Former Seattle-area culinary wunderkind and media personality Dan Thiessen returned to his Eastern Washington roots to turn over a new leaf, both personally and professionally. As the Director of Walla Walla Community College's Wine Country Culinary Institute, Thiessen is breathing new life and focus to the program, concentrating on reconnecting students, and the community, to the bounty of the area's agricultural heritage. Between classes, catering, special events, running a cafe and food truck -- just to name a few things -- he's also finding time to rediscover himself and his talents. Despite his best efforts, it seems like Thiessen won't be escaping the spotlight anytime soon -- just shining in a new one.
It's a bit of a leap from owning your own restaurants and cooking at some of the most iconic restaurants in Seattle to teaching at a small town Community College. What inspired the move?
It is. But I grew up an hour and a half east of Walla Walla in a town of 1,020 people called Asotin. I grew up on a good-sized ranch and we raised about 300 head of Angus cows. For me, it was feeding cows in the Winter and driving a combine in the Summer. It's funny, people who know me in Seattle have no idea of my roots, so to speak. After a basic "implosion" in Seattle, I spent a lot of time soul-searching and what I realized was that, for way too long, my career was based on that stuff [pointing to framed press clippings on his office wall]. You know, I lived for that and my ego was driven by that and I finally realized that's not who I was meant to be or wanted to be anymore. I was that 24-year old, pants-on-fire young chef when I moved to Seattle. I felt I had to conquer the town -- and it nearly killed me doing it.
I needed to find who I truly was again so coming to Walla Walla was just kind of a realization of an amazing opportunity for me and, it "fits". It's not just me fitting into Walla Walla, it's Walla Walla fitting me -- I don't know who chose who, but I'm completely happy here. It was cool to do all the things I did in Seattle and I think it's important for students to see all of that but that's the one that saved me [pointing to a small plaque on his office wall]. I saved a kid's life and that means the most to me.
Yes, on July 1, 2009. I was living in Bellevue and went out to the pool at the place I lived at and literally had just thrown my towel out there to lay in the sun. When I walked out there I could see kids were playing in the pool and there were a couple ladies sitting there. Just as I sat down I heard a bunch of screaming and I looked over and they had pulled this boy out of the pool and he was dead. The mom was pushing on his stomach and the boy was turning blue and he wasn't moving. They did not speak English so I went over there, pushed them away and started performing CPR and was able to get him to breathe again. So I rolled him over on his side, grabbed the phone -- because they didn't speak English, they weren't calling 911 -- called 911, and the fire department came and got him.
About a month later I was at home and got a call from the fire department Chief and he was like, "Hey, I've been on vacation but your name's on my desk to follow up with. The bad thing about these situations is the guy who usually does the saving is the one who gets left behind and we really want to follow up with you and have you come down to the station." So I went down there and they had a ceremony and gave me that plaque.
Did you ever meet the boy?
No but that same night it happened the father came home and thanked me and said the boy was at Children's Hospital and doing OK and had no brain damage. The next day they released him and the boy left me a little card with his picture and saying thank you. He was 7 years old.
And that was right at the time I kind of had my own implosion and almost died. Alcohol almost killed me. When I look back, it has affected a big part of my life. It's amazing how successful I was in spite of how much I drank. But February 16, 2010 was the last day I took a drink. And I almost died three days later from that. From the withdrawal.
Yeah, I was arrested for not going to court. I picked up a DUI and didn't show up because I could not stop drinking. I literally could not stop drinking. Handcuffs saved my life -- flat-out saved my life. And being incarcerated from that almost killed me because I wasn't being treated for alcohol detox. It was nuts, it was absolutely insane. That was kind of my second time at trying to get sober. I tried it about three years before, right after we opened a restaurant. I went to treatment and I just had too much ego. I was too cocky, too much of an arrogant prick. I had six months of sobriety and my then wife said, "You can have a glass of champagne with me," and I was like, "Perfect! That's all I need."
But a glass of champagne became a perfect entry point back to where you had been?
Oh yeah. So this time I knew that this was my chance to start over and find out who I am and who I'm supposed to be as a person in recovery. I am very active in the recovery community and volunteer with an organization that helps pathways from incarceration back into society. I am able to be a resource for people instead of living my life thinking of what article I can put up on my wall. I am living it for who can I help next and how can I be a better part of society versus always wanting to be in the spotlight. I can sit down with these people and say "Listen, it might be a different pair of shoes we've got on, but I've walked many of these steps," and hopefully let them know there's a way out if they so choose. They've just got to choose it. And in return, have some blatant conversations about the reality of our industry -- this industry chews up a lot of people.
I could not be happier than I am now in Walla Walla. I mean, there are certain things that suck. Being single in Walla Walla sucks and being in recovery in Walla Walla sucks, but there's a quality of life that I am able to maintain. There's no place I'd rather be than in Walla Walla and taking advantage of this incredible opportunity.
Did you know you were going to have this sort of "blank slate" as the Director of the program?
No, not at all. In the initial interviews they were kind of at a point of deciding if they were even going to have a culinary program. So they've taught cooking here for a long time and about five or six years ago it became a degreed program and then an accredited program. So, part of the discussions I initially had with (Walla Walla Community College president) Steve Van Ausdle about the program revolved around food, wine and art -- those are the things he's been about from day one. He firmly believed that there were huge opportunities here and they just needed to find the right person to do that. And all they've wanted from me is to know what I need to succeed. I don't want to say it was carte blanche from day one but as long as it fits into our long-term plan, it is good. I just need to be careful that I am not outpacing the opportunity for information to get disseminated and that's a big challenge for me, coming in from the more fast-paced business side.
It sounds like you have a lot going on with the program -- what are you most excited about right now?
I'm excited about the new curriculum because when I took a look at who I am supposed to be as a chef, my job is to create food that I hope people will continue to buy, right? That's my job and how a chef measures their success. My job now as a director is to produce a product that I hope the industry continues to hire. So I am doing the exact same thing whether I have the chef hat or the director hat on. It's just a different medium I'm working with. So for me that separation isn't so great, it's just that my value set has evolved and other things are important to me today. If I can get graduates out there doing what they want to do -- whether it's living and working here in the Valley or going to Europe and staging -- it doens't matter to me as long as they're fulfilling their dreams, right? I got luggage for my high school graduation present, and I used it, because that's what I wanted to do. I'm excited to see some of these kids succeed and realize their dreams.
It seems like there would be so many opportunities for the program it would be hard to say no.
Well, I look at this almost as like a new business. When I got here it was the Culinary Arts program at the Community College. There was no brand, no identity, no one really knew who we wanted to be. Now that it's the Wine Country Culinary Institute -- that was the first thing. Thinkig about how we differentiate ourselves between other Community Colleges and the bigger schools like Art Institute of Seattle. You wanna pay $40,000 for your two-year degree or do you want to come here and spend $16,000 for the exact same thing on paper? Don't get me on a soapbox about for-profit schools. Kids are graduating with $75,000 in debt - how are they going to get out of that?
Yeah, because in general, it's not considered a high-paying industry. And it's more hard work than people think it is.
Right. Our deal is we graduate highly-trained, entry level workers. With this degree you're going to start off making $10-12 an hour. That's our deal. We hope that you have the skill set, the attitude and the tools to progress much faster but that's as far as we go. We don't have big fancy commercials and fliers and stuff to tell you you're going to be the next big whatever. That's why we don't have a class action lawsuit against us. There's a great line from an article on that lawsuit and the guy says, "Save your money and go to community college."
Makes sense - the program sounds like it's nothing to sneeze at.
No. And what we're trying to do is make the best nationwide culinary arts program at a Community College. That's what we're shooting for. Because no other college has what we have next door -- College Cellars. It's a huge opportunity. When we take a look at who we are we're the Community College that has access to the local farmers and the community of wine. They really redefine the "community" of Community College. Where else are you going to be able to go and cook food for a winemaker dinner one day, then elementary school kids and people in a nursing home the next? There's educational value in all of that.
Chefs have a complete obligation to our communities and I think for the majority of my career I'd lost touch with that. And not to be accusational, but I think may chefs have. We do a lot of fundraising events because you might get a flash in the pan of media from them, but for a bunch of students to meet 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders, have them taste vegetables, and ask them what they want on the menu next week -- that's the stuff that's going to have the resounding impact in our community. You couldn't buy that.
Do you think you'd ever open another restaurant?
Funny you should ask. There are some ideas floating around.
Oooh...in Walla Walla?
I don't think I'm ever going to leave Walla Walla. It's funny, I have some friends in Seattle who are like, "So, you've been over there a year...When you coming back?" There's been two people, who I consider near and dear friends, who have asked me that. One of them is Tami Michaels, who got me my first radio show, and the other is Mauro from Assaggio. I was like, "I'm not. I'm not ever coming back."
My commitment is to this program and its success. I'll always want to have my fingers in this program somehow. And right now, this program is my concept. I mean we've got a 4,000 square-foot greenhouse that wasn't being used, we'd like to open up a restaurant that is open to the public someday, we've got the viticulture and enology program -- there's just so much opportunity here, it's absolutely insane. They had never done winemaker dinners with College Cellars before. I was like, are you freaking kidding me?
For the first time, I get to be like Switzerland here because it's not about me. I'm just here to facilitate opportunities and create inspiration. Being a "40 under 40" is cool but I just don't want to live my life like that anymore, you know?
Is it cliche to ask if you went from rock-bottom to the top of your game?
I'm in the best place I can be spiritually, personally and professionally. They all tie in like never before in my life because I've lived it so far from center for so long. My problem was I looked in the mirror for my strength and that might work for some people for a short period of time, but combine that with absolute alcoholism, and ... now I take that focus to recovery. I am a very intense person and I'm also very passionate. And now I feel like I am making a difference in the program and in the community and that's the perfect service for me today so, you can't beat that.