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MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines, which for decades has supplied the world with a steady stream of seafarers, nurses, caregivers and domestic helpers, is now exporting practitioners of a cutting-edge trade: chefs.
"Chefs are the new rock stars now. Everyone wants to be a chef," said Ian Padilla, a Filipino chef entre metier at Parisian restaurant Taillevent, a Michelin two-star establishment.
"When I started, there were hardly any culinary schools here ... And there was no chef, it was just the cook. When I got back, there are culinary schools everywhere," said Padilla, who came home recently to judge a cooking competition.
In 2000, there was just one culinary school in the Philippines. These days, there are about 400 cooking schools with scores more sprouting up every year across the Southeast Asian island nation.
The enthusiasm with which Filipinos are taking up cooking is not surprising. A global scarcity of cooks and chefs mean that culinary school graduates can earn as much as $4,000 per month working abroad.
That is an astronomical sum of money in a country where the average wage is 10,000 to 15,000 pesos ($214-$321) per month.
Some nine million Filipinos work abroad, often in menial jobs, sending home more than $1 billion in monthly remittances that keep the local economy afloat and support the local currency.
With jobless rates at over 7 percent and many hurting from high fuel and food prices, more Filipinos than ever before are seeking jobs abroad.
Nursing has been popular for a long time as Filipino nurses can earn around $1,000 to $4,000 a month working abroad, filling the gap in hospitals in the United States, Europe and the Middle East due to a global shortage of medical workers.
But becoming a nurse requires at least four years of college studies, while a prospective chef can get a culinary certificate in a month. A diploma course would take about 14 months.
The short waiting time for a culinary diploma or certificate sometimes comes with a steep price.
At Gandler's International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management, tuition fees for a 14-month culinary diploma course costs 310,000 pesos ($6,675), not easily affordable for the average Filipino, many of whom become maids or sailors instead.
Still, enrolment remains high even at the five-year-old school formed by Austrian chef Norbert Gandler, who has run five-star hotel kitchens in the Philippines.
"In fact, we even have a waiting list," Gandler said, adding his school is now at its full capacity of 280 students per year.
The Philippines sent out almost 8,400 people to kitchens all over the world last year, two-thirds of whom were chefs and cooks. In 2000, just under 1,900 Filipinos left to work in kitchens abroad.
That figure is small compared to the number of Filipinos who work abroad as domestic workers and sailors. An estimated 50,000 Filipinos left the country last year to work as maids for the first time, while about 230,000 Filipinos worked as seafarers.
"Someday, I can be like those who went before me and become successful in working abroad," said 21-year-old Fitz Gerald Carpio, one of several students who drew out kitchen knives to compete at the Manila culinary festival last week.
There is high demand for Filipino chefs abroad, partly due to their English proficiency, diligence, and good work attitude.
"England is now looking for 300 chefs, they go around to competitions like this," Michaela Fenix Makabenta, food columnist and editor in chief of Food Magazine, told Reuters on the sidelines of the food competition last week.
"You can imagine, we are sending them out as soon as they graduate," she said. "It is the easiest route to going abroad. Like Australia, there is a high priority for chefs. If you apply, you will be hired right away."
Filipino chefs can be found on cruise liners and in hospitals and military camps in the Middle East. The lucky ones may find jobs in cordon bleu restaurants or in kitchens in the palaces of Middle East sheikhs.
"I've been to a lot of restaurants. There's always a Filipino guy in a kitchen anywhere in the world," said Richard Tan, a chef and instructor at the Magsaysay Institute of Hospitality & Culinary Arts.
($1 = 46.44 pesos)
Editing by Megan Goldin