Something’s cooking at Keiser University’s campus in Lakewood Ranch.
The same thing is simmering at La Maison Gourmet in Dunedin and at Hillsborough Community College.
Rising interest in culinary-related education — possibly fueled by the economic downturn, lagging job market and the "foodies" culture — is creating opportunities for private and public institutions, along with small businesses such as La Maison.
Numbers show cooking-related education and careers may not be a bad bet.
Employment of chefs, head cooks, and food preparation and serving supervisors is expected to increase 6 percent by 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Depending on the region and type of employer, the median annual wage-and-salary earnings of chefs and head cooks was $38,770 in May 2008, the latest available statistics show.
The median annual wage-and-salary earnings of food preparation and serving supervisors was $28,970.
Most of the workers in these occupations have some post-secondary training, according to the bureau, and this translates into more culinary-related programs.
“Our enrollment growth has been phenomenal,” said Fred Jaeger, culinary arts program manager at HCC. “Every single class has been overloaded. We’re teaching as many classes as we can because our enrollment is at an all-time high.
Program enrollment in the spring of 2008 for 27 classes was 413 students.
This spring, 681 students enrolled in 37 classes, causing HCC to add more adjunct instructors.
“I think this shows you what a vital part of work force development this is,” Jaeger said.
“Even with the economy the way it is, this industry is important. We are weathering the storm quite well. We’re trying to meet work force training needs by increasing the number of classes.”
At a recent convention, the overall consensus was that the culinary service industry did “all right” last year because people continue to eat out and want good meals, he said.
What Jaeger called a “trade down” is the softening in the fine dining, white tablecloth sector while there has been a slight increase in the number of establishments where people can go and prepare their own meals with a professional’s assistance.
“The biggest sector still is fast food,” Jaeger said. “It’s just a sign of the times.”
Community college heeds projections
An economic modeling specialist hired by HCC recently projected the demand for culinary-related employees in the region by 2017.
A 23 percent increase is expected in the demand for food service managers, who currently make an average of $58,000 a year.
A 20 percent increase in demand was projected for chefs and head cooks, who now make an average annual salary of $46,000.
The need for front line supervisors and food preparation managers is expected to increase by 27 percent. These employees make an average annual salary of $35,000.
“There is a dramatic need to train high-skilled employees for the restaurant and hospitality industries,” Jaeger said.
HCC is adding classes as enrollment increases and recently invested in new kitchen equipment, including two new convection ovens and a fryer heat station.
Keiser University also is adding classes and equipment to meet its culinary arts program demand at the Lakewood Ranch campus. Construction on two new kitchens will begin this year, said Michele Morgan, campus president.
Keiser already has four kitchens operating in the program, which is the largest program at the campus.
The private, for-profit university opened the $13 million campus and invested $1.3 million in culinary school equipment three years ago.
“We see the growth continuing through at least next year,” Morgan said. “We don’t see it turning anytime soon.”
With what she called “creative scheduling,” the new kitchens will allow Keiser to accommodate another 100 students in the program.
“We started with 25 students,” said Chef Michael Moench, culinary arts program director. “Now we have 195. Our biggest growth has been in the last year.”
Students in the program range in age from 18 to 52 years old. Most are in their mid-20s and 30s. Some were laid off, and some had jobs that did not make them happy because they wanted something more creative, Moench said.
As part of the program, students do an externship for four months, which in a lot of cases leads to full-time employment later. Graduates also work in test kitchens, church camps and on private yachts.
“There’s a huge market in personal chef opportunities,” Moench said.
Teaching opportunities create the major revenue supporting Chef John Lewis, owner of La Maison Gourmet restaurant in Dunedin.
He closed the popular restaurant in late September, except for Friday nights, and focuses now on teaching.
He has taught culinary-related courses for a dozen years and has no difficulty in filling the various classes he offers. Many of them are driven by the so-called “foodies” culture, such as the gourmet foods for couples and the heart-healthy classes.
Lewis allows a maximum of 12 students in his intense, five-week culinary skills course. Each class costs $65 or the entire course is $300.
He also tapped into the culinary interests of the younger generation and offers a children’s summer cooking camp that costs $185 a week.
“Kids love to cook,” Lewis said. “Some come for a week and others come for longer.”