Sunday, July 18, 1999

Sad ending for local chef school

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Step through the swinging doors of most any restaurant kitchen this week, and you may find the mood to be morose. The chefs and cooks of Greater Cincinnati are saddened by the closing of a respected institution of higher learning. A school that gave them and many colleagues a start in the business.

        The last class of the Greater Cincinnati Culinary Academy (some know it as Queen City Culinary Academy) will graduate next Sunday. Mike McNeil, chef-instructor at the downtown adult vocational school since 1985, will deliver his final lecture Friday.

        After reviewing three years of deficit operations, Cincinnati Public Schools adult education officials who oversaw the program decided this spring to close it down. Enrollment had declined from 15 last year to eight this year, , and no one knows why.

        This is a tragedy, considering the academy has given Cincinnati more restaurant chefs than any other school or college: Dave Buchman and Jonathan Partin of Chez Alphonse in Fort Thomas; Jim Jennings of the Celestial in Mount Adams; Elaine Price of Petersens, downtown; Stefan Kraus of Scalea's in Covington; and Henry Warman of Cafe Cin-Cin, downtown. And those are just a few who learned to cook at the academy.

        In New Orleans, where one of the school's most famous graduates cooks, there is another somber kitchen.

        “I'm really bummed about this,” says Anne Kearney, who has won acclaim as one of the best young chefs in the country at her restaurant, Peristyle. “I feel (the academy) changed my life.” @subhed:Opened in 1980


        The academy was designed to produce confident, competent restaurant cooks in nine months of intensive hands-on training. Few can argue with its success.

        Paul Sturkey, chef-owner of Sturkey's in Wyoming, opened the Culinary Academy in 1980 and served as instructor until 1985.

        As a pilot project, the academy was one of the first to receive funding under President Reagan's Job Training Partnership Act.

        “The GM plant in Norwood had closed, and we were trying to teach people who worked with their hands new skills,” Mr. Sturkey says.

        A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., Mr. Sturkey convinced his alma mater to allow instructors to come to Cincinnati to teach courses at the academy. This attracted students like Ms. Kearney, who were looking for a prime education at a bargain price.

        “I was accepted to the CIA and Johnson & Wales (another respected culinary school in Providence, R.I.), but tuition there was about $30,000 a year,” Ms. Kearney says. “Tuition at the academy was about $8,000.”

        After she finished the academy, Ms. Kearney worked in Cincinnati before moving to New Orleans. She appreciated her education at the Culinary Academy so much that she recommended it to her younger brother, Patrick. After he graduated, Mr. Kearney cooked at the Maisonette and now works with his sister at Peristyle.

        Other Culinary Arts graduates credit the intensive nature of the program for their success.

        “(The program) was focused on putting you into an environment like a restaurant,” says Jonathan Partin, who worked at the Maisonette and L'Auberge in Dayton before landing at Chez Alphonse.

        Paul Sebron, a graduate who owns Mr. Pig catering at Findlay Market, says he drifted from job to job before entering the academy.

        “I got my basic kick in the butt from chef Mike (McNeil) and chef Tom (Kief, a former instructor). I don't have much down here, but I don't think I could have gone as far without the Culinary Arts Academy.”

"One helluva chef'
        Mr. McNeil worked as a chef in Chicago before taking the academy teaching position.

        He's a self-described blunt guy who never understood the bureaucracy or tolerated the politics of the Cincinnati Public Schools system.

        “But he's one helluva chef,” says Dorothy Boegeman, administrative assistant at the academy since 1985.

        Says Mr. McNeil: “They tried to turn this into a student-run restaurant one time. But I stood up and said no. Students can't learn enough by doing just that.”

        His teaching contract has been “non-renewed” several times in the past. Once, he says, his contract was renewed only days before classes were set to begin. Perhaps that experience helped prepare him to lose his job for good next week.

        “But I have to say the school has been good to me,” Mr. McNeil says. “I learned a lot from the students and from the CIA instructors.”

        Everyone praises the academy — even Ted Coakley, director of adult education for Cincinnati Public Schools. In May, he made the decision to shut it down.

        “We held off as long as we could,” Mr. Coakley says. “But we have lost money on the program for three years.”

        In an age of dwindling state and federal aid, adult education programs must be self-supporting, Mr. Coakley says. The Culinary Arts Academy has suffered because of declining enrollment. Just eight students will graduate next Sunday.

        Considering that most other culinary schools — including Cincinnati State's two-year chef-technology program — are swamped with applicants, this student shortage remains a mystery.

        Mr. Partin, who served on an advisory committee for the academy, believes many students find it difficult to hold a full-time job while enrolled in the intensive program.

        “And if their parents are willing to pay for their culinary education, they're going to go somewhere like the CIA or Johnson & Wales,” he says.

        Mr. Coakley holds out hope the academy can re-open as early as next fall — if the school can recruit at least 20 students. To accomplish that, he believes the academy will have to reduce the $7,400 per-term tuition. One way to accomplish that, he suggests, will be to convert the nine-month session into a “modular” program that offers shorter, more affordable courses on specialties, such as baking and meat-cutting.

        If he can recruit the students and reopen the Culinary Arts Academy next year, Mr. Coakley says Mike McNeil is welcome back as instructor.

        But Mr. McNeil says he can't teach there again.

        “I've got no fight left in me after 14 years,” he says.

        That, too, is a tragedy.


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