When Samone Thomas was in high school she’d spend Thursday nights laboring away in the kitchen making cupcakes to sell the next day. Taghreed Aoun, an Iraqi refugee and mother of two, also spent many nights baking, sometimes until the sun came up. Aoun baked, not to make a buck, but to heal. Both women are products of South Seattle College’s bakery and pastry program whose future is up in the air because of budget cuts.
South Seattle’s program has produced talent that has gone on to work in the kitchens of Bakery Nouveau, Tom Douglas Restaurants, and Macrina Bakery—to name just a few. The program’s closure would be felt beyond just the businesses looking to hire bakers and pastry chefs from an already shrinking talent pool. For many, it would also mean the end of a path to a better future.
In April, South Seattle’s interim president, Peter Lortz received a recommendation from the vice president of instruction to close the bakery and pastry program citing the high operation costs and low enrollment numbers.
However, Lortz held off on making a recommendation to the Board of Trustees to cut the program after community members like William Leaman, chef and owner of Bakery Nouveau, voiced their support for South Seattle’s program.
Leaman, who has at least 10 South Seattle grads working in his bakeries, sees the program as invaluable. He likes the fact that he can hire people who are already a part of the communities the bakeries serve and that graduates are equipped with all the skills they need to succeed.
“You get someone from South [Seattle College] and they can cut a pan of brownies,” Leaman said. “It’s not hard to cut a pan of brownies but you’d be amazed at some of the kids I see.” Some fledgling bakers, he says, arrive with an attitude of I only make this or I only make that.
Leaman isn’t the only local chef to get involved with the decision. Restaurateur Tom Douglas, whose top pastry chef at Dahlia Bakery is a South Seattle grad, has helped facilitate discussions surrounding the program.
“In baking, you really have to follow scientific methods and recipes. So it's great to have a training environment, a serious training environment for pastry chefs. And that's what I consider South Seattle to be. To lose it would be a detriment to the bakeries of Seattle including my own,” Douglas said.
South Seattle’s program takes only two years, or six quarters, to complete and costs far less than other culinary schools that offer a similar set of skills to equip students for the real world. An associate's degree at the Art Institute of Seattle costs up to $43,000 in tuition, while South Seattle comes in around $12,000.
Aoun graduated from the program last August and immediately got a job working for Leaman at Bakery Nouveau’s Burien location. When Aoun and her family fled Baghdad after being threatened, Aoun fell into a deep depression. It was baking, she says, that saved her life. When her family was accepted into the U.S., she tried working in a few kitchens, but her heart was still in baking, so she enrolled at South Seattle.
She views the program as more than just a certificate, but a chance to make a better future for herself and her family. Aoun says that people like her—refugees and immigrants—don’t have great job prospects; they end up with low-level jobs. “I feel like I'm losing my family for the second time,” she says, likening her South Seattle support system to her relatives in Iraq. Thanks to the pastry program, she says, “I don’t have fear anymore—I feel confident that I can cook in any kitchen.”
Chefs Christopher Harris and Kim Smith are the lead instructors of the school’s bakery and pastry program. According to Harris, trade programs across the board typically work in reverse of the economy: When unemployment is low, people don’t seek out trade schools like they do when they lose their jobs and go back to school.
At its highest, the program has seen 50 students after the dot-com bust and Boeing layoffs. Currently there are around 21 student according to the dean.
The school’s new president, Dr. Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap, took over July 2 and has yet to reach a decision. Rimando-Chareunsap met with “culinary leaders” on July 13 in a meeting largely facilitated by Tom Douglas’s HR director to discuss what local chefs wanted and needed from Seattle’s community colleges. That conversation is ongoing, and a decision has yet to be reached.
The program remains in limbo; it’s not accepting any new students and canceled classes for the summer. The school has promised currently enrolled students will be able to complete the program, even if it is closed.
Samone Thomas, who is halfway through the six-quarter program, does not know when she’ll be able to graduate. This summer she took some electives to keep her financial aid. Before enrolling, Thomas worked at a burger joint after she dropped out of high school; those teenage years of cupcake making were in her rearview mirror. It wasn’t until Thomas started going to Half Priced Books on payday to buy cookbooks that her love for baking was rekindled.
“Every time I think of this program, I think of my little cousin who wants to be a chef,” Thomas said. Thomas’s young cousin wants to do better things in the world because food brings people together. “I think that’s a big part of what South does.”
This article has been updated on August 16, 2018 to reflect the correct name of the school, which is South Seattle College not South Seattle Community College. The dean also clarified that there are 21 not "around 30" as earlier estimated by the program's instructor. Classes will resume for current students in the fall; an earlier version stated classes would not be offered in the fall to those already enrolled.