I have spoken at a number of commencements over the years, but never one at a cooking school. With the speech came an honorary degree from L’Ecole Culinaire. Whoopee! Other colleges only gave me an honorary doctorate, but now I have a culinary degree! That’s something I can hang on my kitchen wall and point to when I burn the carrots. Hmmm. . . you suppose I can attach “chef” to my name and give more authority to my food blogging? Probably not.
In case you’d like to read my commencement speech (and who doesn’t like to read commencement speeches in their spare time?), here it is:
L’Ecole Culinaire Commencement 2015
I am deeply grateful for this fine honor and for the chance to celebrate this day of achievement with you. You’ve earned one of the most prestigious degrees in the culinary world. You’ve met the strenuous requirements of L’Ecole Culinaire, which tells me that you have the talent, temperament and training to be a successful professional. But I caution you to remember what Chef Fernand Point, once said, “In all profession, but certainly in cooking, one is a student all his life.”
My interest in cooking did not come early in life. It didn’t come until I got my first cook book as a wedding gift. It was the Betty Crocker Cookbook, the one with the red and white checkerboard cover. Back then, there were no food blogs; no Martha Stewart or Emeril Lagasse or Guy Fiere to encourage us in the kitchen. Housewives relied on cook books, food magazines, and 3×5 cards with handwritten recipes.
I looked at my old cookbook recently. There were two pages that were heavily stained. They featured the recipes for Italian meatballs and one for lasagna– the first items I learned to cook as a new bride. Beside the meatballs, I had written, “add a smidgen of nutmeg.” It was advice I’d gotten from an old, Italian woman whose meatballs I admired greatly and still cook today.
On the lasagna recipe, I’d crossed out the ricotta cheese and written cottage cheese, obviously because ricotta wasn’t available in the grocery stores of the small town where I lived in the late 50s.
Looking back, I realize how much change has taken place in the kitchens of America. In my life time, the pressure cooker came into being, fell out of favor, and has now returned. When I look back on the generations of cooks in my family, I recall a similar evolution. My grandmother cooked mostly with fresh ingredients or from the many Mason jars sitting on her pantry shelf. She got her poultry and eggs fresh from the hen house and her fish from a nearby river.
In my mother’s era, she bought most of her groceries at a super market, still kept a can of bacon grease on the stove, but rejected the new cake mixes and made everything from scratch. We ate Jello salads, iceberg lettuce wedges, and something called creamed chipped beef on toast. (You don’t see that on menus anymore.)
When I Cooked Each Day for Seven
During my time as a cook for a family of seven, the casserole dish became popular. The tastiest were laden with cream soups, sour cream, butter, cream cheese, and mayonnaise. More processed foods began showing up on grocery shelves and freezer section—many of them with ingredients we couldn’t pronounce. After we had mastered all those casserole recipes, the alarm bells began to sound. Doctors warned us that we were clogging our arteries and needed to change our eating habits. That’s been a long and ongoing transition. Besides containing calories and cholesterol, those food contained memories. They were hard to part with.
But today my daughter, and daughters-in-law and sons cook with those new ideas in mind. I’m learning from them to cook with quinoa, kale, and chickpeas. To eat yogurt and drink smoothies and pomegranate juice. I’m learning to flavor more with fresh herbs and spices, and umami and less with fat and sugar and to make my own broth and salad dressings. We’re discovering that food can taste good and still be good for you. We’re returning to simple, fresh, organic, and locally produced foods—foods that my grandmother would have been comfortable with. Yes, tastes and trends are evolving and techniques and menus are reflecting those new choices.
A Word of Advice
Though I’m not a James Beard award winner, I would venture to pass on one bit of advice to you today as you take up the skillet and spatula as a profession. As you cook in the evolving kitchen of the 21st century, I think the advice of John Wesley, a Methodist minister from nearly 300 years ago, is still good today. He said, “Do your part to improve the present moment.” You never know what challenge the present moment will bring—especially in a kitchen.
So in addition to having your ingredients in place—the first thing you learned to do here at L’Ecole—it’s important to have your attitude in place, your head and heart in place. Don’t bring just your apron and knives to work—anybody can do that. Bring integrity, creativity, curiosity. Bring a team spirit. These are the things that will set you apart in your profession. Julia Child put it this way: “The main thing is to have a gutsy approach and use your head.” That’s good advice for any time and place.
Anyone who has worked in a kitchen very long has a horror story to tell, but one that they learned from. Let me end, by telling you mine. In the 90’s, I was First Lady for eight years, living at the Governor’s Mansion. We had a professional chef and kitchen crew made up of inmates from the state prison. We served hundreds of formal and informal meals every year.
But one day we made a terrible blunder. A staff member accidently scheduled three events simultaneously. I was in the embarrassing position of having to call up two of those groups and break the news that their much anticipated lunch at the old, Victorian mansion was not possible. I talked to our chef. I said, “Jerry, we need to cancel two of the events. Which do you suggest?”
He said, “Let me think about it.” Later that day, he came to my office and said, “Mrs. Carnahan, I think we can do all three.”
I said, “Are you out of your mind. There’s never been three events held here at the same time. It can’t be done.”
He said, “Well, if we do one event on the first floor, one on the second, and the other on the third, we can make it work. I talked with the guys in the kitchen and they want to give it a try.”
I said, “This could be a terrible disaster with a lot of unhappy people. The logistic of moving food from the kitchen to all those floors, is going to be mind boggling.”
He said, “We’ll keep the menu simple and serve everyone the same thing. And we’ll do some practice runs on food service.” By that time I was willing to do anything to avoid those phone calls.
To make a long story short, after serving all three groups and seeing the last person, happily, out the door, we gave ourselves a round of applause and collapsed on the Victorian furniture in the Parlor. We had seen an extraordinary display of teamwork, a time when each person determined to meet the challenge of the present moment.
Wherever you land, whatever your role is in the kitchen, do your part to improve the present moment. It’s those many moments that add up to a life time and make a difference in who you are and what you’re able to accomplish.
When faced with a challenging moment, you have three choices: give up, give in, or give it all you’ve got. Give it all you’ve got!
And when things go wrong (and they most certainly will sometime), remember what Julia Child said: “With enough butter, you can make anything taste good.”
Jean Carnahan, 2015