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Vitaly Paley on the Value of Affordable Culinary Schools

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Photo: John Valls

It's safe to say that there are a lot of people out there with strong opinions about the pros and cons of culinary school. Two weeks ago, Momofuku chef David Chang offered his thoughts on how the culinary school system is broken, sparking considerable debate about the pros and cons of a culinary education. Today, Portland chef Vitaly Paley (Paley's Place, Imperial) joins the debate, echoing Chang on some points, but also sticking up for one culinary program that he finds worthwhile: his hometown Oregon Culinary Institute. (For which he is an outspoken advocate.) Without any further ado, here's Paley on why he likes to hire OCI grads, how big of a role affordability should play in choosing a school, and why culinary school is necessary.

So I heard that you only hire grads from OCI?
Well, I don't know if I exclusively hire from OCI, but sure, they play a big role in hiring the cooks in my restaurant. They're very active in the local community and provide a bunch of interns for us. Most times, it's inevitable that after the process of going through an internship there either is a position available or the kid is so good that I have to find a place for them.

So what is it about that program that appeals to you?
There are a couple of things. One is, selfishly speaking, there are a couple of teachers in the school that have been my sous chefs and my pastry chef and my cooks at Paley's Place before they became instructors in the school. They understand the needs, the philosophy, the mantra, the daily chores, what we need at Paley's Place and what we need at Imperial. So, to me, that's an added bonus.

But as far as the curriculum in the school, they really understand the local food scene much better than anybody else. They really understand what restaurants like ours need out of kids, out of school. And they structure their curriculum based on that. They embraced the local mentality, the farm-to-table theme, where I don't know if most schools actually do that.

I have participated in several programs, and one was a program where they went to two separate farms and raised a couple of pigs and saw from beginning 'til end the whole process. They had a little bit of time on the farm and then went back into the kitchen and made themselves dinner with the pigs and used every single part of it. It gives you not only the understanding of how to butcher a whole animal, which is a necessity at places like ours, it also gives you an understanding of what it's like to respect an animal. That just goes for just about everything that they do. That's really the biggest reason why it appeals to me to be able to hire kids from that school because they just understand what we need. They really fill the needs of the restaurant.

So what generally are you looking for then when you're hiring if it's not just culinary school background? Would you hire someone who didn't have experience?
As Mr. Chang said, we're not saving lives here. We're just cooking food and making people happy. So for me it's basically the same thing. Cooking sometimes is just common sense and a little bit of heat. That's a good start. So if someone has the right attitude and really wants to come up and understand and be committed, then that's all I really need in the beginning. The rest we can teach.

I've had kids come out from high school. There's this one gentleman who started with me from high school who really didn't know much, but had an amazing drive and then ended up going to school after that. But he started with me and he spent about a year working. And I brought him up from scratch. My sous chef and my chef de cuisine have never gone to school. So there's a combination there. It's more about individuals, it's about the passion and the understanding with which they take their life in a restaurant seriously.

With that said, school is a resource. There's a general need for really good cooks these days. I hear from folks everywhere, in San Francisco, New York, people are saying, "Hey, we've had an ad for five weeks and we can't find a cook." So obviously there's more of us than there is of them, I suppose. I don't know.

Do you see this issue of retention rates as David Chang mentioned being a problem?
You know, the rate of attrition in our business has always been mind-staggering. You're lucky if you get a year out of a guy. And that's not because you don't want them to succeed. It's because of how things are. When you're young, you want to move on, you want to learn as much as you can. Selfishly, if you bring up a guy, you feel pride and joy in giving him the tools to succeed. And then he leaves you. Yeah, you kind of want them to stay a little bit longer. But I think the rate of attrition is pretty common in our world. I think most of us are used to it.

Me, on the other hand, I'm pretty lucky. For example, my sous chef has been working with me for 12 years and he started with me as a dishwasher. My executive chef at Paley's has been with me from being a line cook about eight or nine years ago. Some of the other cooks have been with me for a couple of years. So I'm pretty lucky. And I attribute that toward a good, healthy environment where we allow folks to succeed. We give them the right tools. And when they leave us, if they decide to go, I can put them against any cook out there in the country and they'll know so much more.

The learning is what they're there for. Obviously the money has never been there and probably never will be for any of us in our profession. But it's the learning, it's the passion, it's the understanding of an ingredient, it's living with the day-to-day understanding of what it's like to cook in a professional kitchen.

Since you mentioned the money issue, the crux of the whole debate about culinary schools is that school is so expensive and you're not making much money as a line cook.
That's been on everybody's concern list for many years. I've been concerned about that just the same. I've seen folks from different schools come through my kitchen and leave within a period of several months because they've got bills coming out of their ears and they can't pay them on whatever wage we're paying them. And unfortunately that's the reality. So it's important that when you go to school you either get some financial aid from your family or you understand that you're going to be paying off your debts for a very long time. And when you do find a school it has to be not only good, but it has to be affordable. I think OCI is the affordable school to go to. I don't know exactly how much it costs, I don't have that number.

Oregon Culinary Institute [Photo: Facebook]

I'm looking at it right now, it's like $16,000 for the culinary arts diploma.
And how long is it, a nine-month program?

That's 32 weeks.
So by comparison, I went to French Culinary Institute in the late '80s and early '90s, and I paid $12,000 for that school. So $16,000 is actually a really good price. This was a six-month program, I went for just the bare minimum. I went to college already and I didn't really want to spend a lot of time in school. But to me it was an invaluable experience. That's what technical schools are, they give you the basic information. And, of course, you can only blame school so much. I think it's about the students themselves. You get out of it as much as you put in in the first place. That's kind of a given. So if you don't want to learn and you're going to blame the school for charging you money, that's just going to be your own fault. If you're just going out for a culinary program and you're spending $16,000, hey, that's a bargain compared to the big schools out there.

It's hard for me when guys come in and I say, "What are your school loans and where is that money going to come from?" At the rate that we're paying them, that's just a given. They're not going to pay off their loans anytime soon. So they're forced to go someplace else, to other places that will give them the ability to pay off their loans. They may not be learning a lot, they're having a lot of fun, as Mr. Chang puts it, but there are those places, too. People have to eat. You've got institutional cooking, you've got all kinds of cooking out there. The fine dining establishment, we represent what 1 percent or 2 percent of the whole restaurant world out there?

I mean, there's so many ways to skin a cat here. And, as far as I'm concerned, Mr. Chang belongs to a very elite group of chefs that will never have an issue. I'm happy to know that he's standing up for guys like me who basically have to slug it out on a daily basis with the rest of them. But I'm sure there's a line of guys outside his doorway and into his kitchen. School or no school, pay or no pay. And I've been a big fan of his work, by the way, for years. I have enjoyed many a meal at his restaurants — the ones I could get into at least.

Most of the chefs I talked to said similar things in terms of they hiring based on attitude. But it seems like there's a disconnect maybe for some of the students who think you have to go to the fanciest culinary school to get hired and those are the ones that cost you $100,000. And these smaller programs like OCI maybe are overlooked. Do you think that's the case?
Yeah, I've had several people come up to me and ask me which school they should go to. I usually tell them obviously go to where your heart tells you to go to, but please remember that you're going to have bills to pay at the end. And on the hourly wage you're going to be making after you leave school you're not going to be paying that off anytime soon. So please remember that as you select your school. And in the same sentence I say, "Hey, OCI is a great option, go check 'em out."

OCI is the best program out there if you want to learn how to cook, if you want to understand the philosophy and you don't want to drop an amazing amount of dollars. With that said, I have a very soft spot for the French Culinary Institute because that's where I went. I know it's expensive at this time, but you get exposed to quite a bit. And you're also in New York City proper and they also help with placement and that kind of thing.

How did you get involved with OCI?
OCI was started not too long ago by a group of folks that saw the place they were working for — it was another local school — was going into a different direction. And they really wanted to continue making teaching a priority and also making it accessible to the kids. So they started a very small program and it just grew of necessity. It grew because there were people that wanted to learn, but really couldn't afford to spend a lot of money on schooling.

Also they saw a need for people like us who needed people that have an understanding of what it's like to work with local ingredients, to work with real ingredients. You know? I don't know how many schools would go out of their way to purchase the best ingredients possible instead of having a big old Sysco truck pull up in the back of their school. You've got to provide ingredients for people to work with and sometimes those ingredients cost money. My hat's off to them because the ingredients they're using are more expensive than the ones you can find from a regular distributor.

Produce delivery at OCI. [Photo: Facebook]

That's cool, I didn't realize that.
I mean, the kids have to cook with something, right? It's all practical. And then they're pretty active in the community. Again, I can't say enough good things about that school. I think the world of them.

The people at the new San Francisco Cooking School basically started their school in response to certain things chefs said they wanted such as more of a focus on tasting and repetition than your typical cooking school. Do they do that at OCI? Should that be taught more in cooking school?
Yeah, the folks at OCI asked me basically the same question: What do you want to see out of your students? I think the first words out of my mouth were that we need them to know how to make certain things a little bit better. We need them to have more repetition on things because repetition is all about what we do on a daily basis with consistency.

However, here's the caveat: I would rather they learn more techniques and then once they're in my restaurant, the repetition is what they will get. So if they're at least familiar with something, then I have something to work with. I'm kind of changing my tune a bit here. I've found out over the past couple years that I would rather they learn and get exposed to more things in their studies. Once they're at the restaurant, I always tell them two things: you're going to get the repetition, you're going to make that sauce béarnaise nine million times and it's gotta be perfect every time. Also you're not cooking for grades anymore, you're cooking for real people. Those are the two realities of a restaurant.

Yeah I guess all chefs have their own thoughts on what should be taught.
Yeah, of course. And there are so many ways. Take that sauce béarnaise or sauce hollandaise for example. There are so many ways to make it. Some people just melt the butter. Some people just clarify the butter. I remember my very first experience out of school, I walked into some chef's kitchen — this was many years ago — and he asked me to make something. I don't remember what it was. And I said, "Perfect, I just learned that. I know how to make it." And I started making it and then chef comes back in and says, "Hey, what are you doing? That's not how you make it." And he threw it away. I was like, whoa, what just happened? So you realize that there's more than one way to do something. That is the beauty of it. We're looking for the same result. We know what it's supposed to taste like. But how you get there is a constant search.

So do you have any other thoughts you want to share?
I think the heated discussion that became of Mr. Chang's interview is definitely something that's been on the mind of a lot of us, especially in today's world where people get exposed to [so much] on television. When I was growing up, there was no such thing as Food Network. Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet, all those guys were the guys you kind of looked up to on television. And these were all kind of educational shows. But in today's world, there's so much. It's being thrown at these kids. They grow up watching Iron Chef and Chopped, and they're all entertainment shows. They're not really real.

I competed on Iron Chef and I won and that was an amazing experience. But that came to me after 25 years of cooking. You take things very differently with experience under your belt. And when the kids these days are exposed to this stuff, they've got to be able to read the book before they throw it out. That's where the school comes in. The school brings in the books, they give them the basic education and then they go in the real world and take it however they want to take it.

Attrition rates are just the same everywhere. I don't know. Schools could probably do a better job of screening the people that want to learn the art of cooking. That's probably one of the things that I would maintain is that the screening process needs to be better. But in a sense that schools are necessary to give basic education. Because when [cooks] walk into a busy restaurant like mine, I don't have time to take them by the hand. Most of us don't. We need them to hit the road running. Three, four, five days of training and boom, they've gotta be off and running. So we're nurturing, we're a teaching environment, but at the same time we're also a business. That's where the schools come in.

So that would be my little closing statement. I think it's important to make that distinction that I grew up in a different world than most kids grow up in these days. So the entertainment portion of our profession was not there when I was learning. And today that's what they see. It takes a lot of time to become a chef. It still does. It doesn't matter how much TV you watch, it's still a long, hard road. They need to be prepared for it. And I think the OCI doesn't skip a beat. They tell them exactly how it is, and that's what I like about about them. They're very real about their program and they're real about the outcome.

· All Vitaly Paley Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Culinary Schools Coverage on Eater [-E-]

Paley's Place

1204 NW 21st Ave Portland, OR 97209

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