Before we walked across the stage at Carnegie Hall to formally graduate from The International Culinary Center, my classmates and I were reunited backstage. We all had the jitters. We were excited to be recognized for our hard work especially since in our line of work it’s rare someone stops to tell you a compliment.
It had been a few months since we had seen each other and I could see the physical evidence of the industry’s effect on a few. Some had lost weight, others looked tired. I asked them how work is going, and a lot of the answers were, well, depressing:
“I convince myself not to quit most days.”
“I’m getting my ass kicked.”
And then I think back to the six months we were in school. We complained about our “aching” feet. But those seven hours we spent in school every day don’t compare to the 10 to 13 hour days I work in the kitchen now…unpaid. The six months I spent on my feet in school were just an hor d’oeuvre to what reality really has to offer.
But we wake up every day and we show up–partly because we’re crazy and partly because we love food. And a lot of us showed up to graduation today because Chef Thomas Keller, owner of Per Se, French Laundry, and Bouchon, was our keynote speaker. The founder of the school, Dorothy Cann Hamilton, introduced Chef Keller and went off-script a little to tell an anecdote.
“After work, I used to stop in to Thomas Keller’s restaurant around 11 p.m., and I’d see him on his knees scrubbing the ovens because he said there were some jobs too important to leave to the cooks.”
It was humbling to see this culinary legend speak to us, and even more humbling to see how real he was. There wasn’t any ego laced into his speech. He really wanted to encourage us to stay in this field. And he told us three things to remember as we start our careers:
“Be patient.” Take time to learn your skills, don’t rush.
“Be Prepared.” Be ready to learn what you need to know for tomorrow’s opportunity.
“Be Persistent.” Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something.
I felt empowered after listening to him. He’s a man who’s built a world-famous, Michelin-starred empire, and he took time to give us words of wisdom.
“When people talk about success, they usually talk about the past. I tend to focus on what we’re doing today and tomorrow,” Chef Keller said. “Success isn’t about fortune or fame, it’s about giving family, friends, and guests a wonderful memory.”
In less than a month, my internship will be over and my next adventure—whatever that’ll be (hopefully not unemployment)—will begin. Perhaps I’ll jump on the line at a restaurant, start another blog, or find a full-time position at a magazine, but this experience has showed me what I’m made of. This is a boys club, no doubt, but there’s definitely room for lipstick-wearing women. I’m truly blessed to have been able to attend culinary school, met the most amazing people, and walk away with a Grand Diplome (and valedictorian of my class). I look forward to writing about all my talented classmates as they build their impressive careers.
Cheers class of 2013. I’m proud of you.