WALLA WALLA -- Dan Thiessen took over leadership of the culinary arts program at Walla Walla Community College with change in mind.
Thiessen came to the college a year ago to lead the culinary program, which had grown from offering a few cooking classes to becoming an accredited degree program. With a newly renovated kitchen and a distinct food and wine culture in the area, Thiessen took on the job of rebranding the program.
The Wine Country Culinary Institute, as it is now known, reflects a program that is in tune with the community's wineries and strengthening relationships with local farms.
"Our niche is looking at how we're entwined with the wine community, farmers and local growers," Thiessen said.
This summer, the program rolled out a food truck trailer purchased at auction, attached to a retrofitted ambulance that hauls it from site to site. Painted on the truck are logos for both the college's student-run catering service through Titus Creek Cafe, and the Wine Country Culinary Institute name and website.
The truck has been a regular vendor at the Walla Walla Farmer's Market this season. Menu items vary each weekend, but consistently feature local produce.
"We always try to take a look at what's fresh from the farmers at the market," Thiessen said.
Thiessen said he and college President Steve VanAusdle first talked about the food truck idea in the fall. The vehicles were available at auction for a deal, and work started on them during the spring.
Food trucks have grown in popularity in recent years, particularly in larger cities where trucks specializing in specific dishes -- like grilled cheese sandwiches or Cuban fare -- draw regular customers.
"It's one of the hottest food trends out there," Thiessen said.
Besides being able to draw customers, a food truck gives students practical experience preparing dishes from a daily menu. It gives students' work great exposure, and also showcases the program's new name and direction.
"This is a huge educational opportunity for our students, to be able to get that real life work experience, which is absolutely critical," Thiessen said.
Students staff the truck's kitchen, taking orders and preparing food as its ordered. On Saturday, students worked in the truck with guidance from culinary arts instructor Greg Schnorr. Schnorr is also a local organic farmer, and has been a vendor with the Farmer's Market since 1995.
The lunch-time menu last Saturday featured a burger showcasing grass-fed beef from Lostine Cattle Co.; a pulled pork sandwich on Hawaiian bread served with slaw; and an Olympics-inspired fruit trifle with peaches, strawberries, other local berries and whipped cream on sponge cake.
Schnorr said students bake their own breads, cure their own bacon and always feature a few items of locally raised food.
The truck has storage for portable chairs and tables with umbrellas, which are set up for any market customers to use.
Thiessen came to Walla Walla with a diverse background in the food industry, having worked as an instructor in culinary arts at the Art Institute of Seattle, and then running restaurants and leading kitchens on the west side for several years.
Thiessen was brought to the college as it completed a major renovation of the Titus Creek Cafe, the professional kitchen and cafeteria where the culinary program is housed.
Among the program changes has been adding more credit requirements, specifically so that students get more time in kitchens.
Schnorr, an instructor in the program the last five years, said the college's classes in culinary arts have also adapted with modern demands. There's a class on food photography, and a food, farm and culture class.
"There we go to local farms, and we look at the sustainability, to be less wasteful," Schnorr said. Students might learn about composting or how to more fully use produce and livestock.
"It's total utilization, so nothing goes to waste," he said.
The program has grown in scope and popularity enough to have a waiting list of students for the fall quarter. The program is also year-round, which means a student could graduate the two-year program in 18 months, Thiessen said.
The growth is apparent. A year ago, the program had just four students signed up to start in the fall. This year, it reached its maximum of 20.
One of the students working on Saturday, Arturo Tello, is entering his second year of the program. Tello said he loves what the program has offered, like learning the value of buying local produce, and the need for sustainability in cooking.
"It's definitely life changing," he said of the program.
The nature of the food truck, as a kitchen on wheels, means it doesn't have to be limited to one location. Thiessen said the truck also will work special events, such as the Pendleton Round-Up. That will again give students the valuable experience they need to graduate and enter the work field, and expose the Wine Country Culinary Institute throughout the region.
"We feel like what we're doing is right for the program, and the community," he said.
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317.