For Becky Selengut, the battle to keep the trade schools open is personal.
Growing up on the largest lake in New Jersey, Thea Foss Chef Becky Selengut describes her childhood as “sort of Rockwellian.”
“We were a half-mile away from my grandparents, who also lived on the lake, and it was another half-mile to my cousins. We’d all converge at my grandparents and hang out there playing on the lawn and eating raspberries from my grandmother’s beautiful garden…but the full story is that my brothers and I were raised by committee, as my mom split when I was just three years old. So, there were warm, happy family times and then missing bits too.”
Selengut grew up wanting to be a veterinarian—until the day she realized she’d have to take care of sick and dying animals.
“Then I wanted to be a doctor because I didn’t care about humans nearly as much as dogs and rabbits,” she laughed. “But my first job was selling fish in a tiny fish market at the very end of the lake. People would buy crab and shrimp salad, sole rolls stuffed with crab, flounder, and pike.”
A chef’s journey
Selengut’s dream of becoming a surgeon led her to an early career in public health before moving to Seattle from Washington, D.C., with plans to enroll in the University of Washington’s School of Medicine.
“But I had a change of heart,” she explained. “I was working at a doctor’s office while I waited a year to officially become a resident of Washington State so I could get in-state tuition. I kept seeing these chefs in white coats and tall hats walking down the street and into the coffee shops. I grabbed a flyer one day that talked about the (nearby) culinary arts school, and I knew I had to go.”
Selengut had been cooking since college—lavish, multi-course meals for her friends.
“I thought of it as a hobby, but it’s all I could ever think about. The truth is, I still get to wear white, use knives, and knowing about anatomy is helpful, so being a chef isn’t that different from being a surgeon, right?”
After graduation, Selengut spent the next 10 years working in iconic Seattle restaurants, including The Herbfarm and la Spiga. She’s cooked aboard a Grand Banks yacht sailing from Roche Harbor to Ketchikan, written five cookbooks, and taught at many cooking schools.
“My real passion is teaching and cooking for small groups and cooking while traveling. I’ve done a little of a lot of things in the culinary world. I’m currently one of the chefs on the Thea Foss, a beautiful 1930 vessel owned by Saltchuk, but I’m also providing services to other areas of the company. I cook for meetings and retreats, and get hired out to do consultations for business units. I’m sure soon enough, I’ll be teaching cooking to different Saltchuk teams for morale-building. In the nicer months, I’m in the galley of the Thea creating meals for the guests and crew.”
An outpouring of community activism—and a reversal
Selengut graduated from the Seattle Culinary Academy (SCA) in 1999, a school with an 81-year history and roots in training sailors to cook at sea. This spring, her SCA status shifted from “alumna” to “organizer.”
“The school was originally called Edison Technical School. In the 1950s, the school would train crew from the Military Sea Transportation Service in waiter service and food preparation,” she said. “In the last few decades, there has been some cross-training between the SCA and the Seattle Maritime Academy, another trade program based out of Seattle Central College.
“The SCA is one of the best culinary schools in the country and was the first to embrace a sustainability focus, completely changing how the culinary arts are taught and bringing the world of organic farming, social justice in food production, and the humane treatment of animals— among many other topics—into a culinary school curriculum.”
Selengut said community colleges have been historically underfunded, even though they provide educational opportunities to a systemically underserved and under-resourced student body.
“I put myself through culinary school because I could—the program was affordable, and I didn’t have to take out any loans. Had I gone to the Culinary Institute of America, I would have had to pay six times as much and would have had to take out huge loans.”
SCA’s current budget shortfall is due to a lack of international students during the last administration and throughout the pandemic, which has dried up one of the main sources of income for the school, Selengut explained.
“(In late April), the administration threatened to shut down all four trade schools. Luckily, with an outpouring of community activism, that decision has been reversed—at least through the fall semester—but the money is still not there. The school needs funding from the state and a public/private partnership; perhaps a group of individuals to endow the school or a company or companies to partner with the school, financially laying out a sustainable future while guaranteeing a pipeline of trained chefs and maritime crew to the industries in need of trained employees.”
Selengut and a like-minded group of fellow advocates are currently pursuing such a partnership, in addition to working with the state legislature to increase funding.
“We want to see the Culinary Academy reach its hundredth birthday and the Seattle Maritime Academy (the only one in the state) continue its important training in the maritime industry. I’ve raised funds for the school over the years by donating my services as a chef and giving away my books, but that was pocket change compared to the kind of fundraising needed to endow a school for the future.”
The right issue at the right time
Selengut said last week’s reversal that saved the SCA is a moment she’ll never forget.
“I’ve never been an organizer before, and well, the time was right, and the issue was right, and I felt like all the skills I’ve ever learned got put to use in fighting for the trade schools to stay open,” she said. “There is still much to be done, but I really feel proud of my efforts. It feels good to work so hard for something that may one day lay a foundation for the education of generations well past your own life.”
If she could change one thing about her past, she said she would have stressed less about the little things.
“I would have learned earlier on how little control I have over anything,” she laughed. “I could have saved a lot of angst if I had just accepted that and said, ‘oh well,’ and then went for a walk.”
When she’s not cooking, she plays guitar, dabbles in comedic writing, obsesses over word games, and travels by Airstream with her wife of 16 years, April, who also works in the hospitality industry as a sommelier.
“Not surprisingly, I love to play with my dog—or really any dog. Probably yours, too.
She and a friend co-wrote a romance novel that takes place in Seattle and features an unlikely romance between an organic farm-to-table fine-dining chef and a tech dude-bro who has a fast-casual concept called “ballz” selling deep-fried foods from around the world in ball form.
“It’s on the back burner until I’m done with the current cookbook I’m writing titled ‘Misunderstood Vegetables.’” Selengut’s best-known cookbook is “Good Fish.”
“Fun fact: my grandfather was a Coast Guard judge, and also an author. He wrote books on maritime law and weighed in on the Titanic salvage case. I feel like I was born into a life of books and the sea.”
Her current position at Saltchuk is her first at a corporation.
“My first impression was that people genuinely seemed to love the company,” she said. “I guess I expected people to be semi-miserable. But, boy, was I wrong. It shows that the more experienced I get, the more I find I have to learn.”