Cooking Up Resilience: How Five Culinary School Graduates Turned Challenges into Triumphs

Stories of resilience, overcoming self-doubt, and pushing past barriers from five inspirational Escoffier graduates. Get motivated to pursue your goals!

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May 26, 2023 11 min read

Escoffier’s students and graduates come from all walks of life. From recent high school graduates to military veterans. From experienced cooks and chefs to single parents who dream of running a home-based bakery.

Through the Escoffier blog and The Ultimate Dish podcast, we aim to share some of the inspirational stories from this diverse community. Get a peek into the minds of five recent Escoffier graduates, and find out how they’ve overcome obstacles to pursue their passions!

The Power of Saying “Yes”

Food stylist and Escoffier graduate Lisa Spychala’s story could have played out very differently if she didn’t make a habit of saying “yes.”

Working as an associate producer for television lifestyle segments, she was involved in arranging shoots for chefs that showcased their food. During her early days in the industry, a food stylist would usually come on board to set up the plates for the shoot. But when the 2008 recession hit, her company was tightening its belt wherever it could, and expensive food stylists had to go.

So when Lisa’s boss turned to her and said, “Oh, Lisa, you could food style,” she accepted the challenge.

That decision set her off on the path of professional food styling—a path she’s been walking for over 14 years. She’s worked with celebrity chefs including Anne Burrell, Carla Hall, Aaron Sanchez, and many more. She even made a commercial with Freddie Prinze Jr. and competed on Food Network’s Chopped!

It was during her time on Chopped that she realized she still had a lot to learn. And that realization led her to Escoffier’s online culinary arts program. Now that she has that formal education, she feels more confident that her food styling is both delicious and beautiful.

Escoffier student Lisa adding seasoning to a salad in a wood bowl

Lisa Spychala working on her Escoffier coursework from her home kitchen.

Lisa credits being a “yes” person with her success. “Saying yes, within reason, opens up so many doors,” she says. “It eventually made me indispensable to a company that needed to downsize. They couldn’t get rid of me because I was doing too many jobs.”*

Lisa Spychala“When it comes to work, I always tell younger people that I’m a ‘yes’ person. When my boss asked me, ‘Can you food style?’ my whole life would have been different if I’d said, ‘No. I’m not doing that.’”*
Lisa Spychala, Escoffier Online Culinary Arts Graduate & Food Stylist

Get Lisa’s full story—and see some of her food styling work!

Finding the Right Environment Can Make All the Difference

Escoffier Graduate and pastry chef Cassie Wallace wasn’t “supposed” to be able to do a lot of things. Diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder at the age of 8, she has difficulty recognizing and interpreting sounds, especially in a noisy background. So her doctor told her that many normal childhood activities, like sports and music, wouldn’t be available to her.

But Cassie refused to be defined by these limitations. With a little individualized help, she was able to succeed in school and even earn her black belt in Tang Soo Do.

As an adult, she loved to bake. But with her auditory difficulties, she wasn’t sure if a restaurant would be a good fit. Still, she had a knack for making delicious baked goods. And when she learned that Escoffier had online baking and pastry programs, she was convinced that this was her next move. The hands-on nature of the program—combined with learning from home with minimal background noise—made online school a natural fit.

Cassie Wallace explains how her disability didn’t hold her back during baking school at Escoffier.

Since graduating, Cassie has found a job she loves at boutique bakery Shyndigz in Richmond, VA. Working as a baker and shift lead for their onsite market, she’s found that her disability didn’t hold her back—because she was able to find the right education and work environments that play to her strengths.*

Cassie Wallace“Find your niche. Because if you find that niche, you’ll go places. I found my passion, and I was able to leave my old job… Now I’m living my best life. Play to your strengths, because you will succeed in life.”*
Cassie Wallace, Escoffier Online Baking & Pastry Graduate

Learn more about how baking helped Cassie find her way!

“Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough

Social worker Chris Marhevka already had a successful career well in hand. With a master’s degree in social work, he helps to guide people through difficult times in their lives. He loved his career. But after the COVID-19 pandemic, he was feeling burnt out and needed something more.

“I still love social work,” he says, “but I knew that I needed to switch up my life somehow and bring a little more balance into my life, a little more levity.”*

Chris wasn’t content to settle for a “good enough” life. He had always loved cooking, so he decided to see what was down the culinary career road. He enrolled in culinary school at Escoffier’s Boulder campus and relocated to Colorado. At school, he found students of all ages and all experience levels. Cooking alongside students just out of high school, he wondered if it was too late for him to succeed in culinary school. But he realized that he was on his own timeline, and his energy and enthusiasm for food were all he needed to get him through.

Chef Instructor standing next to a student demonstrating whole-hog butchery

Chris Marhevka watches Chef Instructor Julia Wolfe demonstrate breaking down a hog.

For his externship, Chris found a position at French fine dining restaurant La Marmotte in Telluride. And he was chosen to speak at Escoffier’s November 2022 graduation.*

Chris hasn’t given up social work. But now he has that creative outlet that he was looking for, through his food blog Cook Until Brown. And he envisions a future where he can work in food media, helping other people of color in the culinary world to make their voices heard.

Chris Marhevka“I wanted to make the most of my life, and I didn’t want any sort of aspirations to go unspoken and unexplored. I figured now is the time to put it into action. So here I am.”*
Chris Marhevka, Escoffier Culinary Arts Student, Boulder

Learn more about Chris’ time at Escoffier and his plans for the future!

Confidence Comes From Taking Action

As high school graduation day approached, Oscar Beltran found he couldn’t get as excited about the prospect of the traditional college experience as his fellow students. Was college really the right choice? Or was he just feeling pressured by the crowd?

When the COVID-19 pandemic kept him home during his senior year, Oscar realized that what really made him happy was spending time in the kitchen. So just after graduation, he enrolled in Escoffier’s Associate of Occupational Studies Degree in Culinary Arts in Boulder.

Suddenly, 18-year-old Oscar found himself immersed in the world of food—along with a substantially older student body. Most Escoffier students are 25 or older. He kept to himself at first, intimidated by the age gap. But his Chef Instructors drew him out of his shell. “I learned that communication is super important,” he says. “I emailed a lot of the teachers secretly because I was too afraid to ask for help in front of the classroom. They would….[require me] to ask them in person instead. That was their plan to get me to communicate more.”

And as he opened up, he found himself connecting more with his older classmates.

Oscar and another escoffier student put soup into bowls

Oscar and a fellow student at Escoffier’s Boulder campus.

When it came time to choose his externship, Oscar cast a wide net. He found that he had a relative that worked at Moon Palace Resorts in Cancun—although they had never before. This kind relative helped Oscar to secure an externship at fine dining spot Los Caporales at the resort, and even gave him a place to stay during his placement.

The position took hard work. Oscar had to leave long before the sun rose to reach the resort by 5:00 am., and he pulled shifts at both Los Caporales and the hotel café. But he brought his Escoffier education with him and excelled in the kitchen! He even competed in an al pastor taco competition among the resort chefs—and won.

Oscar Beltran“The risk I took [doing my externship in] Cancun and joining that competition was amazing. I learned so much and met all kinds of new people and chefs.”*
Oscar Beltran, Escoffier Boulder Culinary Arts Graduate

Oscar has come so far—from a shy 18-year-old student to an international cook on his way to great things. It’s been such a joy to see his confidence grow, and we look forward to watching his career!

Discover more about Oscar’s Escoffier experience and his time in Cancun!

“Your Mind Is the Strongest Muscle”

U.S. Army veteran Tiffany Moore found herself in a tough spot. Medically retired from the army at just 29 after a spinal injury suffered in Kuwait, she was told that her dream of one day starting a culinary career was off the table. An injury that at first seemed minor had escalated until she was experiencing episodes of paralysis. Two surgeries helped, but she still experiences frequent pain. Long hours in the kitchen, bending, twisting, and lifting heavy objects created too strong a risk of re-injuring her back. So the VA told her culinary school was off the table.

She was devastated. But a chance Instagram ad for Escoffier’s online culinary programs turned things around. ??“I received it as a message from God, from the Universe,”* she says. And within 48 hours, she was enrolled. Completing school from home gave Tiffany the opportunity to get her education while also looking after her health. She could sit if necessary, take a break, stretch—whatever she needed.

Culinary student sitting outside wearing a red and white shirt with the Escoffier logo

Tiffany Moore at a Farm to Table® event during culinary school at Escoffier.

Tiffany graduated from Escoffier with honors and was also chosen to speak at her graduation ceremony. Since then, she’s been working at her family’s catering business, Event Hall @ Cascade. She’s also working on opening her own restaurant, a farm-to-table concept in Atlanta that celebrates Black food history called Lola Pecan. In fact, she’s won three major grants totaling $45,000 to help fund her restaurant!

Faced with surgeries, chronic pain, and being told “no,” Tiffany had to ask herself, “Are you limited by your mind? Or is your mind limitless?”* She had to push through what she was being told and believe that she was on the right track. “I feel that my purpose in this universe is to feed life,” she says. “And this is what helped me get through my issues in life.”*

Escoffier online culinary arts graduate Tiffany Moore“Your mind is the strongest muscle in your body. It controls everything you do along with your nervous system. So if you lose the mental race, everything else goes away. But if you can stay mentally strong, you can get through anything in life.”*
Tiffany Moore, Escoffier Online Culinary Arts Graduate and U.S. Army Veteran

Learn more about Tiffany in her spotlight story or The Ultimate Dish podcast.

What’s Your Inspirational Story?

While the details in each of these stories vary, they all have something in common. Each of these graduates stepped out of their comfort zone and tried something new when they enrolled in culinary school. From embarking on second careers to facing chronic injury, these inspirational students took a leap.

What could be on the other side of that leap for you?

We’d like to help you find out. Contact our Admissions Department to find out more about Escoffier’s on-campus and online programs, and get closer to writing your own inspirational story!

For more inspirational student stories, try these articles next!

*This information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors such as geographical region or previous experience.

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