For more than two years now, the cafeteria at South Seattle College — which seats about 100 diners — has been virtually motionless during lunchtime. But the kitchen, lit as if under stage lights, vibrates at times as if every seat was filled.
On a recent afternoon, more than half a dozen aspiring chefs and restaurateurs from the college’s culinary program moved with looks of deep concentration behind a food counter. Weaving between the cooks, student Maya Henderson looked at deep fryers filled with balls of risotto and take-out containers filled with varieties of lettuce.
“I need an order of brik and saganaki! Henderson called.
” Yes sir ! they shouted back.
In the days before the pandemic, this building attracted every corner of campus. The students worked in a few restaurants, taking a steady stream of orders that allowed them to test their skills in a kitchen. Diners – the culinary student taste testers – could choose between an affordable gourmet meal at the Alhadeff Grill (a “retiree stronghold”, as one instructor called it), pastries from the Alki Cafe (always available) or entrees more casual food court.
But with many classes still online at the publicly funded community college, declining demand necessitated a reimagining of the culinary program, which began in 1975. Today, students like Henderson — among vocational students and college techniques that learn in person – design and run a profitable “food truck” as their final project, taking about 30 orders a day from the remaining customers on campus.
It’s a good lesson in adaptability for this cohort of students, who are preparing to enter an industry that has suffered many blows since 2020. Between the drop in community college enrollment and the industry’s financial struggles of catering, the program’s three instructors have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to build something more in line with the wishes of today’s culinary students, many of whom dream of running their own restaurants.
To be prepared, students need as much education in management and business acumen as in knife skills.
“Look at the restaurants that have survived, like Canlis, during the pandemic,” said David Hatfield, former restaurant owner and one of the program instructors. “They’ve reinvented themselves over and over again,” he added, referring to how the upscale Seattle restaurant launched a drive-thru burger service at the height of pandemic restrictions on dining out. interior.
“When we think about our program, we also think outside the box.”
Soon, the South Seattle program may be the last culinary program at a community college in the city. A budget committee at Seattle Central College is expected to recommend closing its program as part of cuts taking place next year.
In addition to lessons on how to hire employees and market food, the food truck assignment was part of the program’s new emphasis on management skills. Two years ago, for their capstone project, the students were asked to create an upscale gourmet menu during their final term. Now Hatfield wants to see if they can command a crew.
“I always tell them up front that I don’t rate them on taste” for the food truck mission, he said.
Profit margins are slim in the restaurant industry, especially now, so Hatfield also assesses whether students plan well enough to cover the cost of ingredients. So far, every food truck project has been profitable.
Their loyal patrons are college employees, including the president, Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap, whose husband graduated from the program many years ago.
Sitting with two other colleagues in the cafeteria, political science professor Larry Cushnie says he used to eat in the Culinary Arts building every day and fondly recalls an outstanding falafel dish with all its trimmings.
“Oh yeah,” he said, biting into an arancini — a deep-fried ball of risotto — prepared by Henderson and his team of peers. “I thought it was going to be greasy, but it’s just,” he added, pinching the juice from a lemon wedge for his next bite.
Sitting across from Cushnie, drama and social studies instructor Steph Hankinson raised her eyebrows and smiled as she watched a runny egg yolk spill out of her brik, a deep-fried samosa-shaped pastry.
Henderson and Hatfield designed the menu together for this assignment. Before the food truck started, she met with all the cooks — who got participation points for helping out in the kitchen — to go over their responsibilities.
The programme’s focus on management skills suits Henderson, 33, who wants to open a hostel when his children grow up. A veteran who left her nursing program to pursue her love of feeding people, she says the kitchens have a satisfying structure that reminds her of military work.
The volatility of the industry – which has seen an unprecedented number of restaurants close in recent years – has deterred many people from working in kitchens, she said. College instructors recognized this reality and brought in restaurateurs and people working in the industry as guest speakers when the pandemic began. Hearing from the experts, she felt confident enough to navigate this environment.
“Having a management background, that education, means I can fill more roles in the kitchen and take more time off for managers to take care of the day-to-day,” said Henderson, who is now a line cook at Shaker + Spear. in downtown Seattle.
Whether as a result of the avalanche of closures or because workers have sought opportunities outside the industry, the number of people working in food service establishments has plummeted. As of April 2019, nearly 125,000 people worked in food service establishments in the Seattle metro area. In March this year, that number was 112,000.
Following this trend, enrollment in the South Seattle Culinary Program has also dropped from 278 students in 2019 to 70 students this quarter.
The program still places a lot of emphasis on food preparation, especially in the beginning.
Students learn knife techniques, master how to make a broth and become familiar with edible flora that is not available in traditional grocery stores. They have access to a garden of heirloom vegetables grown in earth beds behind the kitchen and tended by college horticulture students.
Due to the prevalence of how-to videos on the Internet or previous experience in a kitchen, students learn basic skills faster, said Moonku Jun, an instructor who works with students on their fundamentals.
Paige Mariotti, 20, a first-term student, cooks at Nordstrom Cafe in downtown Seattle and, so far, has found the tasks easy. While graduating from cooking school isn’t required 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 set aside to train you and explain to you exactly what they want you to do,” she said, explaining that this program will allow her to focus on the areas she wants to improve.
There’s also the challenge of teaching students how to recognize the ingredients, or lack thereof, inside a dish, Jun said.
“Before this program, I ate something and said it was good. Now I wonder what happened in there,” said 19-year-old Christian Hendrix, who prepared orders for the food trucks.
In a kitchen attached to Henderson’s food truck, Jun, Mariotti and a few other students from the first term of the program gathered around two containers of Ponzu sauce, one made by the students and the other from the store.
“Ours is better,” remarked one student, and the rest of the group agreed.
The pandemic has forced some good lessons to be nimble, but Hatfield looks forward to more in-person classes returning, likely this fall. The Culinary Arts building could once again become a meeting place for the campus and the public.
“We’re dying to bring the student population back to campus to support this,” Hatfield said.