For more than two years, South Seattle College’s cafeteria — capable of seating a hundred guests — has been mostly motionless during lunch hours. But the kitchen, lit as if under stage lights, sometimes vibrates as if every seat is occupied.
On a recent afternoon, more than half a dozen aspiring chefs and restaurateurs in the college’s culinary program moved around behind a food counter with intent gazes. Student Maya Henderson meandered among the chefs, gazing at fryers filled with risotto balls and take-out containers lined with assorted salads.
“I need an order from Brik and Saganaki!” Henderson exclaimed.
“Yes Boss!” they shouted back.
In the days leading up to the pandemic, this building attracted all corners of the campus. The students worked in a few restaurants and took a steady stream of orders, allowing them to test their skills in a kitchen. Diners – the culinary students’ taste testers – could choose between an affordable fine-dining menu at the Alhadeff Grill (a “bastion of pensioners,” as one lecturer called it), pastries from the Alki Cafe (still available), or more casual fare at the food court.
But with many courses at the state-funded community college still online, reduced demand necessitated a redesign of the culinary program, which began in 1975. Today, students like Henderson—among the college’s vocational engineering students who are learning personally—design and design students run a profitable “food truck” as their graduation project and take about 30 orders a day from the remaining customers on campus.
It’s a fitting lesson in adaptability for this group of students as they prepare to enter an industry that has suffered many setbacks since 2020. Between the slump in community college enrollments and financial woes for the restaurant industry, the program’s three instructors took the pandemic as an opportunity to build something more that meets the desires of today’s culinary students, many of whom dream of running their own restaurant.
To be prepared, students need as much training in management and business acumen as they do in knife skills.
“Look at restaurants that, like Canlis, have survived during the pandemic,” said David Hatfield, a former restaurant owner and one of the program’s educators. “They kept reinventing themselves,” he added, referring to the way the upscale Seattle restaurant began offering drive-through burger service during the height of pandemic restrictions on indoor dining.
“When we think about our program, we also think outside the box.”
Soon, South Seattle’s program could be the last community college culinary program in the city. A Seattle Central College budget committee is expected to recommend closing its program as part of next year’s cuts.
In addition to lessons on hiring staff and marketing food, the food truck assignment was part of the program’s new focus on managerial skills. Two years ago, for their capstone project, students were asked to create an upscale dining menu in their final quarter. Now Hatfield wants to see if they can command a crew.
“I always tell them beforehand that I don’t judge them by taste,” he said.
Right now, profit margins are tight in the restaurant industry, so Hatfield is also checking if students are planning well enough to cover the cost of ingredients. So far, every food truck project has been profitable.
Her staunch patrons are the college staff, including President Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap, whose husband was a graduate of the program many years ago.
Larry Cushnie, a political science professor, sits in the cafeteria with two other colleagues and says he’s eaten in the culinary arts building every day and has fond memories of an excellent falafel meal and all its accompaniments.
“Oh yes,” he said as he bit into an arancini — a deep-fried ball of risotto — prepared by Henderson and her group of colleagues. “I thought it was going to be greasy, but it’s just right,” he added, pinching the juice from a lemon wedge for his next bite.
Steph Hankinson, acting and humanities teacher, who was seated across from Cushnie, raised her eyebrows and smiled as she watched a runny egg yolk flow out of her brik, a samosa-shaped fried pastry.
Henderson and Hatfield collaborated on the menu for this assignment. Before the food truck debuted, she met with all of the chefs — who earned participation points for helping out in the kitchen — to discuss their responsibilities.
The program’s emphasis on managerial skills is well suited to Henderson, 33, who wants to open an inn when her children are grown. As a veteran who gave up her nursing program to pursue her love of feeding people, she says kitchens have a satisfying structure that reminds her of working in the army.
The volatility of the industry – which has seen an unprecedented number of restaurants closing in recent years – has deterred many people from working in kitchens, she said. University professors acknowledged this reality and brought in restaurant owners and industry professionals as guest speakers when the pandemic began. Hearing from the experts gave her the confidence to navigate this environment.
“Management training, this education, means I can fill more roles in the kitchen and get more off the plate so managers can take over the day-to-day work,” said Henderson, who is now a line chef at Shaker + Spear in downtown Seattle.
Whether as a result of the avalanche of closures or because workers were looking for opportunities outside of the industry, the number of people employed in hospitality establishments has declined. As of April 2019, nearly 125,000 people worked in food service businesses in the Seattle area. As of March this year, that number is 112,000.
Following this trend, enrollment in South Seattle’s culinary program has also declined, from 278 students in 2019 to 70 students this quarter.
There is still a lot of emphasis on food preparation in the program, especially in the beginning.
Students will learn knife skills, master how to make a broth, and become familiar with edible flora not available in traditional grocery stores. You have access to a garden of mature vegetables grown in soil beds behind the kitchen and tended by the college’s horticulture students.
Because of the proliferation of instructional videos online or past experiences in the kitchen, students learn basic skills faster, said Moonku Jun, an instructor who works with students on their basics.
Paige Mariotti, a freshman, 20, cooks at the Nordstrom Cafe in downtown Seattle and has found the tasks easy so far. Though completing culinary school isn’t a requirement to cook in many kitchens, Mariotti said she wants to spend more time practicing her skills and getting feedback.
When you walk into a kitchen, “There’s not a lot of time to work out and explain to you exactly what they want from you,” she said, explaining that this program will allow her to focus on the areas that she wants to improve.
There is also the challenge of teaching students how to recognize the ingredients, or lack thereof, in a dish, Jun said.
“Before this program, I ate something and said it tasted good. Now I’m wondering what was in there,” said Christian Hendrix, 19, who hosted the food truck orders.
In a kitchen attached to Henderson’s food truck, Jun, Mariotti and a few other students gathered around two containers of ponzu sauce — one the students made and one from the store — during the program’s first quarter.
“Ours is better,” remarked one student, and the rest of the group agreed.
The pandemic has forced some good lessons in being nimble, but Hatfield looks forward to more classes returning in person, likely this fall. The culinary building can again become a meeting place for campus and the public.
“We’re very keen to get the student population back on campus to support this,” Hatfield said.