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

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

YEARS AGO, WHEN Julia Child asked me where I went to cooking school, I had to admit that I had never been.

“I guess I’m self-taught,” I say. “Never say you’re self-taught, darling,” 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 formal training my culinary career would have turned out very differently than it did, and without that training I was troubled by a certain sense of inadequacy.

At the time I met Child, I had just landed my first executive chef job at a small French restaurant on San Juan Island, and I was just beginning to settle into the idea that the kitchen could be an end in itself. Before that, I viewed cooking as a means to an end. I had done my university education in restaurants and I imagined that I would use the degree I obtained to leave the restaurant industry. But when I graduated in health education, I continued to cook.

If I had been a little more self-aware, 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 14 and making pickles, preserves, and cheese in my 20s that I was born to cook. Maybe I should have gone straight to culinary school after high school, but I was way too focused 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 truly satisfying chef gigs in my wake, I’m finally going to cooking school. But I am not registered as a student; I am a faculty member.

Last fall, the Seattle Culinary Academy asked me if I would replace an instructor who was taking a shift less. I got the job, and before I even started, the offer went from a single term to three successive terms. So for this academic year, at least, I’m leading cooks at one of the restaurants on campus four days a week, teaching culinary theory, and generally having the best time of my life.

The Seattle Culinary Academy is the oldest culinary school west of the Mississippi. The program was started 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. Twenty years later, the school began offering college-level courses 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.] Throughout, the culinary program and the bakery and pastry 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 roughly equivalent to that of rock stars, and the program had become a reliable source of talent for restaurants in the area. In 1990, the faculty included Keijiro Miyata, a graduate with honors from the Culinary Institute of America. In the 1990s, he was joined by another CIA veteran, Diana Dillard, and by Scott Samuel, former deputy head of 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 allowed me to join the team.

One of the features 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 mandatory courses in sustainability. The entire faculty supports this innovative approach. Chef Kären Jurgensen, co-author of “Rethinking the Kitchen”, the sustainable cooking manual, stands out.

Another thing I love about the program is its diverse approach to the culinary arts. Other programs seem to focus primarily on French tradition and technique. SCA gives equal weight to Asian cuisines; Spanish, Latin American and Italian cuisine; and the emerging cuisine of our own Pacific Northwest.

So just when I thought maybe I should break down and open my own restaurant, I feel like I’ve been given a reprieve. Instead of worrying about payroll, inventory, and paying a lease, I can focus more than ever on the part of cooking I love the most: turning raw ingredients into delicious meals. Alongside the students, I also explore the cultural and historical factors that shape all great cuisines, the art and science of what happens to individual foods when combined and exposed to heat or cold.

Even better, I can focus on learning. Turns out teaching cooking is the best way I’ve found to learn cooking. I guess I’m still learning on the job.

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