In a Tight Economy, Culinary Students Explore Other Outlets

Graduates opt for corporate and sales jobs, rather than fine dining.

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Fewer graduates of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., are choosing a career in fine dining, where the glory may be great, but the hours are long and the pay is relatively low.

"Less and less are choosing fine dining. They're looking at opportunities that are more traditional in terms of salary, benefits, and promotability, which is more of a concern for our students as the economy gets tighter," says Chet Koulik, the institute's director of career services.

Here's a look at where CIA graduates are going:

• Management training programs in meal-replacement areas, such as grocery store chains that provide "grab and go" convenience meals.

• Contract companies such as Sodexo Inc. or Aramark Corp., which provide food services to corporate dining facilities, hospitals, correctional facilities, and the like.

• Corporate research and development, which may include testing recipes and developing the products that will end up on grocery store shelves.

• Restaurant groups, or "chains," where graduates might oversee recipe and menu development for various locations.

• Sales, which may include working for culinary equipment manufacturers or purveyors that supply the industry.

• Food writing, publishing, or media.

"Many of our students are nontraditional, or are career-changers, and are not in a position to do a 90-hour workweek," Koulik says. "Most people assume you go to a culinary program to be a chef and work in a kitchen. That's a large part of it, but the industry has grown and morphed."

As for most new graduates, the salaries CIA graduates can expect depend on their experience.

"Typically, it's in the low 30s for someone with an associate's degree going into a kitchen," Koulik says. "A bachelor's would be leaving closer to the mid-30s, but they're in management tracks and in position to be promoted and moved around in a much faster time frame."

Students entering R&D jobs are looking at higher salaries but tend to have more experience, including previous degrees or backgrounds in chemistry or biology, Koulik says. The nonprofit institute, which graduates 1,200 students a year, offers four-semester associate's degree programs and nine-semester bachelor's degree programs. Its per-semester tuition cost is $10,640 for freshmen and sophomore years, and $9,590 for junior and senior years.