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L’Academie de Cuisine, one of the nation’s top culinary schools, abruptly closes after 41 years

Michelle Obama meets with students from L’Academie de Cuisine in 2009 as they preview meals for a dinner with state governors. (Haraz N. Ghanbari / Associated Press)
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Maryland-based L’Academie de Cuisine, considered one of the top cooking schools in America, abruptly announced its closure on Friday, ending its 41-year history of supplying chefs to the D.C. restaurant community and beyond. Its graduates include Carla Hall of “The Chew” and Aaron Silverman of Pineapple and Pearls, the four-star fine-dining destination in Washington.

According to multiple sources connected or formerly connected to the school in Gaithersburg, founder and director Francois Dionot informed the staff during a contentious meeting Friday afternoon, not long after L’Academie held what would be its last graduation ceremony. The announcement apparently came as a surprise to some staff as well as to the 39 professional students currently enrolled. The latter were just beginning to hear the news Friday from instructors.

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“It’s a little bit crushing,” said Brian Patterson, director of the culinary arts program at L’Academie. “I’m still a little bit in shock and grief.”

Patterson said the school’s instructors and directors were informed Thursday afternoon about a mandatory staff meeting on Friday. When he was contacted Friday late afternoon, Patterson could not get into the details of what Dionot said during the meeting. But he did say the closure boiled down to a mix of low enrollment and bad finances. It was a hard message for Patterson to swallow: He has been involved in L’Academie, off and on, for three decades, beginning when he graduated from the school in 1987.

“The back of the house is as tight as it’s ever been,” Patterson said of the culinary staff. “The machine was performing at a very high level. We were just not getting the admissions.”

Dionot, 72, could not be reached for comment.

L’Academie was founded in 1976 by Dionot, a French native who graduated from L’Ecole Hoteliere de la Societe Suisse de Hoteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland. According to his biography on the culinary school’s website, Dionot worked at restaurants in France, Switzerland, New York and Washington before settling into his role as the director and guiding light of L’Academie.

More than a decade after its founding, L’Academie was accredited in 1988 by the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training. This allowed the school to start offering financial assistance to students, who then were paying $11,500 for a two-year vocational program. The school later offered recreational cooking classes in Bethesda as well as the professional programs in Gaithersburg.

What made the cooking school so good, said Patrice Olivon, a former program director at L’Academie, was its instructors. Many came from professional cooking backgrounds and were deeply grounded in French technique. Olivon, for instance, cooked at the Negresco Hotel in Nice, under the Michelin two-star chef Jacques Maximin. Olivon was later the executive chef at the French Embassy in Washington, while also on contract to cook at the White House.

L’Academie de Cuisine found itself regularly on lists for the country’s top culinary schools.

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During its four-decade run, L’Academie produced high-profile chefs around Washington, including Hall, Silverman, pastry chef Aggie Chin of Mirabelle, chef Katsuya Fukushima of Daikaya (and formerly Minibar) and chef Nick Stefanelli of Masseria. Both Silverman and Stefanelli currently hold Michelin stars. Silverman, in fact, holds three: Two for Pineapple and Pearls, and one for Rose’s Luxury.

“I’m shocked,” Hall said via text message on Friday afternoon, after hearing the news from a colleague. “This makes me so sad.” The 1996 graduate of L’Academie, a former “Top Chef” contestant and current co-host of “The Chew” returned occasionally to teach classes at her alma mater.

Some former instructors at L’Academie were not completely shocked at the news. The culinary world is changing rapidly — embracing ingredients and techniques far from the world of French gastronomy — and L’Academie has not always kept pace with the innovations, said Washington resident Michael Edwards, an assistant and coordinator for Olivon for six years. Plus, Edwards added, L’Academie had lost some of its high-profile instructors such as Olivon and Heather Roth, a decorated Washington pastry chef.

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What’s more, some chef hopefuls are choosing not to enter culinary school at all, preferring to get their education on the job. Patterson said he understood such decisions: These young cooks find it hard to pay off culinary school debts while working the line for $12 an hour. Before it closed, L’Academie was charging about $30,000 for its year-plus professional programs.

“It’s a tough nut to crack,” Patterson said, who added that Dionot had been trying to find a buyer for the school, without success.

The news of L’Academie’s closure came right before the school’s holiday break. The staff was expecting a two-week paid holiday. Now, Patterson said, they are receiving a final paycheck, with no severance package. There may be more remuneration in the future, he was told.

As for the students, Patterson said L’Academie will be required to find other schools for them to finish their culinary education. As for himself, he said he will be updating his resume and putting himself back on the job market. He asked for some leads.

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