Chef’s legacy to live on in young aspiring chefs

Posted in Culinary, Feature

BY MICHAELA MARX WHEATLEY
Whidbey Life Magazine contributor

Natanya Johnson expressed her creativity through food, and in her short but significant career she left an impression on   many Whidbey Island taste buds. But her life was cut short before she could realize her dream of opening her own restaurant.

Natanya Johnson smiles while in the kitchen at Prima Bistro in Langley where she worked as a pastry chef. (Photo courtesy of Prima Bistro)

Johnson passed away in August 2011 at the young age of 32 from complications of Type 1 Brittle diabetes. She not only left behind a grieving group of family and friends, who struggled with losing a beautiful, creative and talented woman at such a young age, but Johnson also left a gap in the South Whidbey culinary community.

This group is now coming together to raise money for a scholarship to be established in Johnson’s memory.

The Natanya Johnson Scholarship Fund will award the Red Spatula Award, a two-year scholarship in the culinary arts, to one young woman from South Whidbey each year.

“She was a dear friend. Losing her was terrible,” recalled Jenn Juriaans, owner of the Prima Bistro where Johnson had excelled as pastry chef. “This is a great way to honor her memory.”

On Friday, Nov. 30, Whidbey Island restaurants and eateries will join forces to make sure that Johnson’s legacy will live on through a score of young female chefs for years to come through participation in “Little Taste of Heaven” fundraiser. Friday would have been Johnson’s 34th birthday.

The Braeburn, China City, Gordon’s On Blueberry Hill, Neil’s Clover Patch Cafe, Mo’s Pub & Eatery, Mukilteo Coffee Roasters, Prima Bistro, the Roaming Radish, Useless Bay Coffee Company, Village Pizzeria and Living Green Natural Food and Apothecary all on South Whidbey, as well as Norm’s Eatery and Ale House in Seattle, are participating in “Little Taste of Heaven.” The restaurants have come up with various ways to collect contributions for the memorial scholarship fund – mainly through special sales on menu items, collection boxes and other strategies – but diners are invited to give whatever they can.

The organizers, who include Johnson’s mother Lydia Johnson, said they estimate that they need to raise $12,000 each year to meet the average cost of a local community college culinary program.

Juriaans said the goal is realistic and she is encouraged by the generosity that people have already shown towards the cause.

“At our first fundraiser, the beer dinner this summer, the very first table wrote a $1,000 check,” Juriaans said.

In addition to memorializing Johnson, the award also hopes to empower young women in the male-dominated world of commercial kitchens.

Gretchen Cole, a friend and co-worker of Johnson’s, outlined the goals in a statement for the scholarship fund.

“It takes a strong, dedicated woman to excel in that environment – the goal is to defy those stereotypes and put women back in the kitchen in a position of authority and power,” Cole wrote.

The organizers said that it was a demanding career that Johnson chose and she worked hard to be living her dream, while struggling with her disease day after day. Her heart’s desire was too have a restaurant of her own someday.

“There was so much more in store for Natanya, and although she is no longer with us, through the Red Spatula Award she will continue to feed the world’s bodies, hearts and souls via the future endeavors of each recipient for years to come,” Cole wrote.

Johnson grew up on Whidbey Island, graduating from South Whidbey High School in 1997. She was a gifted artist and eventually decided to pursue a career as a chef. In 2006, she graduated from the Culinary Academy in San Francisco and eventually returned to Whidbey Island.

Juriaans said the founders of the scholarship fund felt strongly that it should be geared toward a community college culinary program as there are very strong programs available in Seattle, but also because Johnson and her family believed that, while it is a fulfilling career, it is often not a high-paying job and people should not go into debt because of it.

For those who can’t make it to one of the participating restaurants this Friday, the group will continue to collect donations throughout the year and plan to hold more fundraisers in the future.

All donations are 100 percent tax deductible and are being managed by the South Whidbey Schools Foundation. Checks should be made out to SWSF and sent to Prima Bistro, PO Box 976, Langley, WA 98260.

For the most up-to-date information on the program, see the Natanya Johnson Scholarship Fund on Facebook and add a “like” to the page.

Photo at top, The kitchen at Prima Bistro holds a place for former pastry chef Natanya Johnson and the Red Spatula Award the restaurant and friends created in her honor. 

Michaela Marx Wheatley is a freelance journalist who has worked as a reporter/writer in the U.S. and her native Germany. She can be reached at michimarx@yahoo.com.

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