Chris Morrison knew at an early age that he wanted a career in the kitchen.
“I think it started when I was cooking with my grandmother,” he recalled. “There are pictures of me at age 3, running the mixer. Cooking has always been a big part of our family, so I guess I’ve always had a passion for the culinary industry.”
The 34-year-old Atlanta native worked in various restaurant jobs but realized that to reach his ultimate goal of professional chef he’d need to go back to school. He found the courses he wanted at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Tucker. After completing the school’s two-year program, Morrison graduated in 2011, and today he’s the special events chef and a department manager at the Whole Foods Market in Johns Creek.
“I picked Le Cordon Bleu because it has a very strong name,” Morrison said. “It’s been around for many, many years. It was a fantastic experience; they were so supportive and I learned so much that advanced me as a chef and a person, too.”
Like Morrison, many of Le Cordon Bleu’s students follow their passion for cooking into the classroom, said chef instructor Kyle Reynolds, who earned his degree from the college and has been an instructor there for five years.
“The majority not only have a passion, they’ve had some exposure, but not everyone comes in with the knowledge of the world of food,” Reynolds said. “Here, they’re exposed to a lot of things they’ve never seen before. They learn the difference between anise seed and star anise, or fennel and cumin. Of course, I think every student who walks in the door has seen 'Top Chef’ or 'Iron Chef;’ many of them are addicted to cooking shows. But they’re also very attracted to the lifestyle of working with food.”
Course work at Le Cordon Bleu gives students a taste of what it entails to be a professional chef. They attend classes five days a week, and each four-hour class covers a range of topics that go beyond cooking. Sessions in English, math, psychology and food history are also part of the curriculum. But the main focus is cooking, which includes lectures, demonstrations and hands-on work.
“Students need to know the theory, the how and why of what they’re doing,” Reynolds said. “They need to understand why you need to sift the flour; why you can’t leave the mixer running for 15 minutes; how dark to sear a steak.
“At the same time, they’re learning to develop their own palates, so they do a lot of tasting. It’s a very stimulating environment that uses all the senses and means working on your feet and with your hands. It’s just like the food industry — fast-paced, demanding and engaging, and if you love it, the day flies.”
Most students are part of a 21-month, year-round associate degree program designed to prepare them for the industry as quickly as possible. The total cost for Le Cordon Bleu’s programs range from $19,550 to $49,600, depending whether students earn a certificate, an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree.
The last three months of the program is an externship that allows students to focus on particular areas of interest.
“The goal is to become a full-time hire, so we try to help them find a good fit,” Reynolds said. “The majority stay in the metro (Atlanta) area, but some go all over the place. We have partners all around the world we work with — in the Caribbean, Italy, Spain, France — so we can send them wherever their interest lies.”
Whatever a student’s particular interest, chances are good they will find employment after graduation. More positions in the food industry have been added as the economy recovers, and Reynolds doesn’t see the need for chefs slowing down anytime soon.
“It’s a field that’s definitely on the upswing,” he said. “We get calls constantly from people looking to hire students.”
Many recent graduates start out as cooks or pastry chefs in restaurants or hotels, and their rate of progression often depends on the size of the business they’re working for.
“It’s not unusual to get a management position quickly in a small operation,” Reynolds said. “In a place like a hotel or a country club, it might take longer. Because there are so many opportunities, the salaries vary, too.
“But most employers are looking for someone who’s reliable; they’ll actually look at attendance records as an indication of how well someone will do on the job. They’ll also have students do a cooking interview that includes a demonstration of technical skills and artistry. A combination of those two things also has an impact on how much money they’ll make, but it’s not unusual to start in the $50,000 range.”
But not all students go to work for someone else, Reynolds pointed out. Having the drive and talent often means students will strike out on their own.
“We’ve had some start their own businesses such as cake design studios and chocolate shops — even the food truck business has been very popular,” he said. “If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, that’s definitely an option.”