I was a teenage master chef
I’ve been writing about how young people can take control of their finances for 30 years, which means I’ve been around the generational block a few times. My first audience was Gen X, so-called slackers who needed help getting out of credit card debt. Millennials faced the challenge of coming of age during a major economic crisis, and the student loans they took out are still holding many of them back. Now Gen Z, the age group on the cusp of adulthood, is starting to chart the course of their financial lives. They’re smart, too—wise to the mistakes of generations past, while putting their own fiercely independent spin on what the path to education and career success means.
Recently I had the chance to talk to a unique group of Gen Zers, seniors at Food & Finance High School (FFHS) in New York City. These are kids who don’t need any prompting to talk career aspirations; at the city’s only culinary high school, they’re focused 24/7 on the food and hospitality industry, whether they’re in the classroom or interning in the kitchens of some of the best local restaurants. Here are three ways these budding food geniuses are money geniuses, too.
All (small) business
Entrepreneurship and business skills are built into all four years of FFHS’s curriculum, and students get hands-on experience by working at the on-campus School Grounds café (where I can’t wait to start doing my morning coffee runs). Of course, the café is also an outlet for student-made baked goods. On the day I visited, mini pecan tarts, apple turnovers, and matcha cookie cups were all on offer.
Running a small business before you even have a high school diploma isn’t out of the ordinary for Gen Z. Well-versed in how technology is changing the workforce, this is the generation that is running e-commerce ventures from their phones and creating a market for Teen Bo$$ magazine. I love that FFHS students are getting on-the-job training—right on campus. That’s a great habit to build for college; having an on-campus job of under 20 hours a week has been shown to boost GPA.
Weighing your options
When it comes to college, I normally have some pretty fixed advice for high school students: Find a good school you can afford, and graduate, because you’ll earn an average of $1 million more over a lifetime if you do. And be sure to avoid for-profit colleges at all costs.
For students pursuing a culinary track, though, it’s not always so straightforward. For one thing, the majority of culinary schools are for-profit, including many of the most respected institutions. Eliza Loehr, executive director of the Food Education Fund (a nonprofit that supports FFHS), even said that a few local for-profit institutions in New York City provide FFHS graduates with generous scholarships, enabling them to get an affordable education and all the industry connections it entails.
FFHS’s grounding in the culinary world assures that students have access to plenty of advice about which schools are a safe bet. And sometimes, it’s actually the prestigious schools you want to steer clear of. Two seniors I spoke to have been admitted to Rhode Island’s Johnson & Wales University—along with the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, considered one of the best culinary schools in the country. (Both schools are nonprofits.) Each student has been awarded a $15,000 merit scholarship, but at an institution that costs about $50,000 per year. We talked about why they’re waiting for their full financial aid award letters in the spring before making a commitment, especially if the combination of the scholarship, Pell grants, any additional school aid, and federal loan dollars still leaves them needing to take out private loans. Sometimes, the prestige factor isn’t worth the big bills, especially when there are many great, in-state, affordable public culinary programs.
And for some students in the room, college wasn’t in the picture—because they’re already diving headfirst into their careers. And frankly, sometimes a culinary degree isn’t the only way to get ahead in this mentor-driven industry.
Network your way to the top
This year, FFHS senior Sabrina has been working in the kitchen at one of the hippest downtown restaurants. She’s got elite contacts—executive chefs, restaurateurs—and cooking chops to boot. So why should she go to college?
It’s rare for me to say this to a supersmart high school student, but in Sabrina’s case, I told her maybe she doesn’t have to (at least right now). Like so many of her fellow Gen Zers, Sabrina is breaking the career mold—getting in early, learning quick, and scaling up fast. For better or for worse, this generation is having a reckoning with the value of a college degree. Don’t get me wrong; I’m pro-college. It’s almost always going to guarantee you a higher salary, plus a professional network. But in the culinary field, there are different paths to success.
In 2019, one of my resolutions is to zero in on Gen Z’s financial habits. I was grateful for the chance to get a head start with the awesome students at FFHS. Now if only they’d share that mini-tart recipe.