For more than two years now, South Seattle College’s cafeteria — fit for a hundred diners — has been mostly motionless during lunch hour. But the kitchen, lit up as if under stage lights, sometimes vibrates like every seat is filled. 

On a recent afternoon, more than a half-dozen budding chefs and restaurant owners in the college’s culinary program moved with looks of deep concentration behind a food counter. Snaking between the cooks, student Maya Henderson looked over fryers filled with risotto balls and takeout containers lined with varieties of lettuce. 

“I need an order of the brik and saganaki!” Henderson called out. 

“Yes, chef!” they yelled back. 

In the days before the pandemic, this building drew all corners of the campus. Students worked across a few restaurants, taking a steady stream of orders that allowed them to test out their skills in a kitchen. Diners — the culinary students’ taste testers — could choose between an affordable fine dining meal at the Alhadeff Grill (a “bastion of retirees,” as one instructor called it), pastries from the Alki Cafe (still available) or more casual fare from the food court.

But with many classes still online at the state-funded community college, decreased demand has required a reimagination of the culinary program, which started in 1975. Today, students like Henderson — among the college’s professional-technical students who learn in person — design and execute a profitable “food truck” as their final project, taking about 30 orders a day from the remaining customers on campus. 

It is an apt lesson in adaptability for this crop of students, who are preparing to enter an industry that has suffered many blows since 2020. Between plummeting enrollment in community colleges and financial troubles for the restaurant industry, the program’s three instructors took 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.

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To be prepared, the students need as much of an education in management and business acumen as they do in knife skills. 

“Look at restaurants who survived, like Canlis, during the pandemic,” said David Hatfield, a former restaurant owner and one of the program’s instructors. “They reinvented themselves over and over again,” he added, referring to the way the upscale Seattle restaurant began a drive-through burger service during the height of pandemic restrictions on indoor dining. 

“When we think about our program, we are also thinking outside of 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 cuts to take place next year.

Along with lessons about how to hire employees and how to market food, the food truck assignment was part of the program’s new emphasis on management skills. Two years ago, for their capstone project, students were asked to create an upscale dining menu in their last quarter. Now, Hatfield wants to see if they can command a crew. 

“I always tell them ahead of time I’m not grading them on taste” for the food truck assignment, he said. 

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Profit margins are slim in the restaurant industry, especially now, so Hatfield is also evaluating whether students are planning well enough to cover the cost of ingredients. So far, every food truck project has been profitable.

Their loyal patrons are the college’s employees, including the president, Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap, whose husband was a graduate of the program many years ago. 

Seated with two other colleagues in the cafeteria, Larry Cushnie, a political science instructor, says he used to eat in the culinary arts building every day, and remembers fondly an outstanding falafel dish with all its garnishes. 

“Oh yeah,” he said as he bit into an arancini — a deep fried ball of risotto — prepared by Henderson and her crew of peers. “I thought it was gonna be greasy, but it’s just right,” he added, pinching the juice out of a lemon wedge for his next bite. 

Seated opposite Cushnie, drama and humanities instructor Steph Hankinson raised her eyebrows and smiled as she watched a runny egg yolk spill out of her brik, a samosa-shaped fried pastry.

Henderson and Hatfield devised the menu together for this assignment. Before the food truck debuted, she met with every cook — who got participation points for assisting in the kitchen — to go over their responsibilities. 

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The program’s emphasis on management skills is well-suited for Henderson, 33, who wants to open an inn when her kids are grown. A veteran who quit her nursing program to pursue her love of feeding people, she says kitchens have a satisfying structure that remind her of army work. 

The volatility of the industry — which has seen unprecedented numbers of restaurants closing in recent years — has scared a lot of people off from working in kitchens, she said. College instructors acknowledged this reality and brought in restaurant owners and people working in the industry as guest speakers when the pandemic began. Hearing from the experts made her feel confident enough to navigate this environment. 

“Having management training, that education, means that I can fill more roles in the kitchen, and take more off the plate so the managers can take over the day to day,” said Henderson, who is now a line cook at Shaker + Spear in downtown Seattle. 

Whether as a result of the closure avalanche or because workers sought opportunities outside of the industry, the number of people working in dining establishments has dropped. In April 2019, there were nearly 125,000 people working in food and drink establishments in the Seattle metropolitan area. As of March this year, that number is 112,000.

Following that trend, the enrollment in South Seattle’s culinary program has also fallen, from 278 students in 2019 down to 70 students this quarter. 

There is still plenty of emphasis on making food in the program, especially early on.

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Students learn knife skills, master making a stock and acquaint themselves with edible flora that isn’t available in mainstream grocery stores. They have access to a garden of heirloom veggies grown in soil beds behind the kitchen and maintained by the college’s horticulture students. 

Because of the prevalence of how-to cooking videos on the internet, or prior experience in a kitchen, students are coming in as faster learners of the basic skills, said Moonku Jun, an instructor who works with students on their fundamentals. 

First-quarter student Paige Mariotti, 20, cooks at the Nordstrom Cafe in downtown Seattle, and so far has found the assignments easy. Though graduating from culinary school is not a requirement to cook in many kitchens, Mariotti said she wants to spend more time practicing her skills and getting feedback.

When you enter a kitchen, “There’s not a lot of time set aside to train 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, said Jun. 

“Before this program, I’d eat something and say it tastes good. Now I wonder what went into it,” said Christian Hendrix, 19, who was plating the food truck orders. 

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In a kitchen conjoined with Henderson’s food truck, Jun, Mariotti and a few other students in their first quarter of the program gathered around two containers of Ponzu sauce — one made by the students, and one from the store. 

“Ours is better,” one student remarked, and the rest of the group agreed. 

The pandemic has forced some good lessons in being nimble, but Hatfield is looking forward to when more classes return in person, likely this fall. The culinary arts building may once again become a meeting ground for the campus and public. 

“We’re dying to get the student population back on campus to support this,” Hatfield said.