Sunday, August 9, 2009

The End of the Beginning

I graduated from culinary school just over two months ago and was chosen to give the graduation speech on behalf of the entire class. Quite fitting for a first post on this blog I think.

Ferdinand Point, the chef who is considered to be the father of modern French cuisine, once said, “In all professions without doubt, but certainly in cooking, one is a student all his life.” Congratulations, my fellow graduates. Today marks the end of the beginning of that lifelong education for each one of us.

I personally feel that we are all gifted. Not only have we have found our passion so early in life but we have been lucky enough to make a career out of it. Irrespective of where we’re from, our gender, religion, race, or most importantly, whether we’re cooks or bakers, we’re all peas from the same pod. We have all spent the last two years here because of our common love for food and our passion for cooking or baking. I have never seen so many students care so much about making the most out of the money spent on their schooling as I’ve seen here at the CIA.

All of us, and I am guilty of this as well, have at one point or another wondered aloud and argued about how realistic the education we’ve received here is. To some extent, you might be right. Most caf├ęs do not have 16 people baking and making pastries in the back. Kitchen turnover in the industry may be high but fine dining French or American restaurants do not rotate through their entire kitchen and service staff every three weeks like we do here at the CIA.

But look at it this way. Having started a new class every three weeks, we students have had so many Day Ones that we could possibly adapt to virtually any kitchen or bakeshop in less than a day. As frustrating as it may have been to have had so many different chefs teach us countless different ways to do the same things, guess what?, we now know as many different ways to do those same things. We’ve even had an 18 week externship out there in the industry. In fact, just yesterday, each one of us was working as front-of –the house staff in real restaurants serving real food to real people paying real money. I think that’s realistic enough. They’ve taught us everything but the kitchen sink here—wait, I take that back, they’ve taught us that too.

I have personally witnessed several of you grow from being headless chickens with questionable knife skills and a fear of the heat to seasoned professionals with refined skills, high standards of quality, an excellent ability to work in teams, and remarkable confidence.

Most of us students have sacrificed a lot in the past 21 months or so to get to where we are today. In the midst of classes seven hours a day and five days a week, we have handled one or two or sometimes three jobs on the side, had unusually short winter and summer breaks, and missed several family events. I know it has been a tough and sometimes frustrating journey but we’ve also had our share of good times. We’ve made lasting friendships and learnt important life lessons. Our time here has been sweet, sour, bitter, sometimes salty, and of course, how could I leave this one out, umami. Graduating from this prestigious school is no small feat and I commend you all on making it this far.

This school has done a terrific job in subconsciously inculcating in us its core values of excellence, leadership, professionalism, ethics, and respect for diversity. In the past several weeks working in the restaurants on campus, we have led our stations and strived for excellence all the while maintaining these core values. Ever since I first came here to study at the CIA all the way from India two years ago, I have never felt like an outsider or been treated differently. I am quite sure that each one of you, whether from different parts of the United States or from various parts of the world, feels the same. The simple fact that you, my fellow classmates, selected me to give the student graduation address of welcome on this auspicious day shows how effectively this school instills in its students a respect for diversity, and I am very grateful for that.

It’s a peculiar profession we’re in. People come to us not because they have to but because they want to. We will soon be working over fifty hours a week in a high stress environment with hardly any pay and little time for family and friends. For what? To feed and serve other people making them happy and thereby improving their quality of life.

We chose this path knowing that the profession we’re in, or what I like to call the pressure cooker business, is not a piece of cake, and that it’s that stress that we thrive on. There are definitely going to be days when we’re tired of it all, when the physical and mental stress is so high that we almost can’t take it anymore. At times like those, we need to take a step back and remember that we’re not scientists or astronauts, but cooks, and bakers. It’s not chemicals or machines that we sell; we serve food.

And while food is so basic and necessary for sustenance that it is often taken for granted, we as cooks and bakers have the ability to take the experience of eating to a whole other level. All the time and effort we spend creating a single dish ultimately culminates in that one moment when the person we’re serving eats it. It is only our skills and our passion and love for what we do that makes it possible to provide the guest an incredible experience that is not just multi-sensory but evokes emotions and even memories of the past.. Have I already mentioned how gifted we are?

Fellow graduates, as of today, we are alumni of the best culinary school in the world. We are the cream of the crop. With that being said, our employers and fellow employees out there in the industry will expect nothing less from us and it is our responsibility to live up to the high standards that the CIA is so well known for. I am not saying that we need to bite off more than we can chew, but that we ought to constantly try and excel in this very competitive world. We are not just what we eat but what we cook, and it is what we bring to the table that will make us stand apart from the rest.

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Never bite the hand that feeds you. Don’t cry over spilt milk. Stop being a couch potato. Be the top banana. I know that none of that made much sense, but I just had all these food puns that I had to use somewhere in this speech. After all, variety is the spice of life.

I want to take this opportunity to thank a special group of people, some of whom are present here today—the parents, friends, and family of the graduates. You have supported us professionally, financially, and most importantly, emotionally. On behalf of all my fellow graduates, I thank you sincerely. My dad and mom flew in from India yesterday and I am extremely glad that they are here along with my aunt and uncle to see me graduate this morning. To my aunt Sudha and uncle Ravi who made me feel at home in a country I had never before visited, and were brave enough to eat the dubious results of my cooking experiments, thank you. To my dad who taught me to be humble and kind, and my mom who showed me that I can achieve anything I want if I’m determined enough to get it, thank you for making me who I am today and for never discouraging me from chasing my passion all the way here. I love you very much and I dedicate this speech to you.

As future culinary leaders, whether it is in restaurants, hotels, onsite foodservice, retail, R& D, or even the Food Network, we are going to have a major part in educating the public through our work and redefining the way America and the rest of the world will eat in the years to come. Standing on this podium speaking to you today, I can confidently say that the stomachs of tomorrow are in great hands. This education is the perfect mise-en-place for us as we enter the industry. But it shouldn’t end here. We should all remember Ferdinand Point’s words that we are students all our lives and continue to learn and build upon our CIA education for the rest of our careers.

It all boils down to this. We are graduating today not as chefs or managers but as qualified professional cooks and bakers with the most prestigious culinary degree in the world. My fellow graduates, lets savor this very special day and take this with a grain of salt. Eat, drink, and be merry…for tomorrow we may work.

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