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Beloved pastry chef’s legacy to live on in young chefs

Natanya Johnson died in 2011 at the age of 32. Her friends and family have created a scholarship fund sending a South Whidbey girl to culinary school in her memory.  - Photo courtesy of Lydia Johnson
Natanya Johnson died in 2011 at the age of 32. Her friends and family have created a scholarship fund sending a South Whidbey girl to culinary school in her memory.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Lydia Johnson

Two years after her far-too-early death, chef Natanya Johnson will send a young woman to culinary school.

This spring, the Natanya Johnson Scholarship Fund will award the first-ever Red Spatula Award, a two-year scholarship in the culinary arts, to a young woman from South Whidbey.

“It’s a great way to keep her memory alive and pass this on,” said Lydia Johnson, Natanya’s mother and one of the scholarship founders.

“Food is how she expressed her love,” Johnson added, recalling her daughter as a toddler hanging out in her grandmother’s kitchen every chance she got, kneading lumps of dough as her grandmother cooked.

“She got that gift from my mother,” she said.

Natanya Johnson, who was the pastry chef at the Prima Bistro and had worked at many South Whidbey eateries, passed away in August 2011 at the young age of 32 from complications of Type 1 brittle diabetes. She grew up on Whidbey Island, graduating from South Whidbey High School in 1997. She was a gifted artist and eventually decided to pursue a career as a chef. In 2006 she graduated from the Culinary Academy in San Francisco and returned to Whidbey Island.

Since the age of 11, she had struggled with the disease and while monitoring her nutrition made her life challenging, she also had a tremendous passion for making food.

“In the midst of her illness it gave her joy,” said her friend Gretchen Cole.

When Johnson passed away, she left behind a grieving group of family and friends who struggled with losing a beautiful, creative, talented woman at such a young age.

“I couldn’t bear that Natanya was just gone like that and forgotten,” Cole said. “I felt like I had to do something, so brought it up to Jenn (Juriaans of the Prima Bistro) that we should do a scholarship or something, and had the idea that it be food related because that is a love we all share, and she and I brainstormed from there.”

It soon became clear that the board of directors of the scholarship fund, which consists of Cole, Juriaans, Lydia Johnson and Reva Albright,  agreed that whatever they would do to honor Johnson was not to be focused on diabetes.

“Natanya did not like to talk about it,” Lydia Johnson said about the disease.

“Diabetes was not what she was about. She did not want to be defined by her illness,” Cole added.

Food on the other hand was. Her mother said her daughter was creative and loved to study cookbooks and experiment. Pastries were not what she had intended to do, but it allowed her flexibility, which she needed to take care of doctor appointments and complications related to her illness. And Natanya was very good at it, her mother added.

Cole said that in addition to memorializing Johnson and her passion for food, the award also hopes to empower young women in the male dominated world of commercial kitchens.

“Somehow — over the centuries — men have taken over the kitchen,” Cole said. “We want to bring women back in the kitchen.”

Cole said that it was a demanding career that Johnson chose and she worked hard to be living her dream while struggling with her disease day after day. Her heart’s desire was to run a restaurant of her own someday.

However, that dream was never to be realized as she passed away in August 2011.

Cole also said the founders of the scholarship fund felt strongly that it should be geared toward a community college culinary program as there are strong programs available in Seattle, but also because Johnson and her family believed that while it is a fulfilling career, it is often not a high-paying job and people should not go into debt over it. Cole added that the scholarship group also hopes to keep people local by sending them off to school nearby in hopes they will come back cooking in local restaurants.

The group has been raising money for a scholarship in Johnson’s memory since last summer.

The organizers said they estimate they need $12,000 each year as that is the average cost of a local community college culinary program. They made large steps toward this year’s goal with their Little Taste of Heaven event last November, but fundraising is ongoing as the scholarship is meant to continue for years to come.

More events are planned. The Prima Bistro will again host its beer dinner in July, in November on Johnson’s birthday the group will again hold the Little Taste of Heaven with restaurants on and off-island and a May Day event and a bake sale are in its preliminary planning stages.

The Natanya Johnson Scholarship Fund will announce the winner of the Red Spatula Award to a young woman from South Whidbey May 1. The application deadline is April 1.

For the most up-to-date information on the program, “like” Natanya Johnson Scholarship Fund on Facebook, or visit www.redspatula.org.

Application information is also available at www.primabistro.com.

To apply, download the application at www.sw.wednet.edu.

Fundraising is ongoing. All donations to the scholarship fund are 100 percent tax-deductible and are being held by the South Whidbey Schools Foundation.

Checks should be made out to SWSF. Checks should be sent to Prima Bistro, P.O. Box 976, Langley, WA 98260.

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