The announcement that Downtown's Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts is ceasing enrollment and will close in 2012 was a blow to the city's thriving dining scene.
"It's going to be devastating" said Toni Pais, chef and owner of Cafe Zinho in Shadyside. "The restaurant scene in Pittsburgh has been growing like crazy in recent years; we're really going to feel the pinch."
Over the years, Mr. Pais has employed numerous graduates, including two of his current employees at Cafe Zinho. The school's reputation drew many students from outside the Western Pennsylvania region, and that pool of fresh talent "really helped fill the void in the restaurants," according to Mr. Pais.
While enrollment at the school varied, in the fall of 2009 more than 800 students were enrolled either full or part time. Many of them also worked at area restaurants and food establishments.
Graduates of the 25-year-old program, previously known as the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, fill many of the top spots at notable restaurants around town, including Danielle Cain, executive chef at Soba in Shadyside; Kevin Sousa, chef-owner of Salt of the Earth in Garfield; Justin Severino, executive chef and partner at Elements, Downtown; and Richard DeShantz, chef-owner of Nine on Nine, Downtown.
The school's absence will be felt in other ways as well.
Downtown visitors no longer will see students in checkered pants and chef's white jackets cooking through the window of a Liberty Avenue kitchen classroom.
There will be no more weekend-enthusiast classes for home cooks.
The culinary students no longer will sell freshly made soup, cookies and other treats at Cultural District events such as Gallery Crawls and First Night celebrations.
Mike Edwards, CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, mourns the loss of the culinary students.
"We are very disappointed to learn of the loss of a business Downtown that really adds a certain vitality," he said. "The culinary students are very engaging young people; it's good to have them Downtown."
The school will remain open until all of its current students have completed the program. As the students graduate, instructors and other staff will be downsized.
"There's a severance package for everybody, and we'll be assisting everyone as much as we can," said Pearce Miller, president of the school, which is owned by Chicago-based Career Education Corp. "If they're willing to relocate, there will be other opportunities."
There are still a number of culinary schools in the Pittsburgh area, including one at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh that also is Downtown. But none is as large or as high-profile as the Cordon Bleu program. The Art Institute, also a for-profit school, is owned by Downtown's Education Management Corp.
A "perfect storm" of events led up to the decision to close the school, Mr. Miller said.
Its lease of about 100,000 square feet in the Clark Building was set to run out in November. Instructors hoped that the school would move, ideally to the Strip District, which would have required a substantial capital investment. Instead, CEC decided to close the school.
"With finite capital to invest and facing an uncertain regulatory environment, we determined the Pittsburgh market was no longer the right location for us," said CEC spokeswoman Angela Holland.
As a for-profit institution, CEC has faced increasing pressure from the Obama administration and Senate Democrats in the past year. A proposed "gainful employment" rule from the Department of Education would deny federal funding to schools with graduates facing high proportions of debt related to their expected salaries.
In 2010 a two-year associate's degree from Pittsburgh's Le Cordon Bleu cost $42,660. According to financial aid data for the 2008-09 school year, 47 percent of all students received federal student loans, worth more than $6.5 million to the school.
Mr. Miller cited the "gainful employment" rule as a major factor in CEC's decision to close the Pittsburgh school, and he predicted that it would soon affect other for-profit schools in the area.