With L’Academie de Cuisine Closing, Restaurateurs Remember ‘A Local Pipeline for Great Chefs’

Gaithersburg culinary school closed Friday; Bethesda location will close at end of year


L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda

Joe Zimmermann

The local restaurant scene could look a lot different without L’Academie de Cuisine, Jeff Heineman, chef and co-owner of the recently closed Grapeseed, said.

Heineman, like a number of other chefs in the area, was a graduate of the Gaithersburg culinary school, which was ranked as one of the best in the country. L’Academie announced suddenly on Friday that the school would close, news that Heineman and others said came as a shock.

“It’s certainly sadness at first, and I thought about how important the school was to me,” he said. “It would definitely leave a void in the local culinary scene.”

Heineman, who ran the popular Grapeseed in Bethesda until it closed in July, said he probably would never have gone to culinary school if it weren’t for L’Academie. Other local restaurant owners also attributed their success to the school.

“No question—it never would have happened without them,” Damien Salvatore said of the program. After he graduated in the early 1990s, he found work in the Watergate Hotel and Washington, D.C., restaurant Kincaid before opening his own restaurants Persimmon in Bethesda and Wild Tomato and Sal’s Italian Kitchen in Cabin John.

Brian Patterson, the culinary director at the school, said the closure was a result of low enrollment and other financial challenges. The Gaithersburg location closed Friday shortly after a graduation ceremony for some of its students, and the smaller Bethesda location will close in two weeks at the end of this year, he said.

Patterson said the sudden closing comes as a hardship to the about 25 people on staff, as well as the students who expected to come back in January. He said the model of culinary schools was becoming less tenable as people are less willing to pay about $30,000 for a year of professional classes.

Founded in 1976 by chef Francois Dionot, the school has produced a range of talents that work locally and around the country, including Aaron Silverman, owner of Pineapples and Pearls in Washington; Nick Stefanelli, owner of Masseria in Washington; and TV personality Carla Hall.

After teaching students there since the 1990s, Patterson said the most rewarding part of the program was helping students find their potential and get “great jobs performing in high levels in their field.”

“There was a legacy of just terrific people who worked there, and a long legacy of supporting a brand that was highly recognized,” he said. “When you walked in with that chef coat you were assumed to be a high trained professional.”

Alonso Roche, who owns TapaBar, Bold Bite and 202 Donuts in Bethesda, said he was shaped by his experience at the “iconic school.” He remembers fondly everything from the rigorous tests to the way Dionot would take apart an entire animal for the class.

“I was just completely fascinated by the whole experience,” he said. “I was awestruck by everyone in uniform, the cleanliness, the meticulous nature of cooking.”

Salvatore said L’Academie had a legacy for providing great interns and new chefs to local restaurants.

“I’m gonna miss them,” he said. “You feel like a local pipeline for great chefs is gone now.”

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