"I know that I can move forward. And so I do."
Ren Natividad was taking a turn as expeditor at Seattle Culinary Academy (SCA), a program of Seattle Central College. It was a busy lunch in SCA’s OneWorld Restaurant — one of the busiest since the start of the pandemic — and Ren was coordinating orders between servers and those behind the line.
As orders popped out of the printer, Ren carefully sorted and prioritized, occasionally calling in a clear, confident voice to “fire two cod!” or “three soups on-the-fly!” His fellow future chefs were quick with spoken acknowledgment.
But if you watched closely, you saw something else. Often the acknowledgments were accompanied by hand gestures, rapidly registered by Ren as he continued the expeditor’s complex choreography.
The gestures were bits of American Sign Language that Ren’s classmates have picked up during their two years with him in the program. Deaf since childhood, but refusing to see it as a limitation, Ren long ago resolved that he'd follow his passions.
Chief among these is food. “I grew up in a Filipino family that is really into food,” he recalls. “My grandparents talked about food history, food traditions, food as as a way into the diversity of the world. So I wanted to explore that. When I came to culinary school, it felt like a lot of doors opened. I’ve experienced food from more countries, and learned some of the history, and seen how cultures come together, and the positives and negatives that can come from that.”
Asked about the experience of growing up deaf, Ren is straightforward. “A lot of people have mocked me. Over and over, people have told me about the things that I can't do, the things that are not permitted to me. People told me that I shouldn’t go to college, that I wouldn't be successful. It’s been a theme in my life.”
“But you know what?,” he continues. “That stigma, it doesn't really hit me. I believe in myself. I know that I can move forward and I do. Plus I've had people who have championed me, supported me. That includes people like Chef Kären and Chef Drew here at SCA. They quickly grasped that, as a deaf person, I'm a visual learner, I'm a tactile learner, and they’ve facilitated that. I’ve also had the support of wonderful interpreters. And also of many of my classmates, who are so diverse.”
Ren will soon complete his associate degree in Culinary Arts, and feels optimistic for his future. Already he’s landed an internship at Andaluca in the Mayflower Park Hotel, working with longtime Executive Chef Tiffany Layco, and exploring the world of the saucier chef. “In the kinds of sauces there are and the ways they have spread, been adopted, and been adapted, you have human history in miniature. It’s all so interesting to me,” Ren declares.
"I sense tremendous promise in Ren" says Chef Layco (left). "It's clear to me that he's gained solid technical skills at SCA, and has a lot of drive. It's of course a different experience working the line and not having your sense of hearing. But I've already seen it succeed with an experienced line cook here at the Mayflower Park, who's deaf and a highly valued team member. He and Ren have already formed a mentoring connection, and I'm gratified that our hotel is doing its part to make our profession more open and welcoming."
Asked about the values he’ll bring to his dawning career as a chef, Ren answers quickly. “I’m interested in how healthy food systems can lead to a healthier culture and healthier society. I want to be a chef who advances sustainability, who thinks about the impact of our food choices on the environment, on the climate, on animals, on local farms and local economies. I cared about these things before, and I feel like SCA has empowered me to act.”
Reflecting further, Ren offers this: “To be honest, this program completely changed my life. It's not just the education and the networking. I’ve learned that you can start out a bit low, or not have a lot of experience, and have almost nothing in your pocket. But in this space, with these people, you start to thrive. It shows you that there's a world of opportunities out there no matter what your journey is."
"Think of it like this: Where before there were flour and eggs, suddenly, magically you have pasta.”