Commencement Address March 22, 2013
Culinary Institute of America
Good Morning Dr. Ryan, Administrators, Faculty, Staff, Parents, Friends and Graduates. It is truly a great honor and privilege to stand before you today and share this celebration.
Some 37 years ago in May of 1976, I was participating in my graduation with Julia Child as our commencement speaker. Today, I have been asked to be your commencement speaker and I am truly honored.
Speaking from experience, there are several things you need to do, now that you are graduating from this great institution.
First and foremost, thank your parents or whoever helped you get through school and cook them a great dinner!
Next, thank your instructors because they pushed you to get to this stage today.
You are now part of a very unique group – you are a graduate of the CIA and you share a special bond with the instructors who pushed you, the people sitting next to you and people out there that you haven’t even met.
I came here in 1974, when the campus had just moved from New Haven. And although I’ve cooked in a lot of places and had many great experiences, I really never left.
Instead, I found a career that has become a passion and a way of life for me and my family.
To give you an example, I was truly surprised a few years back when my wife and son got me personalized license plates that read CHEF CIA. Now some people who don’t know better tend to read the plates as Chief of the CIA (PAUSE), but WE know what it means. And it demonstrates the special bond we now share – CHEF CIA.
In fact, because you carry that label – CHEF CIA – each of you has that piece of information, that recipe, that method that you learned in class. Trust me, these pieces might not seem important today, but they will move your career forward and your bag of tricks will be a constant companion in your future.
Let me give you some examples from my career and explain:
The 5 P’s:
One of the most important lessons that I learned came in the first few weeks of school when then President Henry Ogden Barbour led a new student seminar. He stressed the 5 P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Think about the 5 P’s, they can apply to any profession, but for me, I live by this creed daily and plan accordingly.
Protect Your Assets
In class with Chef Graziotin, my classmates and I learned the importance of caring for our equipment. When Chef Graziotin heard you banging a spoon on the side of the pot, he came over, took the spoon, had you put out two fingers and hit them with the spoon. Then he would ask:
“Do you like how that feels?” You would always say “No Chef” and he would reply, “Neither does the pot!”
Chef Graziotin taught us to take care of the equipment so that it will last a lot longer. This rule of thumb is true for your tools, your staff and yourself.
Trust in the Fundamentals
Chef Wayne Almquist taught us the finer points of making hollandaise. One day, he was adding the butter as I stirred and all of a sudden the sauce broke. He never told me to take the bowl off the water bath. So, the next lesson was how to save this broken mess.
First, we took the bowl off the water-bath then he proceeded to explain why the sauce broke, either it got too hot or it could get too cold and in this case it was definitely too hot. Next, Chef showed us how to use ice if the sauce is too hot or warm water if it is too cold. This hands-on lesson has stuck with me for thirty-seven years. Through that time, I’ve found myself constantly sharing it with my kitchen staff.
Rely on Your Foundation
3 Eggs. (PAUSE)
1 Cup Flour. (PAUSE)
1 Cup Water. (PAUSE)
2 ounces of Oil. (PAUSE)
What is that you say? Well, it is the first recipe that I committed to memory. I learned it in Breakfast Cookery with Chef Gerry Vitulis, where he taught his students the importance of making crepes and the fact that they can be used for anything. Upon graduation, I went to work at the Omni International Hotel in Atlanta where my first position was as a Commis de Cuisine in the French Restaurant. I’ll bet you can guess which recipe came in handy!
Expand Your Skills
After spending time in Atlanta, my next stop was at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. I started as the Banquet Chef then became the Night Sous Chef. A position opened up as the Executive Chef at the Hotel Sonesta in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I was recommended and was hired for the position. Learning Creole Cuisine and New England Cookery helped expand my Culinary Memory Bank.
Years later, I landed at The Peabody Hotel in Memphis where I honed my skills in barbeque, French and Southern cooking, Kosher catering and high volume banquets.
We can talk about a small world this profession is, as the Executive Chef, I hired an intern from the CIA, her name was Lynn Weems. Lynn worked hard and I truly enjoyed her southern accent and charm. If you don’t know, Lynn is married to Dr. Ryan. (Pause)
From Memphis, I traveled to Denver and the Brown Palace Hotel as the Executive Chef. There I learned about high elevation cooking and the concept of using local ingredients. Imagine that!
Twenty Five years ago we were practicing being a locavore! I think we were a little ahead of our time.
My next stop, as the Executive Chef at the Wigwam Resort in Arizona, gave me the opportunity to learn all about Southwest Cuisine.
The point is to keep your eyes open and ears peeled for opportunities to continue to expand your skills and culinary portfolio.
Special touches are your tipping points for success
The Wigwam taught me so much about the skills of working with guests and to keep them coming back year after year. I learned to talk to them, find out what they wanted and make them feel special.
I’ve been in my current role as Executive Chef of the Union League Club in Chicago for nearly 21 years. It was truly fate to go from the Wigwam Resort in Arizona to the Union League Club of Chicago where their fine dining restaurant was named the Wigwam.
Being at the Club for all of these years has been very rewarding. I have met and cooked for presidents and vice presidents, members of the Joint Chiefs, Admirals and Generals, Senators and Congressmen, members of the Supreme Court and many more. But the most important people we cook for every day are our members and guests.
Just this past Thanksgiving, a guest shared her personal recipe for cornbread dressing with me. When they came for dinner that day, I presented her table with their family dressing recipe. This simple gesture made her cry, but it made her family’s day at the Club something they will remember and talk about for years to come.
Remember, you’re in the hospitality industry. Personal and special touches are your tipping points for success. After all, that’s what this industry is all about. You can make those moments happen and you have the power to make memories.
Integrity, is it worth compromising?
Always do the right thing. There is nothing that is worth you compromising your integrity. Your reputation is all you have and it will follow you every where you go. It may become bigger than you, and you want it to say all the right things about who you are. This is a very small industry. What you do, good or bad will come back to celebrate who you are or unfortunately haunt you.
Humility cannot be overrated.
It is so much more powerful to have other people recognize you rather than you telling everyone how great you are. Show people how great you are. Work harder than everyone else. Stand out by your work ethic and your pride in what you do. Show your passion.
Cherish your Relationships, Build your Network and Give Back
This May, the Union League Club will host the CIA Alumni Reception for the 17th year running, during Monday night of the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. As many as 450 Alumni, colleagues, friends of the Institute and others make it a point to be there and as newly-minted graduates, you should be there too!
In fact, I am fortunate to have four CIA Alumni as part of my Culinary Team:
Mark Hayes, my Executive Sous Chef is a 1991 grad
Jessica Weiss, Executive Pastry Chef is a 2003 BPS grad
Gina Vullo part of our culinary team is a 2010 grad and
Bailey Mitchell, lead pastry is a 2011 BPS grad.
The point is, to build your network and don’t lose touch. Most of all, look for ways to give back.
Those gifts don’t always have to be dollars – Chef Mark Erickson and Chef Victor Gielisse are probably cringing right about now – but it does help.
Refer a prospective student, host a reception, and mentor a student or new chef. Help others to be successful like you.
At present there are three students I am working with. I am an alumni mentor to Scott Shipton. Thomas Mochel is a student that has spent time at the Union League Club. Mary Geyer began her studies earlier this year and there will be a fourth student, Jon Bedell, starting in June that has spent his free time working with us before he attends school.
My Culinary Family over the years has grown. These are people that have worked with me as cooks, Sous Chefs and Chefs that have gone on to become Executive Chefs or Chef Owners in their own right. One colleague that I am very proud of opened his own restaurant three years ago and he recently received his first Michelin Star. Hopefully, someone will have a job for this Old Man when I need one.
Take an active role in an organization that can help you continue your education and network with professionals that can help that process.
In my case, I serve as the Past President and now Chairman of the Board of the American Culinary Federation’s Windy City Professional Culinarians in Chicago.
By being a part of the ACF locally and nationally, you will meet professionals who can help you through their experience. You will realize, if you haven’t already, that this industry is a small world.
This all leads us to your future and your career. Hopefully you are leaving today and walking into a new position tomorrow. No matter where you are in your career search, look for the right fit – a job where you can grow and have stability.
Find that Chef who can provide the tools for your continued growth and the experience that will make you a better culinarian.
Look for the opportunity to work next to other people that share the same vision you have – to be the best.
Remember, take advantage of every opportunity to show the Chef that hired you that he or she made the right decision.
Anticipate your opportunities to show your creativity and passion for your profession. A major holiday is forthcoming and your restaurant will be busy, take the time to create and write down some menu ideas to present to your Chef.
This will show you are a pro-active individual.
But, there is one thing, don’t do it the week before the holiday but possibly four to six weeks prior.
The timing will possibly allow your Chef to utilize your ideas and not just push them to the side because the Chef says the menu is already written. And believe it or not, spelling does count!
Before you accept a job, do your homework, search the internet and find out as much as you can about the property, the chef, the community.
Ask to do a stage and learn first-hand about the work environment.
And know how many ounces in a gallon….I enjoy quizzing graduates on their first day. Also, bring a few band aids.
When you get that new job, you will quickly realize that if you want to get ahead, you will continue to learn whenever you can. Come in early, stay late, make sacrifices and do whatever it takes to get the job done. Remember, the people you are now working with are your new work family. You will spend more time with them than your family at home. Think about that.
In today’s world, you definitely need to be dedicated, make every effort to succeed and never settle for second best. But, in today’s world, you also will experience greater pressure to strike the balance between your personal and work responsibilities, (Pause)
THAT, is truly the challenge.
Remember, there are those chefs that can cook.
There are those chefs that can manage and
there are a few chefs that can truly cook AND manage.
Strive to be one of the few who can master both skills and strike a balance at home too.
Everyday opportunities will come along that enable you to learn something and share your knowledge with someone you work with.
As you continue your path from school and you go out into the world, show people why you decided to attend the Culinary Institute of America and set the standard in the work place for future culinarians and make a difference everyday.
To paraphrase the great scientist Albert Einstein:
"Try not to become a man or woman of success, but a man or woman of value … get more out of life than you put in.
A person of value gives more than he receives."
Thank you for allowing me to a part of your celebration today. Remember, you are graduating today to take the next step in your career, but you are still CIA and this will always be home and I am truly pleased to be home today.
Thank you and Congratulations graduates!