Chef Tiffany Derry on Gainful Employment

Top Chef contestant Tiffany Derry traded her kitchen toque for a political-lobbyist's hat this week to talk about a pending Obama regulation that could affect the culinary industry.

Tiffany Derry was in town this week to discuss Gainful Employment. Photograph by Nick Wass.

Top Chef: D.C. and Top Chef: All Stars contestant Tiffany Derry was back in Washington this week, wearing the hat of a political lobbyist. Derry met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Restaurant Association to argue against the Gainful Employment rule, now pending at the Department of Education. The proposed regulation from the Obama administration is primarily designed to protect students at career colleges—such as culinary and technical schools—from taking on large amounts of debt that they can’t repay. It’s also supposed to protect the taxpayer from subsidizing generous student loans that may never be repaid because of the limited earning ability of the graduates.

Many for-profit educational institutions that are run by private companies have come under fire for promising to prepare students for careers that will enable them to pay off their loans quickly and go on to earn middle-class wages. There have been enough cases in which the situation is the opposite—students mired in debt while working at low-wage jobs—that the Department of Education is proposing to limit access to federal student aid for institutions that don’t show evidence of preparing students for “gainful employment” in their recognized field. (For more information on Gainful Employment, click here.)

While recognizing the need for regulation, Derry and others feel the rule is unfair because it could limit the amount of federal aid available to the people who need it most: minorities, low-income students, and older students with families who need loans and can’t afford the time or cost of attending independent, four-year colleges. In a blog post on the Hill’s Congress blog, Derry writes: “The rule erroneously points to debt-to-income ratios and repayment rates as measures to determine whether or not students who attend a program are eligible to receive financial assistance.”

While Gainful Employment is a blanket regulation, it could negatively affect the food industry because the majority of culinary schools, from the Cordon Bleu to L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, are for-profit institutions. A student can get a technical degree at a state school, community college, or for-profit institution such as ITT Tech, but those looking for a distinguished culinary-arts degree would most likely attend the kind of trade school that the rule targets. We spoke with Derry about her thoughts on Gainful Employment and how it could affect the culinary field.

How did you get involved in lobbying against the Gainful Employment rule?
I was a graduate of Art Institute of Houston and taught the Art Institute of Dallas. It made me aware of some of the things going on. I understand wanting to lower debt, but it’s not fair if students don’t have the opportunity to go to a career college where they can study for their profession in a focused environment. I think everyone should have a choice about where they want to go and what they want to be.

What do students entering culinary school need to be aware of financially?
They need to be aware of debt and how much money they’re spending for school. The other problem is when you get out of culinary school, you’re not making much that first year or two. That’s the time for you to buckle down and learn the craft well, and from there you go to a situation and job where you’re making better money. You’re not going to come out immediately and make $50,000 or $60,000 a year. You have to work hard for it. It’s not just given to you because you went to school.

What would it mean for the demographic of kitchens if the rule goes through?
I don’t think we’ll have people as qualified. Four-year schools aren’t equipping them with 15 hours of lab each week and the training they need.

Do you think there are culinary institutions that have overpromised?
I think that some may have painted pictures of things that can’t happen. But it’s unrealistic, if you’ve never worked in a restaurant and never worked in the industry, to think that you can go to school for two years and immediately land a job that’s paying megabucks. That’s not happening anywhere, and students need to be aware.

It’s been pointed out that you’re an exceptional case because you’re driven, talented, and able to land the Top Chef gig. Do you think it’s possible for others?
I started at the International House of Pancakes. No one would have ever believed that the girl from IHOP would be on Top Chef. With the cards I was given, I worked very hard. Everyone’s success is in their own hands. You have to make smart decisions and continue to work hard. There are also different avenues for everybody. Not everyone is meant to be an executive chef. There are people who are in sales, who work as corporate chefs, or in catering. It’s a large enough field for everyone, but you have to figure out what’s the best for you.

Do you recommend that students have an idea of where they want to work in the culinary field before they start school?

Before you decide you want to go to school, definitely work with food and have an idea of what you want to do. A lot of people go to culinary school thinking they’ll be a chef. Well, if you’re going to be a chef, you’re going to work a lot of hours and be away from your family on holidays. Maybe that isn’t best for you. Maybe you have children and that’s not a schedule you can do. So it’s good to know there are other options and that it’s not just being a chef in a restaurant.

Culinary arts is a special field because you don’t need a degree to practice. How do you think going to a trade school helps in a way that starting as a low position in a kitchen doesn’t? Or going to a community college, which can be cheaper?
In culinary school, everything is concentrated and you can go straight into exactly what you want to do. I can always tell the difference with the community-college kids I get in my restaurant versus the Cordon Bleu or Art Institute, where it’s really culinary-arts-driven. The culinary-school students have a better knowledge of what’s going on.

What can culinary schools do to be more upfront about loans, debt, and life after graduation?
I think they need to lay out what it is, and I think they do a good job with that. I kind of feel it’s the students that often don’t listen. Maybe schools need to have clearer orientations before students enroll that talk about options that are available in the culinary arts and what students can expect to earn afterward. Not to scare them off but to be more realistic. Maybe students should also have to do an internship or work somewhere before they enroll. It’s a lot of money to go to school only to decide afterward that you don’t want to cook.

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Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.