The big day. The moment you spend so much time working towards. So much sweat. So many burns and cuts. The sore feet. The stress. Suddenly it’s all worth it because you’re at graduation.
Held at the picturesque Macky Auditorium on CU Boulder Campus, graduation was a much grander affair than I expected. To be honest, I don’t usually care much for these kinds of things. I skipped my own college graduation in lieu of job hunting, and the only reason I attended my graduation from Boot Camp and from the Defense Language Institute is because I was ordered to. But I am glad I attended this one, as it held more in store for me than just waiting in line to receive a piece of paper.
It was an emotional day for me. The people I went through the pastry arts program with are some of the best and brightest people I’ve ever met in my life. You’ve already met Genevieve and Rose (and will hopefully be meeting Amanda Simon this month, if I can find the time to coordinate an interview with her). Meeting with them and catching back up was a treat I’m not often afforded these days.
I also got to see Chef Suzanne, my chef instructor for fundamentals way back in August of last year. Chef Suzanne is easily one of the best people I’ve ever met, and the degree to which she roots for my classmates and me is very touching. (More on this later).
The keynote address was done by Chef Ann Cooper. If your child happens to attend school in Colorado, chances are fair she’s been responsible for some of the meals they have eaten in the past school year. I’ll be honest, when I saw her name on the program booklet, I had no idea who she was. I had some time, so I googled her and she is a fascinating person. If you have a moment, look her up.
She gave a rousing speech about raising the quality of food in the American school system. Having grown up with “pizza” made of leftover hot dog buns, canned tomato puree, and cheese, her words had a more profound effect on me than I expected, and I was inspired. I don’t yet know what exactly I can do in order to take part in her movement, but it will be in the back of my mind forever now.
The faculty address was given by Chef Dan Widmann. The structure of his speech was given in the form of a “recipe for success” as a culinary professional. As a writer, I must admit this structure made me roll my eyes at first, but he used it as the backbone for a very heartfelt speech about what graduates can do in order to succeed now that they have the bedrock of an education to build on. It’s not often that I can go from rolling my eyes to choked up in the course of one speech, but Chef Dan made it happen.
Chef Dan was our instructor for several weeks, and my fondest memory is of him walking us through cakes, tarts, and decorating. As someone who is artistically challenged, the tricks he showed us to make your cakes look professional and impressive without needing a BFA haven taken me quite far already, and I’ve only just graduated! Chef Dan has an impressive resume and is a wonderful teacher whose mantra in class (“breathe and relax…breathe and relax…”) has also gotten me through some difficult times, not just in the kitchen, but in life.
The real inspiration came in the form of our student speaker, Tom Babler. He spoke of humility, hard work, and honesty, but the part of his speech that really got me choked up was his personal story. Having turned his back on a 17 year career as a truck driver, he left his family behind for the better part of a year to follow his dream of becoming a culinary professional. I used to think Tressa and I were being courageous, giving up a six year career in military intelligence to pursue our dreams, but he has us beat by a long shot.
The most moving moment of his speech was when he emphasized that “dreams don’t have an expiration date.” When I was knee deep in Calc 2, miserable because I hated the subject matter I was making myself study, I found myself lying on the floor of our living room on the verge of tears, and all I kept saying to myself was “I was too old to change careers. This was so stupid!” Without Tressa’s support, I probably would’ve kept up the slog. Hearing him speak at the ceremony was a confirmation that not only was my decision a good one, but changing careers when you’re “too old” isn’t stupid so long as you’re switching to something you’re passionate about.
I know it seems like there was a lot in the way of inspiration that day, but I discovered more. Towards the end of the ceremony, Paul Ryan, the president of the school, made a comment more or less in passing that graduates should stay in touch with the school, and that the staff at Escoffier likes things to be “like a family.” I’ve been to more commencement ceremonies than I can remember, and I’m familiar with most of the pleasantries and tropes of the speeches given at events like this. But this was the first time anyone had encouraged the student body to remain part of the family.
After the ceremony, when Chef Suzanne and Chef Kelly came around to congratulate us and Chef Suzanne took me to task for working myself too hard, the family vibe really hit home. My family didn’t come to my Pastry Arts graduation, but with the friends I’ve made since starting at Escoffier, they didn’t really need to.