City College of San Francisco runs the oldest and one of the most respected Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management programs in the United States. Founded in 1936, the program was one of the country’s first culinary schools. The program offers Associate of Science degrees in three areas: Culinary Arts Management, Food Service Management, and Hotel Management. And at $46 per unit, the classes are a bargain—going through the full two-year program will set you back about $2,000, which is one-tenth the cost of a culinary arts certificate from Le Cordon Bleu.
Each year the school sends a steady stream of line cooks, pastry chefs and food service employees into the Bay Area's workforce. A number of local successful chefs and business owners went through City College's culinary program.
There are also three pending lawsuits—including one from the San Francisco city attorney's office—that seek an injunction against the school's closure.
“I’m really not sure what is going to happen to Career, Technology, and Education programs like Culinary, Radiology, and Nursing,” Tannis Reinhertz, Culinary Arts and Hospitality Department Chair said. “No one knows what their future holds and there’s varying opinions about where the college is headed. There’s not a lot of room for constructive dialogue.”
Mixed messages about the college’s uncertain future has had a direct impact on enrollment. Registration in both credit and noncredit courses is down about 10 percent.
“We are normally an impacted program with a very long, long waitlist. This is this the first time I’ve seen this since I began teaching here in 1993,” she said.
Target enrollment in credit courses each semester is 85 students, but this semester only 73 students enrolled.
“We actually had to call people over the summer and ask them if they were returning to classes,” Reinhertz said. “Normally, we don’t have to do that. There was a greater effort to capture the students we have.
Faculty morale is down, also. “We feel pretty beat up,” she said.
According to a report by the San Francisco Budget and Legislative Analyst’s office, the economic loss to San Francisco would be a staggering $311 million if City College were to close.
The analyst's office also determined that students would incur higher costs if forced to transfer to private, for-profit two-year programs elsewhere.
Many graduates earn an Associate degree in just two years, walking away with very little debt and numerous job opportunities. They’ve been able to find positions at high-end hotels and restaurants throughout the Bay Area and beyond including Acquerello, the Cliff House, and Gary Danko.
“It’s the best kept secret in San Francisco,” Reinhertz said.“It’s a cost that students can actually pay back. Even for someone making $12 an hour. It’s not beyond anybody's reach.”
Reinhertz warned the impact on the culinary world would be imminent, especially in relation to internships.
“Students would most likely just drop out. No one does what we do. We have the internships that lead to jobs,” she said.
We asked a few notable alumni in the food world what they think would happen if San Francisco loses City College and the Culinary Arts program.
San Francisco native Sam Mogannam doesn’t know where he would be without City College. He attended the culinary program in 1986 upon graduating high school.
“Initially I thought I was gonna be a hotel guy,” he said. “My intent was to go to City for two years and then transfer to Cornell to do the hotel administration program there.”
Mogannam didn’t end up at Cornell, but instead stayed local after he found a job at a diner and discovered he loved to cook.
“I think I would have gone crazy if I was a suit, you know?” he said.
Then he and his brother took over the family grocery business on 18th Street in 1998 with only six employees. Now he has 285 employees across three stores, including the new market on Divisadero Street.
Mogannam is afraid that if the college closes, students would suffer most.
“I know there are just so many kids that get out of the (California) Culinary Academy that have loans that they will probably never be able to pay back if they stay in the food business,” he said. “Or they come out with these expectations that they're going to become a high-power chef and really don't have any experience to back it. It's a challenge for them because they've got this pressure of the debt and still don't have the experience to be able take on a job that will actually help them pay it down.”
Jeff Hanak, owner of the popular restaurants Nopa and Nopalito, always wanted to go to City College. The price and location were hard to beat. He’d been working in restaurants throughout high school and hoped to see if the culinary department was a “good fit.”
“I always loved working in restaurants,” Hanak said. “I wanted to see if this could be a career for me. City College was reasonably priced and had an excellent reputation.”
He enrolled right out of high school and never looked back. While attending classes, he earned a coveted internship at the Four Seasons Hotel.
“The school has a relationship within the industry. Internships are quite good with hotels and restaurants,” he said. “There’s opportunities for excellent job placements if that’s what you really want to do.”
Hanak still uses his City College training every day. He helped open Nopa in 2006, and Nopalito a year later. The New York Times said it put San Francisco’s north of the Panhandle neighborhood on the map.
“My instructors helped me gain a broad range of skills. Not just culinary, but I learned the art of hospitality. It would be sad to lose City College,” Hanak said.
He fears that if the school shuts down, the reverberations for the restaurant world will be hard to overcome. Bay Area restaurants are large employers of people coming right out of school. Over the years he has employed multiple City College graduates as managers, cooks and servers.
“I think it would be hard to find a pool of quality graduates to choose from,” he said.
He also worries about the students. He believes without City College, there aren’t many other opportunities for aspiring chefs or servers to learn valuable skills at a low price.
“There’s nowhere else in San Francisco for people to go other than for-profit institutions. There’s some pretty expensive private schools out there,” Hanak said.
Martino DiGrande wanted to carry on his fathers’ tradition in the restaurant business. A proud Sicilian, he knew that food was his calling. Like Mogannam and Hanak, he enrolled in City College’s program directly out of high school in 2002.
“The school’s reputation is second to none,” he said. “I talked to people in the industry and they said, ‘Don’t be crazy. Go to City College!”
And so he did. He learned how to cook and meet strict criteria from some of the harshest food critics.
“At City you are cooking for the students. Your food has to be hot. It has to be good” DiGrande said. “We had some of the toughest food critics around. They would let you know if the food wasn’t up to par.”
One of the highlights of the program for DiGrande was the diversity of students in culinary arts. If City College were to close, DiGrande is worried that many students would be completely be shut out from higher education.
“We had a couple guys recently out of prison. We had veterans. You name it. They were all trying to better themselves. I’m afraid those students might be lost in the shuffle,” he said.
Whatever happens over the next ten months, the culinary department is still open, thriving and preparing for the future. Reinhertz is even trying to expand the program for non-chefs, including more daylong courses and maybe even a “couples cooking class.” One thing she wants to make clear.
City College isn’t closed, yet. “We are still here. We are still accredited. Come take a class,” she said.
In fact, the college added several dozen “late start” classes to its fall schedule, including two Culinary Arts classes -- "Pantry and Cold Kitchen" and "Chocolate and Confections."
Disclosure: Both Gina Scialabba and Sara Bloomberg take classes at City College of San Francisco. Ms. Scialabba has periodically taken courses for both professional and personal growth since Spring 2011. Ms. Bloomberg has taken courses since Fall 2011 and is working towards a journalism certificate. Neither have taken a culinary arts class.