“Be All In” Advice From Culinary Arts Graduate Vanessa Ruedebusch

In the Field : A Conversation with Vanessa Ruedebusch

“Be all in.” That’s the advice of SCA graduate Vanessa Ruedebusch, who transformed her culinary degree into a position as chef instructor with Fare Start two years ago. “Try stuff,” she says. “You’re not going to identify the perfect thing, but identify the things that are of interest to you and pick the one that’s most appealing right now: dive into it and see how you react.”

That adventurous spirit served the Port Orchard native well as she transitioned from a challenging career in biomedical start-ups to the culinary field in her early 30s. She never dreamed of becoming a chef in college, she said, and enjoyed her professional life as an engineer for years before the passion waned. It took almost five years for the idea of culinary school to grow from mere curiosity to a real transition, but fate intervened when the company she was working for closed its doors. During an extended stay in southwest France, she became intrigued with the idea of cooking – and teaching cooking – after meeting a Frenchwoman with a business in culinary tourism.

Before making the commitment to such a life-changing direction, Ruedebusch did her due diligence, researching programs at Le Cordon Bleu, the Seattle Art Institute, and the Culinary Institute of America, as well as Seattle Culinary Academy. Ultimately, she chose SCA for the diverse background of the instructors, the depth of their experience, and the reasonable cost of the program in relation to other options. “It’s a great value and the same stuff you’re getting at the C.I.A. in somewhat less lustrous surroundings,” she said, noting that the emphasis on sustainability in the curriculum appealed to her sense of values as well.

This depth of industry experience is something she encourages current students to take advantage of, even if they don’t have crystal-clear career goals yet. Set up meetings with the instructors and introduce yourself, she advises, and ask tons of questions. In her own experience at SCA, she quickly discovered that she had little interest in working as a line cook, or even in a restaurant. This made finishing all five quarters of the degree even more compelling, she said, although she had some doubts about the value of completion during her fourth quarter. In retrospect, She is immensely glad she did, particularly since she chose a less obvious direction for her career.  “If you want to do anything non-traditional in food, that degree is going to serve you very well.”

In addition to connecting with SCA instructors, Ruedebusch was quick to emphasize the value of volunteering and stage work. As a volunteer teacher with the non-profit organization Cooking Matters (part of Share Our Strength’s “No Kid Hungry” campaign), she brought valuable industry-related experience with her when she applied for the position at Fare Start, and her time with that organization confirmed her interest in teaching as well. Others might be inspired by her memory of working a stage at Chez Panisse: on vacation in California, she approached the chef on a whim and ended up working at the legendary restaurant for several months. Even as an intern, she worked every rotation in the restaurant from prep to butchery to garde manger. “It was awesome, she said, adding “Just go talk to the chef.”

Ruedebusch is presently transitioning into a new environment working with women in transition in the catering division of Fare Start, a part of the business that has seen tremendous growth over the past year. The organization trains adults and youth with barriers to employment that might include homelessness, recovery from addiction, or past incarceration and helps place them in the culinary field after completion of a training program. While she enjoyed working with the high school youth, she looks forward to preparing more elaborate dishes in the adult classroom. “It’s so much fun to watch people make progress and get better, and I don’t think you ever get tired of seeing that,” she said. She hopes that her work will encourage people to sit down and make healthy meals for their families, sharing dedicated time together around the table.

Reflecting on the best part of her education at SCA, Ruedebusch was quick to respond. “I got a really good education for a really incredible price,” she said, adding that the connections she made with her instructors – and their connections in turn – were an invaluable part of her education overall.  Making a mid-career change isn’t always an easy transition, she noted, but at the end of the day she feels fulfilled in a way she never did while sitting in a cubicle. “I knew when I looked back on my life,” she mused, “I’d be really glad I went to culinary school.”