Johnson & Wales began as a secretarial school, then took advantage of the GI bill to transform itself after World War II. By 1973, when it decided to open its culinary school, it had become a small business college, with 1,600 students and $2.5 million in revenue.
Now, it's a university with more than 11,000 students on six campuses, an operating budget of more than $100 million, and an endowment, enriched by corporate contributions, of $131 million. The school's goal is $200 million by 2001.
It owns 50 buildings clustered in pockets of Providence, and is one of the city's largest landowners. Its students help run a hotel near Providence airport, a 98-room inn and restaurant in Seekonk, Mass., a travel agency, a convention-planning business, cafeterias, a pastry shop and a museum devoted to the history of food and the culinary arts.
And although Mayor Vincent Cianci grouses about all that property being off the tax rolls, he credits Johnson & Wales with contributing to a turnaround in Providence, with its dormitories, offices and classrooms bringing more people, shops and restaurants into what not long ago was a blighted downtown.
``[Food service is] going to be the largest industry in America,'' said Lagasse, of the business that has made Johnson & Wales so big and himself so prosperous, overseeing as he does an empire that includes one of cable television's most popular shows, several best-selling cookbooks, and restaurants in New Orleans, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.
The Johnson & Wales grad spoke from Chicago, where he had just received an award at the National Restaurant Association convention - a gathering of 104,000. ``It's not only restaurants and hotels, it's hospitals, institutions, colleges, prisons, supermarkets . . . People have to eat.''
What makes Johnson & Wales unusual, aside from its emphasis on learning through real-world work experience, is a curriculum driven by that thriving job market. The school boasts that for the last 17 years, it has seen 98 percent of its students land jobs within 60 days of graduation. Some might jump to management, but most start in entry-level jobs paying no more than $30,000 a year.
``Our primary customer is not the student; it's someone from industry,'' said Jean-Michel Vienne, 50, dean of the culinary school. ``Our students come first, but industry is our number one customer.''
The college frequently surveys industry leaders looking for guidance about what it should be teaching. A beer-brewing laboratory, donated by Coors, was installed on the campus two years ago, as pubs offering microbrewed beer had become common in downtowns nationwide.
The program was considered good enough for accreditation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, considered one of the nation's toughest.
``It's a '90s kind of place. It sees a need and fills it, a successful niche marketer,'' says Charles Cook, director of college accreditation at the association. He is referring not just to programs related to the hospitality industry, but to other courses that teach court reporting, horse breeding, and management and entrepreneurship.
``It has a powerfully practical orientation, yet it still expects students to have college-level skills,'' Cook said. ``It's part of a trend that I'd like to see more of.''
* The decision 25 years ago to add a culinary arts school was more a fluke than a plan. It happened because David Friedman, owner of a national restaurant-supply company based in Providence, saw a need for trained managers in what he knew would be a rapidly expanding industry.
Friedman had the warehouse and the kitchen equipment, which he had leased to several exhibitors at the New York World's Fair. In 1971, he offered them to Johnson & Wales chancellor Morris J. W. Gaebe.
``I had made a lot of money in this business and I wanted to give something back,'' said Friedman. ``The food industry was growing so fast, there was only one school that had any credibility other than the management school at Cornell, and that was the Culinary Institute of America - and I just thought we could do a better job in Rhode Island.''
Gaebe, who took control of Johnson & Wales in 1947, had changed its emphasis from a secretarial school to a small business college by the time Friedman came knocking, but he knew nothing about food. ``I thought CIA stood for the government agency - not the Culinary Institute of America,'' he recalled.
The idea appeared so outlandish that the school's board of directors rejected it initially. It wasn't until Gaebe came back to the board a second time that it signed on.
The program was able to fill its enrollment from the start, partly because the school followed a formula it still uses today. Just about everyone who applies gets in. It costs about $20,000 a year to attend, including tuition, room and board, and such accoutrements as chef's tools, knives and kitchen jackets.
The real selection process occurs at the school, where students put in long days and are permitted only one absence in a cooking class, two absences in an academic class. Even with tutoring for those who are struggling, about 15 percent don't survive the first six months.
Lagasse, who got a two-year associate's degree in 1978, recalls that he enjoyed cooking while growing up in nearby Fall River, Mass. - so much so that he turned down a scholarship with the New England Conservatory of Music (he was a percussionist) to go to the fledgling cooking school. His friends thought he was crazy.
``Back then, it wasn't cool to cook. Nobody even knew what cuisine was,'' Lagasse said. ``A lot of my street friends looked at me like `You're going to do what?' But I had an internal passion about food, and the chemistry of food. I wanted to be in a business surrounded by people. You have to like people to enjoy making food.''
* With its functional, low-rise buildings, Johnson & Wales still has the no-nonsense look of an industrial park. But inside that old warehouse Friedman donated is a bustling academic center with 11 teaching kitchens, eight bakery shops, the microbrewery, classrooms, and lecture halls. Several dormitories and academic buildings have been added, and more are in the works.
These days, the university is a lot bigger than Friedman is, so much so that it now brings him business. He recently sold it a tract of land - this time for fair market value - and he has designed and installed kitchens at some Johnson & Wales satellite locations, like its 1,000-student North Miami campus, created in 1992 after two cruise-ship lines contracted with the school to provide training for their kitchen crews.
The school's 1,300-student campus in Charleston, S.C., and its 550-student campus in Norfolk, Va., each began with a training contract with the defense department. The university also has schools in Worcester, Mass.; Vail, Colo.; and related programs in Sweden, Switzerland and Malaysia.
Nowhere, however, has its impact been felt more than in Providence, where it changed the face of the city's downtown a few years ago, replacing the burned-out shell of a department store with a brick dormitory and clock tower, and an expanse of green lawn.
The school has also helped turn Providence into a destination city for foodies. Although its population is less than 150,000, Providence is alive with dozens of restaurants, and in almost all of them Johnson & Wales students or graduates are working as chefs, cooks or managers.
* In many ways, the heart of the school can still be found inside the old warehouse down by the Providence riverfront. There, one recent day, 20 students began a nine-day segment on classical French cuisine - each attired in required white kitchen jackets that they manage to keep white using a student-invented recipe of bleach, detergent and powdered soap for dishwashers.
Class begins at 7 a.m. with a demonstration and lecture from chef Kevin Duffy. The kitchen includes gas stoves and state-of-the-art ranges with electromagnetic technology that boils water or heats frying pans while the stove top itself does not get hot.
By 8:30, students are preparing the meal, washing and cutting the cauliflower, making the bouillon and preparing the braised pheasant as Duffy demonstrated. Three hours later, in the words of associate Dean Jim Griffin, they will ``consume the product and give a sensory evaluation - more than just eating.''
All students - even those going for a two-year associate's degree - take writing, mathematics, life science, sociology and history. Some courses combine food and film, history and sociology of food, and food in literature.
Zachery Allen, 21, of Spokane, Wash., had worked for a bakery and coffee shop all through high school, before hearing about Johnson & Wales from a family friend.
Now he is in his third year, hoping to get accepted into a Johnson & Wales management-training program that will give him tuition and pay him to oversee other students running one of the school's several properties - the hotel, the inn, or maybe a restaurant - while he finishes his academic work. He has already taken all his courses in cooking and baking.
``I like it because it combines the culinary and the business and the real world, and you get through your academic courses and come out with a college degree,'' he said. ``Aside from learning how to make a sauce, or manage your food supply, you learn that if a cook doesn't have burns on his hands, he probably isn't working fast enough.''