underneath all the burgeoning good news about eating in Charleston, however, lies a growing problem. Without Johnson & Wales' student body joining the work force, even the top-tier restaurants are struggling to find qualified cooks. When J&W first announced a possible move to Charlotte in 2002, campus president Stephen Parker assured the public that, "Even if we decide to move, it's not going to happen overnight. It will take years for a total relocation." Today, three years since the Charlotte campus opened, Charleston's top restaurants are literally hiring high school students into their kitchens.

"It seems like all the line cooks who are left are the ones who are the leftovers," says Robert Carter, executive chef at Peninsula Grill. "Now you get the ones who couldn't get jobs in the last few years, and you're hiring them as your top line cooks." In a year, Carter says he can train anyone to the level he's looking for, but many applicants "don't have the desire or drive to stick it out."

Restaurants across town echo that it's not just a loss in numbers, but in the level of dedication seen from new hires. Cooking doesn't pay all that well -- line cooks can expect to make between $8 and $12 an hour. A student earning a degree may be working for free as an externship, but their morale and career-minded desire to learn will likely outshine the random applicant who browsed the classifieds looking for any decent job.

Open up the Exchange in this week's paper and you'll see help-wanted ads for some of Charleston's best restaurants, from the Old Village Post House to Charleston Grill. "I think I've interviewed four people in the last month, and most of them don't want to be here, is what it honestly feels like to me," says Anthony Gray, head chef at High Cotton. As part of the Maverick Group, his restaurant is in the minority of those offering perks like health insurance (fully covered after three years) and free staff meals. Despite that, they're losing the flexibility to pick and choose. "You're hiring whoever walks in the door, just to try to fill some spots, whether they're as experienced as you want or not," says Gray.

Frosh Faces

Johnson & Wales is primarily a business school, and with significant financial incentives offered by Bank of America and the state of North Carolina, consolidating their cash-cow culinary program into the Charlotte campus made good sense. That pull-out left a huge wake in Charleston, one that two up-and-coming schools hope to ride.

On Mon., April 2, the Art Institute hosted its first classes at its sleek new Market Street location. For the private, chain university with campuses in 34 cities nationwide, Charleston was a smaller metropolitan area than they normally pursue. Their graphic design and fashion programs have already enrolled 50 students, and the culinary program about a dozen, with hopes of serving between 150-200 bachelor's-in-culinary-management-degree-seeking chefs in their four-year program by a year from now, when the three-kitchen facility is completed. Although those numbers don't compare to J&W's 3,000, AI has the only four-year culinary program available in Charleston, and their location in the bustle of the Market guarantees a symbiotic relationship between their students and the downtown restaurant district.

Already two years old, the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College is also gaining a reputation as one of the premier cooking and hospitality programs in the South. Their 77,000-square-foot facility, complete with seven state-of-the-art kitchen classrooms, opened in fall of 2005 and will graduate its first associate's degree students this spring. Robert Carter (Peninsula), Brett McKee (Oak Steakhouse), Frank McMahon (Hank's), and Bob Waggoner (Charleston Grill) all sit on their chef's council.

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A visit to the school's Mikasa dining room for lunch demonstrates the level of quality Culinary Institute students adhere to. On any given day, the members of the kitchen and dining room staff are literally in class, being graded on their service, cleanliness, and presentation. "We try to give them experiences that replicate what they'll encounter in the world," says CI Dean Frankie Miller.

Dishes at the student restaurant range from scallops cooked three different ways, including one wrapped in bacon and pan-fried over a bed of grits, to entrées like pork chops or gumbo. A big-screen television displays live video from inside the kitchen, and the wait staff is videotaped and reviewed by their professor. "Guests say consistently that these students are of the caliber of a downtown establishment," says dining room instructor Blake Halmon. "If you ask the students to perform at a high level, they will."

Strolling through CI's halls, visitors can peek in on a class learning marzipan, the German art of making fanciful animal and scene creations out of almond paste, sugar, and food colorings. Next door a group is practicing ballotine in garde manger class, pounding chicken wrapped in cloth and preserving it with brine so it can be used for sausage. In April, the school will dedicate their new garden, where edible herbs and flowers will be cultivated for use at the school. Every student takes classes in nutrition, hospitality, and general education courses, insuring that graduates have a well-rounded educational background.

A two-year associate's degree from the Culinary Institute transfers to many colleges, including CofC, for a four-year hospitality degree. CI is currently working out terms with the Art Institute to allow a smooth transfer of credits to that program as well. For those graduates ready to work full-time, most expect to receive at least three job offers around town. "It's a really nice starting point," says Dean Miller. And at roughly $600 per semester for Charleston County residents, obtaining a degree is well within the financial means of most prospective grads.

Before moving to their current facility in North Charleston, Trident operated a culinary program downtown at their Palmer campus for years, literally next door to J&W on East Bay. They've doubled their enrollment to over 500 students since relocating, and have room to instruct several hundred more.

Although they opened months after J&W shut their doors, CI's genesis was entirely independent of their former neighbor's departure. "Our mission as a technical college is to meet the labor force needs of the community, and hospitality is the leading industry in Charleston," says Miller. After J&W left, a delegation of local legislators asked CI to develop a four-year degree, giving them 30 days to do it. In 2005, that plan was tacked onto a "Kitchen Sink" bill, dealing largely with medical issues, as a small addendum that would have allowed a technical college to offer a bachelor's degree. When the state Supreme Court overruled the bill, CI chose to move ahead with a plan to offer advanced, specific certifications rather than pursuing a bachelor's degree program.

In spring 2008, CI plans to open a 26,000-square-foot facility at their downtown Palmer campus, offering advanced culinary certifications to as many as 500 students. Chefs and regular citizens alike will be able to gain further education in skills as specific as cooking with artisanal French cheeses and mixology.

Moving to Charleston

Gayle Rawlins gave up her child care business in central Georgia last year and sold everything, "lock, stock, and barrel," to move to Charleston and study at the Culinary Institute. She wanted a new career that would offer benefits, and saw CI as an opportunity to start fresh with a culinary and hospitality degree. "It doesn't matter how well you prepare your chicken if you can't price it out and sell it to make a profit," says Rawlins. "I felt like this program offered me more of the knowledge I need to survive, and still do what I want to do."

The majority of Johnson & Wales students were not from South Carolina, but most worked while they were here, and many stayed. Robert Carter, as well as the chefs at Cypress, McCrady's, and the Boathouse are all J&W graduates. When the city began looking for a replacement four-year program for J&W, it was important that it attract aspiring chefs from other areas.

"Mayor Riley spent several years convincing us that this was the right place to open an Art Institute," says Richard Jerue, president of the newly opened school. "We look really carefully at the local job market to make sure there will be adequate jobs for our graduates." Jerue hopes that AI will grow to the point that in five years they are looking for additional teaching space around town. As a system, AI recruits at every high school in the country, and Charleston may very well become a hot destination among their applicants.

Several of Charleston's most prominent chefs are AI grads (as featured in recent full-page City Paper ads), including Tristan's Ciarán Duffy and Oak's Brett McKee. Duffy feels it is his responsibility to help educate aspiring chefs, and has served as an adjunct professor at CI. His father helped get the first AI culinary school started in Atlanta, and he (Ciarán) begins teaching the Intro to Culinary class at AI this week.

Duffy's class is held from 7:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. each Tues. and Wed., so he'll be rushing over to Tristan immediately after. He has cooks on his staff who are currently enrolled at CI, and if they don't get good grades, their hours are cut. "They might get a better education here in the restaurant," says Duffy, "but they need the fundamentals."

Education Makes the Cuisine, Cuisine Makes the City

Dick Elliott, owner of the Maverick group of restaurants, was chair of the Chamber of Commerce in 2002 when Johnson and Wales announced their departure. He took a delegation of local legislators and businesspeople to J&W headquarters in Rhode Island with the purpose of convincing them to stay. "Unfortunately, we weren't persuasive enough," says Elliott. "When they left, there was a serious impact on the availability of people to work." He estimates that the required work force in his kitchens is 40 percent higher today than just five years ago. But as business has grown, the number of workers has not.

At Elliott's High Cotton, chef Anthony Gray's staff often works six days a week, sometimes 14 hours at a time. A normal shift has nine people working in the kitchen, but the cost of paying overtime is "creeping up there" in his budget. "We're not skipping a beat as far as the quality of food and service, but it'd be nice to have a few more guys in here," says Gray. "I think it's an issue that every restaurant is dealing with. We're hiring guys that I wouldn't think we would have hired two years ago."

Gray himself moved to Charleston to attend J&W, and believes that having a school around "elevates the city."

"Johnson and Wales was a huge school, but what they're doing at Trident is going to be even better, and the facilities are 10 times nicer," says Gray. He currently employs two CI students who show their commitment both in the kitchen and in their lengthy commutes from North Charleston and Summerville.

To date, though, the growth of CI has not brought an influx of cooks to downtown restaurants, a fact that has chefs and owners stressing the importance of supporting both AI and CI's new Palmer Campus.

"The hospitality community took Johnson & Wales for granted," says Hank Holliday, owner of Peninsula Grill and Hank's Seafood. "We don't intend to make that mistake with either Trident or the Art Institute. We want to support and promote them in any way possible." Both he and Peninsula Grill chef Robert Carter feel that the city and J&W never established loyalty to each other. "By the time everybody started saying 'Holy crap, they're leaving,' they'd already made their decision," says Carter.

Holliday remembers when students were lined up to work, and says that now the roles are reversed. He recently joined the Art Institute's board, and helped organize a welcoming party for them last year that the AI president said was "the best welcome we've ever had by any city."

"The thing that makes a culinary student so beautiful is that they're practicing what they're learning and learning what they're practicing, and you get them for two years," says Carter. "I can teach anybody, but it's the mentality of a career-oriented student that we need." President Jerue at AI emphasizes their mission of providing restaurants with quality workers by cooking in class every day and requiring an internship. "We want our students to experience downtown," says Jerue. "From our location they can walk to their internships at Tristan or S.N.O.B. or Peninsula Grill."

CI's Palmer campus opens next year, about the same time AI should be reaching their goal student numbers. Although Charleston's restaurants may currently be trudging through understaffed days, with line cooks working tireless hours, our city will likely continue to grow as a culinary destination.

"It's a nationwide epidemic right now in the food service industry that schools cannot provide enough labor to meet the need," says chef Michael Carmel, head of faculty at CI. Indeed, booming business is as much behind Charleston's kitchen labor shortage as the loss of J&W is. As the food programs on television elevate chefs to celebrity status, regular culinary school grads are reaping the benefits with slews of job offers. Dean Miller at CI recalls the summer cooking camp they hosted -- and a little girl who brought a portfolio with photographs of cakes she had baked. Another grade-school camper brought pictures of the varied salads he created each night.

"The culinary train is going faster and faster, and they're having to add more and more passenger cars as the interest is increasing," says Miller. "The momentum is favorable to the industry, and for a graduate, the world is their oyster."

Critics and visitors nationwide increasingly hail Charleston as a world-class place to dine. The Art Institute's opening and the Culinary Institute's growing reputation should soon make our city a hotspot for culinary instruction as well. If the schools and restaurant community embrace their symbiotic relationship, Charleston's place in the culinary firmament will only grow brighter.


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