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Tensions boil over at culinary school

New York Teacher
Instructors at the Institute of Culinary Education voted to join the UFT in Dece
Elizabeth Massa

Instructors at the Institute of Culinary Education voted to join the UFT in December, but have made no headway with management in contract negotiations. Scott McMillen (third from left), a chef instructor in the pastry and baking arts program, says the instructors are “ridiculously dedicated” to their students but are “severely overworked and underappreciated.”

The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in Manhattan sits atop several lists of the nation’s best culinary schools.

It has gotten there, say many of the school’s instructors, despite its management.

“I can tell you without any rancor that the administration does virtually everything we teach as bad practice,” said culinary management instructor Vin McCann.

Frustrated faculty members joined the UFT in December and the union is seeking to negotiate a contract for 80 instructors, but making no headway. Management “has zero intention of reaching an agreement,” said McCann.

"The chef instructors have made ICE the success it is," said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. "They asked for our help because the school's owner needs to recognize their contribution and give them a fair contract, sane scheduling and salaries that reflect their expertise."

The first issues the union brought to the table involved basic, but needed, improvements to working conditions.

“Safety and sanitation is not a priority” at ICE, said Ted Siegel, a chef instructor in the culinary arts program. Siegel recently was injured on the job, he says, as a result of management’s negligence.

It takes an inordinately long time to fix things, equipment is constantly in disrepair and the maintenance staff is not properly trained, he added. “Every night when they clean the stoves, they don’t relight the ovens’ pilot lights, so gas builds up,” Siegel said.

“Things are slipping through the cracks,” said recreational program instructor Melanie Karmazin because the school is bigger since relocating to Brookfield Place, formerly the World Financial Center, and “there’s a massive disconnect” between administration and faculty. It’s not clear where to go when a problem arises, she said.

Scott McMillen, a chef instructor in the pastry and baking arts program, said the concerns “aren’t just for us. We’re asking for the students.” Everyone, he said, uses the same space.

Seeing a student with an ice pack on her head recently, McMillen learned she had been struck by a falling ceiling panel. The glass on a deck oven shattered, spraying Karmazin on the arm she had raised to shield her eyes. That oven door, she said, was replaced with a heat-retaining cast iron one, and an instructor was severely burned.

“They are attacking their own product,” McCann said. “They are diminishing the experience of a student while raising the price and alienating the faculty at the same time.”

McMillen says the instructors are “ridiculously dedicated to the students and we’ll do whatever we can to make their experience as wonderful as possible,” but “we are severely overworked and underappreciated.”

Workloads are growing. The Office of Student Affairs once ran orientations; now, the school wants instructors to do it. The registrar once entered grades; now, instructors are told to calculate and post grades. The registrar also handled student evaluations; now, they are done online but instructors are expected to oversee that.

While “the expectations are constantly increasing, the compensation is stagnant,” McMillen said.

In 2002, starting instructors earned $150 for each class, which could run up to five hours. In 2011, the starting salary had increased to $156, where it still stands.

“If I were to start this job today,” McMillen said, “I wouldn’t be able to live.”

Before instructors voted to unionize, McMillen said, ICE wanted them to accept lower annual raises while seeking an increase in unpaid “service hours” from 25 to 40 each year. 

Meanwhile, student tuition in diploma programs has doubled in 16 years from under $20,000 in 2001 to about $40,000 today. 

Siegel said he must teach 450 to 500 classes a year to live in New York City. “The end game is to drive out all the old timers who are making more money and getting full benefits,” he said.

Under the 2011 contract negotiated by a prior faculty committee, an instructor who taught 220 classes a year (156 in the management program) was classified as full-time and entitled to benefits. The school now wants to “make full-time status at the discretion of the director of education,” said McCann.

While students have changing rooms within the school proper, locker rooms for instructors are in a sub-level basement, accessible only by service elevators that often are backed up.

“I’ve never been there, nor will I go. I feel like it’s not safe,” said Karmazin. “It also makes me feel they don’t value us.”

It also can take 20 minutes or more to go each way between locker rooms and classrooms, lengthening the workday, the instructors say. The administration has offered to “solve” the problem by installing hooks and shelves in public bathrooms, McMillen said.

“They tell us we’re the most important part of the school,” said McMillen. “But at the end of the day, we don’t see any action.”

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