Cooking is a notoriously cutthroat business.With hands gnarled by years of burns and lacerations, chefs spend their careers climbing the slippery rungs of the restaurant industry, hoping to graduate from line cook to sous chef to executive chef to master amid the organized chaos of a professional kitchen. It’s a field marked by calamity and upheaval, with over 80 restaurants closing in New York City last year alone.
Still, for all its turbulence, a kitchen can also be a land of opportunity — a world where a hardworking dishwasher can rise through the ranks just as quickly as a hotshot culinary-school grad. So in an era when pedigree matters less and less, the culinary-arts program at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach promises to prepare students for a life in the kitchen without breaking the bank.
“Where I work now, we had so many cooks there, but so many of them left or got fired because they couldn’t handle the heat,” says Rafael Yau Lee, a recent graduate of Kingsborough and a chef de partie at Añejo, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Tribeca owned by Top Chef finalist Angelo Sosa. “This industry is not for the weakhearted.”
Born in Panama, Yau Lee moved to Bensonhurst with his family at the age of three. His father, now an executive chef in New Jersey, began his career as a dishwasher, slowly working his way up the ladder while raising his son in the kitchens of New York City. Yau Lee first began waiting tables as a child and has gone on to work at several restaurants in Manhattan, even reaching the level of sous chef — a kitchen’s second in command — at Maslow 6 Wine Bar before it closed. He’s seen how hard work is rewarded in the culinary world, but recognizes the benefits of obtaining a degree in such a volatile industry.
“We don’t make a lot of money, my family,” says Yau Lee. “I wanted to find a school that was affordable, but also a high-quality education.” New York–based schools like the International Culinary Center and Institute of Culinary Education offered certificates to budding chefs, but also price tags as high as $40,000. “I’m not rich,” he explains. “If I was rich, I would be going to CIA.”
Located in Hyde Park, the Culinary Institute of America has long been seen as the premier destination for chefs hoping to earn a degree — not just a certificate — in the culinary arts. But despite CIA’s boasting a number of well-known alumni (television stars Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, to name a couple), chef Thom Smyth, the director of the culinary arts program at Kingsborough, says a degree from a legacy institution often isn’t worth the hefty price tag.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the industry’s experience was that the pedigree didn’t produce the kind of results they were expecting,” says Smyth. “So many of those people with degrees from advanced culinary schools, they were going into kitchens and they thought they were going to be executive chefs, and it was like, ‘No, you’re going to be a prep cook.'”
Though Kingsborough has offered cooking courses for some time now, only in recent years has the college begun awarding associate in applied science degrees for culinary arts. The curriculum offers future chefs the ability to pursue their passion, supplying some 600 hours of kitchen instruction and internships over two years, while also allowing students the opportunity to take core classes like math and science.
With credits transferable to any school in the CUNY system, Kingsborough’s culinary program promises a certain level of security and support at a discount price. Tuition at Kingsborough is only $4,500 per year for full-time students, a fraction of the cost of CIA.
“Perhaps we don’t have all the bells and whistles of some of the big culinary schools, but I think we do a pretty good job of shining in that department,” says Smyth. “When tuition is at forty, fifty, sixty thousand dollars, there are things that they may have that we don’t have. But we’re working on it.”
Yau Lee says a degree, no matter how much it costs, is often not enough to land a job at a New York City restaurant, as owners are more anxious to see what a chef can do with a knife than the name on his or her diploma. But more than job security, Yau Lee says his time at Kingsborough has given him a sense of community within the culinary world, and an aura of confidence that’s allowed him to handle any assignment with poise and precision.
“I feel like a lot of cooks right now in my generation, they want to open restaurants and stuff like that,” he says. “For me, personally, I don’t know if I want to open a restaurant yet. What I really want to do is help future culinary students get the opportunities I got…I felt like that school was my second home.”