New Homes On The Range

IT WAS A SUBLIME MOMENT. SUSAN Hurst, 33, crafted a tiny cup out of white chocolate, filled it with coffee mousse, attached an edible handle, balanced it on a chocolate saucer, garnished it with a miniature raspberry cake - and then breathed a deep, tasty sigh of satisfaction. Hurst uttered very different sighs when she was an attorney, digesting legal codes and cooking corporate enemies as a litigator for a leading Chicago law firm. But last December Hurst ditched her job, her suit and her six-figure salary - and signed up for culinary school. ""I thought, Why not do something I love?'' she says.

Look under the nearest chef's hats and you'll find a slew of corporate dropouts who discovered that they were more engaged by the tarragon in their lunchtime tuna salad than by their jobs. About 75 percent of Hurst's fellow students at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago are career-changers, a phenomenon now seen at most culinary schools. ""They're not happy, and they're finally taking a stand,'' says Susan Dumont-Bengston of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. ""The word "passion' always comes into play.''

The words ""job security'' do, too - especially for those who were downsized out of previous careers. America's ever-intensifying love affair with food has spawned a $320 billion restaurant industry that is clamoring for more cooks. Once viewed as a hobby, cooking is suddenly a shrewd career choice. New graduates of culinary school are being deluged with job offers, and the industry is expected to have 3 million new positions by 2005. And that won't even include the countless cooks with their own TV programs. In America's cultural hierarchy, chefs rank very near the top. ""It's the current version of being a rock star,'' says Karen Page, a coauthor, with her husband, Andrew Dornenburg, of ""Becom- ing a Chef.''

Chefhood, of course, isn't all glamour. Beyond the excitement of dicing and slicing, working conditions are steamy and crowded, stockpots can be heavier than barbells and days easily run to 12 chairless hours. Then, too, wages aren't exactly princely; beginning cooks start as low as $7 an hour plus the promise of more than a few good meals. ""It's physically demanding; you get cut; you get burned,'' says Page. ""The question is "Do you love it?' '' For Susan Hurst, the answer, so far, is yes. ""I'm not thinking I'm going to get rich,'' she says, ""but I'm a lot happier than I used to be.'' So, too, is Hurst's husband: he gets to lick the mousse out of chocolate cups.

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