By Brianna Chu
When I approached the Pasadena Playhouse early Monday evening, the air was abuzz with conversation and laughter; graduands’ family and friends were standing as close to the front doors of Playhouse as they could, arms full of flowers and balloons, waiting to celebrate their graduands.
The Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) welcomed a wonderfully diverse group of 112 students as its first West Coast graduates. ICE president and CEO, Rick Smilow, thanked the friends and family in the audience for their support of the class, adding that he hoped that the students paid them in food….and that the food tasted better at the end of the school year than the beginning of it. He took the time to recognize the range of backgrounds in the class – from race, age, experience, and even geography (some students moved from different states to study at ICE in Pasadena!) – in his commencement speech. Some of the Class of 2019 worked in entirely different fields before pursuing the culinary passions, from hip-hop dancer to a product designer for Apple to compliance officer for a bank, the latter of which was the case for the class’ speaker, Matthew Leung. There were a few sets of siblings who studied together, and a husband and wife duo, too. Smilow advised the graduands to prioritize teamwork, and define success for themselves, comparing their growth to the chef they were yesterday rather than against other people’s.
In a stirring speech, Campus president Lachlan Sands encouraged the graduands to take their careers and their lives into their own hands, especially in an industry that “glamorizes long hours and unnecessary sacrifice” and describes “sixteen hour shifts and putting aside personal lives” as “paying your dues.” Chefs have more power and are more in demand now than ever before, Sands reminded the graduands, and he urged them to choose employers that will treat them like human beings, and not commodities – “demand a better experience” – and to treat their peers similarly. “How can we serve our guests and customers with kindness,” he asked, “if we do not treat ourselves and our team with care and respect?” Looking out at the class, he told them confidently that he knew their decisions will make the food industry better.
Class of 2019 graduate Matthew Leung described three life-changing moments that led him from an office in a bank to graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education after earning himself a scholarship in a national amateur cooking competition (and starting his career in the kitchen of the three Michelin star restaurant, The French Laundry, no less!). I will abstain from sharing details, but I appreciated his choice to conclude his touching, yet humorous speech by reminding his classmates that every single one of them had a story that only they could tell.
Special guest speaker and culinary icon, Wolfgang Puck, concluded the evening by sharing some of his journey climbing the culinary ladders both in Europe and in the United States. He detailed his very first cooking apprenticeship peeling potatoes and the refusal to accept ‘no’ for an answer that eventually got him to France, being mentored by Raymond Thuilier at L’Oustau de Baumanière before the age of 20.
The graduation was a heartwarming celebration of ICE’s first West Coast graduates. The cheering was nonstop, and names were shouted and whooped gleefully across the theater. (I have to share one adorable moment, when one graduate was walking across the stage to Sands to receive her diploma and from the back of the theater a young girl’s voice called out, “Mommy, I love you!” in what has to be the cutest graduation moment ever.) I have to say, after all those heartfelt and motivating speeches, I left honestly wondering whether I should enroll in a class at ICE myself!
Congratulations to the ICE Class of 2019, and best of luck in all of your delicious future endeavors!