Wolfgang Puck Inspires First Los Angeles Campus Graduates
The Institute of Culinary Education's LA campus hosted its first graduation commencement on June 3, 2019, with keynote speaker Wolfgang Puck.
Under the sunny California sky, families, friends and supporters filled the Pasadena Playhouse courtyard in anticipation of ICE LA’s first commencement early Monday evening. The processional of 2018-2019 graduates secured their toques and joined a packed theater, where they were greeted by applause from the audience, faculty and administration, from the mezzanine to the stage.
ICE President and CEO Rick Smilow kicked off the event with an address highlighting the diverse student body, from former hip hop dancer Emma Winkler, who graduated with dual diplomas, to Jose Pagani Garcia, a former Apple product designer who completed the Restaurant & Culinary Management program, to Culinary Arts graduate Javier Menendez, who earned an externship at three-Michelin-starred ABaC in Barcelona.
"Keep your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground," Rick advised, as he wished the graduates good luck.
Los Angeles Campus President Lachlan Sands and alum Matthew Leung (Culinary, '19) spoke on the importance of balance, mental health, community and overall happiness in the restaurant industry. “We as an industry are terrific at caring for our guests, but we are not nearly as good at looking after ourselves and each other,” Chef Sands said. “We are handing over the reins of our industry to you, and your choices will take it to even greater heights. I truly believe that we as an industry are in good hands. Your hands.”
Matthew, a commis at The French Laundry, shared how he tried out a number of careers before he was hospitalized with an autoimmune disease in 2017. Once he regained his health, Matthew realized that life was too short to let his dreams of becoming a chef die, which led him to ICE's #CulinaryVoice scholarship contest.
“There may be moments that discourage us from pressing on, but in those moments, the fact that you are sitting in these seats today should never be seen as a mistake,” he told his fellow graduates. “Even the harvest of a season of stagnancy can yield life-changing fruit. You each have a story that only your voice can tell. So press on and stay hungry.”
The iconic chef, restaurateur and chairman of Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide echoed their remarks in his keynote. “We have to find a mentor, somebody for us to look up to,” Chef Wolfgang advised. “[Chef Raymond Thuilier] made the difference for me. Against all odds, despite what everyone told me (that I was good for nothing), all of a sudden, I found somebody who believed in me.”
Chef Wolfgang told the story of his remarkable journey, from apprenticing in Austria as a young boy to cooking for Hollywood’s elite, reminding graduates that many opportunities will present themselves, but super-stardom does not happen overnight.
“All of you out there, you have to be patient, you have to learn,” he emphasized. “I learned mostly in France how to cook. When I came to America, it enabled me to make a great French restaurant at Ma Maison, open Spago with Italian influence, and we changed how people thought about pizza. Everyone came to Spago to eat pizza with smoked salmon and caviar — so we have changed the way America eats ... but you are the future. You are who are going to make this country the number one country in the food industry, the number one country in restaurants, the number one country for chefs all over the world.”
Chef Wolfgang’s final words reflected his own perseverance: “Don’t forget: Never take no for an answer,” he said. “If I would have taken no for an answer, I probably would have been down the river. Today I have a wonderful family with four kids. I love what I do, I have a big business, but I consider it a family business, and to me, there’s nothing better than looking out at the next generation.”
The students that received diplomas now work at a wide range of restaurants, culinary establishments and food media, such as Spago, Otono, Milk Bar, Dominique Ansel, Rossoblu, Night + Market, Destroyer, The French Laundry and Tastemade. Congratulations to the first classes of graduates at our Los Angeles campus. You can download photos from the celebration on Facebook at @iceculinary and watch the recap video below.
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