Chef Greg Atkinson told Julia Child he was self-taught – then actually taught

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Vintage Pacific NW: We revisit some of our favorite stories from some of our favorite former magazine contributors. Each week, check out timeless classics with a focus on food, fitness, gardening and more.

Originally published April 7, 2008
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste employee

WHEN Julia Child asked me years ago where I went to culinary school, I had to admit that I had never been there.

“I think 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 have I. But the question has haunted me for years. I know that with some formal training, my cooking career would have developed very differently than it has to date, and without that training I have a certain sense of inadequacy.

When I met Child, I had just landed my first position as executive chef at a small French restaurant on the island of San Juan, and I was just beginning to settle into the idea that cooking could be an end in itself. Before that, cooking was a means to an end for me. I had worked my way through college in restaurants and envisioned retiring from the restaurant business once I got my degree. But when I got my degree in health education, I went straight to cooking.

Had I been a bit more confident, I might have known that cooking would always be the focus of my career. Baking bread for my family at age 14 and making pickles, preserves and cheese in my 20s, I should have recognized in a way that I was born to cook. Maybe I should have gone to culinary school straight out of high school, but I was way too focused on academics; I wanted to study history and science, art and literature, not just cooking.

Now, after three decades in the business, five cookbooks, a James Beard Award, and a handful of truly satisfying cooking gigs, I’m finally going to cookery school. But I’m not enrolled as a student; I am a member of the faculty.

Last fall, Cooking Academy Seattle asked if I would fill in for an instructor taking a quarter of a year off. I got the job and before I even started the offer was extended from a single quarter to three consecutive quarters. So for this academic year at least, I’m head chefs four days a week at one of the restaurants on campus, teach culinary theory, and generally have the time of my life.

Seattle Culinary Academy is the oldest culinary school west of the Mississippi. The program began in 1946 when Broadway High School became the Thomas Alva Edison Technical School to accommodate veterans who wanted to graduate without returning to a traditional high school environment. Twenty years later, the school began offering college-level classes and became the Seattle Community College. When North Seattle Community College and South Seattle Community College were founded in 1970, the school was renamed Seattle Central Community College. [In 2014, “Community” was dropped from the names of all three colleges.] Both the culinary program and the baking and confectionery program have been refined and improved.

By the time Kathy Casey, Seattle’s first celebrity chef, graduated from the program in 1979, chefs in general were gaining a reputation that rivaled that of rock stars, and the program became a reliable source of talent for area restaurants. Until 1990, the faculty included Keijiro Miyata, an honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He was joined in the 1990s by another CIA graduate, Diana Dillard, and Scott Samuel, former sous chef of The Herbfarm. It was Samuel’s paternity leave, followed by Dillard’s decision to head the culinary arts department at Shorewood High School in Shoreline, that gave me the opportunity to join the staff.

One feature of the program that attracted me to SCA is its strong commitment to the environment. It is the country’s first culinary program with compulsory courses in sustainability. The entire faculty supports this novel approach. Chef Karen Jurgensen, co-author of Rethinking the Kitchen, the handbook for sustainable kitchens, stands out.

What I also love about the program is the varied approach to the art of cooking. Other programs seem to focus mainly on French tradition and technique. SCA gives equal weight to Asian cuisine; Spanish, Latin American and Italian cuisine; and the emerging cuisine of our own Pacific Northwest.

Just when I thought I might have to break down and open my own restaurant, I feel like I’ve gotten some breathing space. Instead of worrying about payroll, inventory, and paying rent, I’m more focused than ever on the part of cooking I love most: transforming raw ingredients into delicious dishes. Alongside the students, I also explore the cultural and historical factors that shape all the great kitchens, the art and science, what happens to individual foods when combined and exposed to heat or cold.

The best thing is that I can focus on studying. It turns out that cooking classes are the best way I’ve found to learn about cooking so far. I guess I’m still studying at work.

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