By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Pandemic-related shutdowns had a bit of a silver lining for some businesses and institutions who were able to use the time to step back and reinvent.
Among them, the culinary program at South Seattle College (WSB sponsor), which has remodeled and reopened its coffee-and-more Alki Café (no relation to the restaurant at the beach), and is cooking up plans for more changes and improvements.
We toured the space recently with Brian Scheehser, who is dean of SSC’s culinary, landscape horticulture, and wine programs, and Julia Katz from the Seattle Colleges Foundation, which is helping with funding for SSC’s culinary upgrades.
Alki Café, just north of Brockey Center toward the south side of the SSC campus, is currently a place where people can come to grab coffee, tea, or other beverages, as well as grab-and-go food. Students and staff can even order online and walk over for pickup between classes. It’s also a place for learning – part of the staff comes from the Culinary Arts program.
Overhauling the café cost $750,000, and part of that will be earned back, as some of the proceeds from sales support the CA program. The overhaul included some non-culinary touches, like a new sound system and point-of-sale system.
But this is just the first step toward what Scheehser would like to do to bring the school’s culinary facilities into the future.
Students have a lot to learn in the program, hands-on – not just preparing food in a commercial-size kitchen, but also what it takes to operate a food truck, something some will do on the path to opening their own restaurant someday. So that’s part of the curriculum. If you walk beyond the café, further into the Culinary Arts building, you’ll find students working in kitchen facilities that are part of the Phase 2 plan.
“The pandemic has enabled us to look at everything we do,” Scheehser observes. He has a unique perspective, with a multifaceted background from cooking to farming to winemaking. He wants to see it all connected at SSC. The vision for the program’s growth is to teach more than “what it means to be a chef.” Incorporating the Northwest Wine Academy will also teach students food and wine pairings, for example.
But all this requires something better than a kitchen that hasn’t been updated in about 20 years. They’re envisioning a million-dollar project – $750,000 to overhaul the kitchen, $250,000 for “vertical farming,” $50,000 for state-of-the-art curriculum materials. The Seattle Colleges Foundation already has coordinated a local donation for $95,000 of “seed money” toward the project’s cost.
This won’t be just your average kitchen remodel. Scheehser envisions two lines, with cameras that could be used for student competitions as well as other equipment upgrades. Not only would students benefit from the modernized kitchen, but it could be used for community cooking classes during instructional off-hours – “instruction by day, revenue-generating by night.”
Right now, culinary students have two separate workspaces, split between this kitchen and the one that serves the Alhadeff Grill, the campus fine-dining restaurant that hasn’t been in operation during the pandemic. Someday down the road, Scheehser envisions that becoming a farm-to-table restaurant, but first, Phase 2 of the overhaul. With community support for that, he believes the program can be a “crown jewel” not only for SSC but for West Seattle overall.
That community support includes monetary donations, Katz notes, which have been harder to access these past few years because, for example, the college, like many nonprofits, hasn’t been able to host the fundraising galas that would typically power them toward their goals. SSC, for example, had hosted the annual Gifts From The Earth dinner (years before he went to work at the college, in fact, Scheehser was a “celebrity chef” for GFTE).
But Scheehser looks to another part of the campus that’s under his wing for inspiration on what can be done, piece by piece – the Arboretum on the northwest end of campus. He says it’s received a lot of community support, from the West Seattle Garden Club to individuals whose endowments have literally helped it grow over the years. Visitors are welcome daily, and they’ll find signage – also donation-powered – showing them how to give (with QR codes facilitating connections on the spot).
For the culinary program, local business support has helped, and more is welcome, adds Katz. For example, the program has a donated pizza oven. No matter how small the donation, anything can help, Scheehser emphasizes. Helping circulate the word that the program is working to modernize and grow is helpful too.
His hope is to be able to complete Phase 2 this this year, breaking ground at the very least by fall. If enough community support bubbles up, they could even launch Phase 3 (which is estimated at $2 million) before year’s end. The more they talk about it, the more they learn about potential community connections – the program hadn’t even plugged into the Seattle Colleges Foundation in the early going. “We need to generate awareness that we’re here and we’re strong,” Scheehser reiterates – even before the world opens back up enough to literally invite the community back to the SSC table.