Bobby Flay. Rachael Ray. Emeril. Mario Batali. In this Food Network age, chefs are celebrities like movie stars and rock musicians.

This year, 1,000 Flay fans turned up hours early for a book signing in New Jersey to meet the boyish chef-restaurateur. The frighteningly perky Ray pulled in $16 million this year through her syndicated TV show, bimonthly magazine and endorsement deals with Nabisco and Dunkin' Donuts.

Just as hot as the chefs are culinary schools promising a fast track to chefdom. Restaurant-crazy Portland is no different. The city has the long-established Western Culinary Institute, which since 2002 has experienced 13 percent enrollment growth—to 837 students—and Oregon Culinary Institute emerging as WCI's competitor a year and a half ago.

"WCI offers students the opportunity to obtain the foundation and skill sets that a graduate with a diploma or degree will need to advance in a culinary, pastry or hospitality career," says WCI president Jon Alberts.

But some students say WCI's promises don't live up to the profession's realities. They say graduates end up disappointed in dead-end jobs and buried in debt when they leave WCI, which is in the Galleria building at 921 SW Morrison St.

Records from the Oregon Student Assistance Commission's Office of Degree Authorization list 30 students, parents and former employees contacting them about WCI between March 2003 and September 2007. By comparison, Oregon Culinary Institute—a locally owned operation formed by ex-WCI instructors—has had no complaints from its 200 students during 18 months of operation, says OSAC administrator Alan Contreras.

Among WCI students' allegations over the past four-plus years: lack of equipment; classes exceeding size stated by recruiters; and overcrowding to the point where concerns were raised about safety and sufficient opportunity to cook. WCI students turned WCI critics say recruiters and instructors led them to believe graduation would bring good pay and higher positions, making it easy to repay hefty loans for tuition.

"I did a six-week WCI externship at the Paragon in the Pearl District," says Josh Beauchamp, a 2004 WCI graduate. "After I got my diploma, they hired me and I got paid 50 cents more than the dishwasher. With over $34,000 in student loans, I would need to work two or three jobs to just get by."

Beauchamp, whose mother helped him pay off his student loan by selling her home in Baton Rouge, now makes $11 an hour as a line cook at Lake Oswego's Fivespice restaurant. His wife, Jenna, another WCI graduate, also works as a line cook making $12 an hour.

"They keep telling you that you'll be a chef as soon as you are out in the real world," says Stacy Givens, who attended WCI for less than three months in 2006 before switching to OCI. "Little do the students know that they are paying $40,000 to probably be stuck in the pantry for a long while."

After graduating from OCI last summer following an externship at San Francisco's nationally recognized vegan restaurant Millennium, Givens now works for $12 an hour as a line cook at downtown's Southpark Seafood Grill&Wine Bar, and has begun making payments on the $14,000 debt from her brief stay at WCI.

WCI says 94.5 percent of its graduates between Oct. 1, 2005, and Sept. 30, 2006, are employed. But WCI doesn't track graduate income or positions, obscuring the fact that graduates enter an industry with 12 million-plus workers where wages tend to be very low and high-paying positions very few.

The government estimates there are 3.1 million jobs as cooks, but only 125,000 as chef or head cook. The median hourly wage for chefs and head cooks is $14.75, with hourly wages running from $12 to $13.57 in limited service and full-service restaurants. Median wages for food preparation workers, short-order cooks and restaurant cooks range from $8.03 to $9.39 per hour.

Portland follows those national averages, says Eric Stromquist, executive director of OCI.

Caprial Pence, who with husband John operates Caprial's Bistro in Portland's Sellwood neighborhood, attended the Culinary Institute of America. Pence thinks culinary school can be a good thing, but cautions that experience is the key to advancing in the field.

"I always tell kids who come to me or to John that they need to work in the industry before going to school," says Pence, who co-hosts a popular public TV cooking program. "Schools need to give a better reality check…but who's going to go to school if you tell them they are going to make $9 an hour with no health insurance?"

Last month, WCI's parent company, Career Education Corporation, was named a defendant in a class-action suit in San Francisco Superior Court for its operation of the California Culinary Academy. Dozens of former CEC students allege the company misled them about education quality and the school's ability to place them in well-paying jobs. Also alleged is that under CEC instructions, academy personnel accepted kickbacks from lenders to "place students in loans that exceeded market rates."

"We believe the complaint is wholly without merit," CEC spokeswoman Lynne Baker tells WW. "We categorically deny and will vigorously defend the claims against CCA."

WCI isn't the subject of similar litigation. But ex-WCI students like Givens and Beauchamp say people realize too late that WCI's education falls short of what's promised on the website—"hands-on training" and "full spectrum of culinary education…with a challenging and comprehensive curriculum."

Alberts points out WCI features nine professional kitchens and three demonstration kitchens with video technology. Instructors host daily one- to two-hour sessions for one-on-one time, technique practice and feedback.

During a recent visit to WCI, a receptionist in the freshly painted lobby answered a constantly ringing phone. One wall was covered with an array of knives and other implements. A door opened onto a large, clean kitchen where a half-dozen uniformed young women and men kneaded dough on long tables or attended large stainless steel ovens.

For any wannabe chef, the vibe seems to promise, in the words of WCI's glitzy video, "the opportunity to live your dream."

Yet Givens says she found herself in classes of 70 or more students, 80 percent of whom had never been in a professional kitchen. Givens says instruction was light on essentials and got more trivial each day.

"Knife work is a fundamental skill that prepares you for the real world, and at OCI I broke down chickens from beginning to end every day," says Givens. "I broke down a chicken once in the three months I was at WCI—it was like they couldn't afford for everyone to have a chicken."

Beauchamp found the "intimate class sizes" promised by WCI's admissions representative started at 70 and never dropped below 20. The result: students fighting for stovetops and ingredients.

"The WCI catalog clearly states that lecture classes may have as many as 70 students and lab classes as many as 35 students," Alberts says. "Additional instructors may be assigned to various classes, thereby reducing the student-to-instructor ratio." No mention of class sizes was found in a review of the current WCI catalog or promotional material.

Just as disturbing as class-size complaints are those about marketing and financial aid.

In 2005-2006, 78 percent of WCI students got some financial aid to afford the $40,000 for the 14-month Associate of Occupational Studies Degree in Culinary Arts program.

Beauchamp, Givens and students who filed complaints with OSAC say recruiters made it easy for them to obtain Sallie Mae loans—loans from private lenders provided under federal loan programs. State records suggest the school wasn't as forthcoming about the financial impacts.

Students Erin O'Brien, Hal Lewandoski and Andrea Young withdrew from WCI in 2005, telling OSAC that the institute "misrepresented facts involving course work, quality of education, employment and loan structure."

OSAC found WCI was "overselling, being overpriced, and providing confusing paperwork," but had not actually "cheated" the students by OSAC's criteria.

Loan default rates at WCI were 9.9 percent in 2005—the latest year for which figures are available. The national average is 8.6 percent. WCI's default rate is also well above the 2 percent rate at Culinary Institute of America, or the 3.4 percent rate at the New England Culinary Institute (no figures were available for the newer Oregon Culinary Institute).

Robert Williams, a WCI admissions representative in 2003, alleged in 2004 that he was encouraged to present himself as an impartial "counselor" rather than a recruiter. He also claims he and others were trained by CEC and used CEC presentation materials that misled and manipulated potential students.

Williams' allegations were corroborated in part by two subsequent calls OSAC received from former WCI admissions representatives.

OSAC concluded the scripts and promotional materials were misleading and that WCI "blew a lot of smoke in response." OSAC forced the school to revise language in its materials that blurred the line between recruiter and adviser.

According to OSAC's Contreras, WCI's problems are now resolved. The agency renewed WCI's authorization last May, citing no new complaints. Contreras notes, however, that the process is complaint-driven and he lacks the ability to conduct independent investigations.

For Givens, the brief experience at WCI was searing.

"Everything costs something at WCI, even my dignity at one point," says Givens. "It was the biggest mistake of my life, and just those few months cost me a pretty penny."


The 1996 edition of ShawGuide's

The Guide to Cooking Schools

listed 269 career cooking schools in the United States. Last year that number rose 60 percent, to 446.

When restaurateur Horst Mager started WCI in 1983, it offered only a culinary diploma. Today, the school offers diploma and associate's degree programs in "Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts," and "Pâtisserie and Baking" as well as an associate's degree program in hospitality and restaurant management.

WCI's parent, CEC, is one of the big players in private adult education, with more than 90,000 students, 80 campuses and more than $1.7 billion in sales last year.