One of my go-to caterers for events in Walla Walla is a team of chefs and students from the Wine Country Culinary Institute at Walla Walla Community College. Led by chefs Dan Thiessen and Robin Leventhal, the program has grown by leaps and bounds over the past two years. 

Languishing since early 2012, the culinary program at Walla Walla Community College faced the chopping block. At the same time, a heralded Seattle-area chef — Dan Thiessen — was on the hunt for a new direction in life after a widely successful, yet soul-searching, career in top restaurants.

Chef Thiessen was ready to leave the fast lane behind and return to his roots. Raised on a cattle ranch in Asotin, Wash., Thiessen spent his young life tending to livestock, driving tractors and working the line at a local restaurant.

Realizing his passion for food, Thiessen left his small town and moved to New York to attend The Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated with honors in 1992.

As he continued his growth in the culinary world, he moved to Europe and ended up working in noteworthy restaurants in Switzerland.

Upon his return to the United States, Thiessen was hired as an instructor at the culinary arts program at The Art Institute of Seattle. He used his time at the school to train his students for, and see them placed in, top culinary positions throughout the region.

He then moved on to head some of the premier culinary teams in the Seattle area as executive chef of SkyCity Restaurant at the Space Needle, Chandler’s Crabhouse and The Golf Club at Newcastle, and corporate chef for the Salty’s Restaurant Group, before opening his own restaurants in Bellevue — 0/8 Seafood Grill and the Twisted Cork Wine Bar.

In Thiessen’s initial conversations with Walla Walla Community College president, Steven VanAusdle, about the culinary program, VanAusdle’s passion for wine, food and art became clear — as did his disappointment over where the program had ended up. The president did believe the program had the potential for a bright future, but only with the proper leadership.

After much more discussion, the decision was made to give Thiessen the job and the opportunity to reinvent the program. This was to be largely focused on creating strong bonds with students and the campus community, the greater Walla Walla community, and the bounty of the area’s agricultural heritage. 

One of the first major changes was turning this newly accredited program into a year-round school, rather than a part-time program. This included expanding the on-campus and off-campus catering competencies of the newly minted Wine Country Culinary Institute, developing an on-campus greenhouse and garden program, opening a food truck, developing food programs for local schools, and rethinking the campus cafe.

In the spring of 2013, Thiessen became aware that Robin Leventhal was looking for new opportunities and quickly began courting her for a “temporary” summer quarter teaching position at the college. 

Growing up in Sun Valley, Idaho, Leventhal was an avid artist and skier who pursued degrees in fine arts at the undergraduate and graduate levels while in college. While in grad school at the University of Michigan, Leventhal took a job in the catering department at the school and soon discovered that she had a strong passion for food.

Although she lacked any formal chef training, following college she made her way into the food industry and quickly developed a rabid following at restaurants in the Northwest. Her restaurant, Crave, was a popular Seattle hangout that served up much of the best that the city had to offer before she was cast on Season 6 of “Top Chef” in Las Vegas, where she placed fifth overall. 

“It’s funny, actually,” said Leventhal, “but Dan and I both were auditioning for ‘Top Chef’ when they visited Seattle, and, for some reason, I won out ... I guess I had better hair!”

Following “Top Chef,” she served as a consultant at numerous top restaurants in Seattle. 

Following her 10-week stint teaching in Walla Walla for the summer, Leventhal realized this was her calling and joined the program as a full-time faculty member where she could train the next generation of chefs and run food service on campus at WWCC.

The chefs and students at the Wine Country Culinary Institute cater events large and small on campus and throughout the region.

One thing I love about the program is its flexibility. Working with a team of, literally, dozens, the school can accommodate multiple events at the same time, which is a lifesaver on busy spring and summer weekends. Further, the students are trained in many different global and regional cuisines, so the menus never feel pigeonholed in one genre.

Whether your wedding reception has Asian influences, is a festive holiday affair, or is a comfort food-inspired event, the meal is sure to impress.

At one recent event the culinary school catered this past fall, the menu was ambitious and seasonally appropriate. Guests opened the cocktail hour with smoked-tomato gazpacho shooters with lemon crème fraîche, Fanny Bay oysters with Champagne mignonette, and a fall ratatouille with truffle-Gruyère baguette while enjoying a selection of Walla Walla wines.

All the hors d’oeuvres were stunning. As guests were seated, we were presented with Red Boar Farms “pâté campagne” with mixed greens, tomato chutney, apple cider gastrique and hazelnut multigrain toast.

“Who doesn’t love a good pâté?” asked a woman at my table. “It’s like Christmas for your belly!” 

Following the first course, we moved on to an apple-wood-smoked steelhead with red and gold beet purée, chive crème fraîche, microgreens and salmon bacon. The beets and microgreens had been grown by the culinary school students and were harvested earlier in the day from their farm on campus.

To finish our dinner hour, we were presented with tomato-braised Lostine Cattle Company short ribs with chanterelle mushrooms and purple-potato hash alongside a slaw of fennel, frissée and carrots. It was a beautiful dish, and the Merlot accompanying it was perfection. 

With such talented chefs at its head and well-trained students providing good service, the Institute has had great success with weddings and many other events.

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