Yesterday afternoon, several hundred recent graduates of the International Culinary Center, including me and my classmates gathered at Carnegie Hall to celebrate finishing up our culinary studies program. This was also a chance to recognize those chef-instructors who helped guide us in our education and to hear some words of wisdom from one of America’s leading chefs, Thomas Keller. It was definitely the one of the most lively and jubilant graduation ceremonies I’ve ever attended, which includes three of my own plus numerous ones I’ve been to for my siblings.
From the minute I walked up to Carnegie Hall and ran into several of my classmates getting ready for the day’s events, you could feel that there was a hint of excitement in the air. We all had to arrive at the backstage entrance, most of us pausing just to hang out for a bit, enjoying the sunny weather while getting our uniform jackets on and taking a last drag on cigarettes before going inside. Several of our instructors passed by, shaking our hands and offering congratulations. I saw Chef Jacques Pépin, one of the deans of the school, slip into the entrance unobserved so that he could be ready for the ceremony on time, too.
After months and months of a hard slog of lessons, exams, practical evaluations, internships, part-time jobs, and personal sacrifice, it was time to enjoy having finished and to share some of that positive energy with our families and fellow former students. It was also a chance to re-connect with students who had been in other classes with whom we’d become friends and are now professional colleagues. The pre-ceremony logistics, which included herding us into a holding room before we could file into the auditorium, was like a giant reunion. There were class photos taken, stories swapped about current work assignments, and lots and lots of hugs, high-fives, back slaps, and big smiles all around, as everyone waited to be seated for the ceremony.
Once we had filed into our rows, separated by program of study, we waited for the ceremony to begin. The collection of culinary talent on that one stage was phenomenal. The guest speaker was Chef Thomas Keller. The school deans André Soltner, Jacques Pépin, Alain Sailhac, José Andrés, Cesare Casella, Jacques Torres, Emily Luchetti, Alan Richman, and Scott Carney were all there to celebrate with us and to show their support for our fledgling careers. To kick off the program, one of them started clapping, rousing the audience to join in the festive air and adding a touch of impishness to the proceedings.
The day was also about acknowledging our chef-instructors, too, and all of their hard work and commitment to helping us make it through the program. Through their diligence, encouragement, and discipline, they guided us through the stages of our curriculum, helping us to understand the levels of technique and coaching us towards greater consistency and perfection in our work. Their experience and advice helped to mold us as student chefs as well as to instill in us the desire to want to achieve more in the kitchen and to strive to attain excellence in our culinary efforts. Although I learned a tremendous amount from all of my instructors, most of all, I gained a profound sense that this is a profession where you keep on learning each and every day and that all chefs no matter what their range of experience realize that there is always more room for personal growth.
Introductory speeches and welcoming remarks were given by the school’s Executive Vice President Christopher Papagni and the Founder and CEO Dorothy Cann Hamilton. Then, we each walked across the stage as our name was called, the best student in each class formally recognized as their name was said. We filed across by group: Pastry, Culinary, Italian Studies, Sommelier Studies. Then, the Outstanding Alumni Awards were given out. It was so fantastic to see Jen King and Liz Gutman of Liddabit Sweets (both pastry program alumnae) receive the Outstanding Entrepreneurship award in recognition for all their hard work (we definitely could also have used some of their caramels to munch on during the ceremony, too). Another favorite of mine, The Meatball Shop, received the Outstanding Restaurant Management award given to co-founder Michael Chernow, a culinary program alumnus.
After the alumni awards were given out, the keynote speaker Chef Thomas Keller took the podium. Here’s some of what he said to us, to inspire us on our paths to our new careers and to impart to us some of his knowledge based upon his amazing experience:
“You’ve all worked hard to get here. I don’t think any of you thinks it will get easier.”
“Be patient and hone your skills. Be patient and enjoy where you are.”
“For me inspiration is the key. For inspiration to strike, we have to be aware of the world around us.”
“Creativity is about awareness. Embrace the inspiration around you.”
“We must teach and mentor the next generation.”
Then, after a few more remarks to close the ceremony, it was time for us to leave, to take all that we’d studied and absorbed through the days and evenings behind the stoves in the school’s kitchens and join our families to continue celebrating our achievements. Congratulations to all my fellow International Culinary Center graduates! I wish you every success in your careers and look forward to raising a glass to many, many more of our professional achievements!