Culinary scholarship struggles to find any takers

Like so many dishes, a Whidbey scholarship board is having a hard time finding the right ingredients to entice would-be chefs to apply for a culinary school award.

The Natanya Johnson Scholarship Fund is looking for women applicants interested in attending culinary school. They have two past success stories since founding the Red Spatula Award in Johnson’s honor three years ago in Jessica VanWetter and Jenessa Sneva. Despite that, they have yet to receive a single applicant for the $12,000 scholarship ($6,000 each year for a two-year program) since opening the application March 1 with an initial deadline of March 31. The deadline was extended to May 1 in the hopes of giving more time for publicity and hopefully applicants to find their way to the scholarship.

“I know there’s some girl in some kitchen, washing dishes, who doesn’t even think it’s a possibility,” said Jenn Jurriaans, a scholarship fund board member. “We’re going after a different type of person than the girl who’s been prepping herself to go to college all four years of high school.”

The scholarship was created in honor of Johnson, who used to work as the pastry chef for Jurriaans at Prima Bistro. Johnson died in August 2011 from complications with Type 1 diabetes. She was 32 years old.

Johnson grew up on Whidbey Island, graduated from South Whidbey High School in 1997, graduated from the Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 2006 and returned to the island as an accomplished and eager chef. She specialized in pastries as a way to accommodate her disease, which required doctor visits and checkups.

Continuing Johnson’s legacy of passion for the culinary arts is important for the scholarship fund board, many of whom are like Jurriaans and knew her personally. Donna Christensen never knew Johnson, but said the other board members’ deep love for her caught on and she was pleased to join their ranks and help fundraise and publicize the scholarship.

“Everyone wants to see something keeping Natanya’s name alive,” Christensen said. “I regret I never knew her.”

Sneva and VanWetter are living into that passion, thanks to the funds in Johnson’s name. Sneva is a full-time cook at Elliot’s Oyster House on the Seattle waterfront and is at the end of the first quarter at Seattle Culinary Academy, the cooking school at Seattle Central Community College.

That has proven difficult in years past, when the deadline was similarly extended. But this year the scholarship board members were worried they may not see any applicants.

If none arise, they will hold onto the funds they raised and focus on next year. But doing so stunts the scholarship fund’s development as they will cease seeking money without a person’s education to dedicate it to.

“We can’t fundraise if we don’t have a current person in. So many of our donors are repeat donors,” Jurriaans said. “If we aren’t currently funding someone, which we currently are, … we don’t feel like we can go after more money.”

Applicants have to meet a few criteria. First, the scholarship is open to women (of any age) only as a means of providing them an advantage in the culinary world. Jurriaans said female chefs can be overlooked in what is professionally a male-dominated industry.

Keeping a scholarship around that can encourage women to pursue the culinary arts was important to Johnson, and it is important to the scholarship fund working to honor her for those reasons.

“I love anything that gives anyone, not just anyone but women, open doors and opportunity,” Christensen said.

But the applicant has to be right. Besides being a woman, Whidbey ties are required. That can include being from Whidbey Island and moving away, or even as tangentially as a recent recipient whose boyfriend was from the island. Plus, the future chef must attend a Washington community college program, with a special preference for the Seattle Culinary Academy of Seattle Central College (formerly community college). Age isn’t a factor, but interest in cooking certainly is. Someone who hasn’t worked in a restaurant before isn’t qualified for the scholarship.

“If you tell me you want to go to culinary school but you’ve never worked in a kitchen, I’m sorry, but no,” said Jurriaans, who added she has seen a troubling trend in young workers at her restaurant who are unwilling to put in the hard work required at restaurants where long days with sore feet are standard.

“It can be hell,” she added.

VanWetter agreed. She’s worked in a lot of bakeries and kitchens and said that experience was crucial to knowing what she was getting herself into. It’s a lot to ask a teenager to know what they want to do, but a lot can be sussed out just through having experience washing dishes in a restaurant or bussing tables.

“I don’t think high schoolers and people who haven’t worked in kitchens will know,” VanWetter said.

With a little more time and a bit of publicity, they hope to find their next Natanya — a woman with a passion for the kitchen, for creating culinary art and feeding others. They can help make that dream come true, as they have for VanWetter and Sneva already.

That’s precisely the experience VanWetter had. She said more than financing her formal training and education, the connections through the Red Spatula Award’s board have helped her find work in bakeries around Puget Sound.

“It’s not just a handful of money, it’s a whole family that supports you,” VanWetter said.