Originally published April 7, 2008
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste contributor
YEARS AGO, WHEN Julia Child asked me where I went to culinary school, I had to admit I’d never been.
“I guess I’m self-taught,” I said. “Never say you’re self-taught, dear,” intoned the indomitable Child. “Always say you learned on the job.”
And so I have. But the question has haunted me for years. I know that with some formal training, my culinary career would have unfolded very differently than it has, and without that training, I have been troubled by a certain sense of inadequacy.
At the time I met Child, I had just landed my first executive chef position at a small French restaurant on San Juan Island, and I was just beginning to settle on the notion that cooking might be an end in itself. Before that, I thought of cooking as a means to an end. I had worked my way through college in restaurants and imagined that I would use the degree I earned to move out of the restaurant business. But when I graduated with a degree in health education, I kept right on cooking.
Had I been a little more self-observant, I might have known that cooking would always be at the center of my career. On some level, I should have realized when I was baking bread for my family at age 14 and making pickles, preserves and cheese in my 20s that I was born to cook. Perhaps I should have gone straight to culinary school out of high school, but I was much too intent on academics; I wanted to study history and science, arts and literature, not just cooking.
Now, after three decades in the business, five cookbooks, a James Beard Award and a handful of really satisfying chef gigs in my wake, I’m finally going to cooking school. But I am not enrolled as a student; I’m a member of the faculty.
Last fall, Seattle Culinary Academy asked whether I would fill in for an instructor who was taking a quarter off. I landed the job, and even before I began, the offer was extended from a single quarter to three successive quarters. So for this academic year, at least, I am directing cooks in one of the on-campus restaurants four days a week, teaching culinary theory and generally having the time of my life.
Seattle Culinary Academy is the oldest culinary school west of the Mississippi. The program was launched in 1946, when Broadway High School became the Thomas Alva Edison Technical School to accommodate veterans who wanted to earn their degrees without returning to a traditional high-school setting. Twenty years later, the school started offering college-level classes and became Seattle Community College. When North Seattle Community College and South Seattle Community College were launched in 1970, the school was renamed Seattle Central Community College. [In 2014, “Community” was dropped from the names of all three colleges.] All along, both the culinary program and the baking and pastry program were being refined and improved.
By the time Kathy Casey, Seattle’s first celebrity chef, graduated from the program in 1979, chefs in general were gaining reputations roughly equivalent to rock stars, and the program became a reliable source of talent for area restaurants. By 1990, the faculty included Keijiro Miyata, an honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. In the 1990s, he was joined by another CIA alumnus, Diana Dillard, and by Scott Samuel, former sous chef at The Herbfarm. It was Samuel’s paternity leave, followed by Dillard’s decision to lead the culinary-arts department at Shorewood High School in Shoreline, that created an opening for me to join the staff.
One feature of the program that attracted me to SCA is its strong commitment to the environment. It is the first culinary program in the country with required classes in sustainability. The entire faculty supports this novel approach. One standout is chef Kären Jurgensen, co-author of “Rethinking the Kitchen,” the sustainable kitchen handbook.
Another thing I love about the program is its diversified approach to the culinary arts. Other programs seem to focus mostly on French tradition and technique. SCA gives equal weight to Asian cuisines; Spanish, Latin American and Italian cooking; and the emerging cuisine of our own Pacific Northwest.
So, just when I was thinking I might have to break down and open a restaurant of my own, I feel like I have been given a reprieve. Instead of worrying about payroll, inventory and paying a lease, I get to focus more fully than ever on the part of cooking I love the most: transforming raw ingredients into delectable dishes. Alongside the students, I also get to explore the cultural and historical factors that shape all the great cuisines, the art and science of what happens to individual foods when they’re combined and exposed to heat or cold.
Best of all, I get to focus on learning. It turns out that teaching cooking is the best way I have found yet to learn about cooking. I guess I’m still learning on the job.