The landmark culinary school at Seattle Central College has landed on the budget chopping block and could close permanently as soon as a year from now, according to Aimee Lepage, interim dean of the program.
Seattle Central’s Seattle Culinary Academy has been in operation for 81 years, training thousands of chefs over the decades including, of recent note, Kristi Brown of the Central District’s acclaimed Communion and Paolo Campbell of Phinney Ridge hit The Chicken Supply. Other big-name graduates include Matt Dillon, Kathy Casey, Becky Selengut and new "Chopped" contestant Mahogany Williams, to name just a few.
A budget committee for public Seattle Central is expected to put forth recommendations imminently that, if enacted, would cut the Seattle Culinary Academy entirely. The closure would come at a time when the restaurant industry is starved for workers, with trained kitchen staff exceptionally difficult to find. And while enrollment has plummeted at Washington state’s colleges overall recently, Seattle Central’s culinary program has remained at full student capacity (albeit with intentionally reduced numbers for safety during COVID-19).
While the program touts a job placement rate of 97%, Lepage noted, “We say more than 100%, because our students are being offered multiple jobs.”
Brown’s reaction to news of the potential closure via text came swift and anguished. “Oh noooooo,” the Communion chef wrote. “That’s horrible. What are they thinking about our industry [two gushing-tears faces].” Brown graduated from the Culinary Academy in 1993. “The wealth of information, history and fellowship with like-minded people was an invaluable start to my career,” she said. It was there that she found her love of Paul Prudhomme, introduced to his recipes and ethos by chef/instructor and mentor Dave Madayag. On the shelves by the host stand at her restaurant Communion sits a lovingly worn copy of a Prudhomme cookbook that she’ll gleefully tell you she swiped from Madayag, many years ago.
In the interrelated world that is the local restaurant industry, the work of Seattle Central’s Culinary Academy runs deep. Brown’s Seattle Central chef/instructor Madayag turns out to be the uncle of chef Brian Madayag, who now runs Edmonds' popular Barkada, and who also attended the program himself.
“Oh man!!!” Brian Madayag responded about the program’s possible demise. “Very sad news … it was a stepping stone to my culinary career. It helped form lasting relationships throughout the industry that I would not have today,” he elaborated.
Campbell, the Chicken Supply chef, also lauded the program as “a very good stepping stone.” He met his friend and now co-chef/owner Donnie Adams while they both were enrolled at Seattle Central Culinary, talking about fried chicken and dreaming up ideas that would eventually become their restaurant. “We’ve seen a lot of people, both friends and colleagues, go through that program,” Campbell noted. He called the potential shuttering “Definitely a real bummer for sure.”
The program’s Lepage observed, “We're always kind of being looked at and scrutinized … as far as the budget goes, and — but — I just don't think I realized it would kind of go like this.” She’s been interim dean for only about a month, but she’s been with Central’s Culinary program for years, doing outreach to new students. She has also worked in the kitchens of Seattle’s Spinasse and Rover’s. She thus considers herself an advocate for those enrolled — past, present and, hopefully, future. “It's not a done deal yet,” she said, “which is why we're in put-up-a-stink mode about it, hoping that we can do something before it's not reversible.”
The loss of the popular culinary school would also come at a moment when those seeking to attend the program with limited means have more financial help than ever available via the Seattle Promise and other aid programs.
The budget recommendation will go to Seattle Colleges’ chancellor Shouan Pan and the Seattle Colleges board of trustees for approval. Neither Pan nor interim Seattle Central College president Dr. Yoshiko Harden could be reached for immediate comment.