|With his chefs after defeating Morimoto on Iron Chef|
First, I would like to thank Principal Daher for bestowing this honor upon me. When my wife of 18 years, Cristina Echiverri first forwarded an email informing me that I had been chosen for this distinction, I have to admit, I thought it was a joke. Clearly, somewhere along the line, the administration had lost my high school transcripts. After a few emails back and forth it became clear that the administration wasn't joking. So now that I'm here, 26 years after graduation, what should I tell you that might be of use? Perhaps we should start here in the halls of HoVal.
I've already made it clear that I was not what one might call a model student. My GPA would have made a great ERA, but alas, we're not talking about baseball. There were subjects taught here at HoVal that interested me, like English and History, there were teachers, like Jim Byrnes who knew how to inspire me, but to be frank, I just didn't apply myself. The benefit of hindsight has made me realize that this was a mistake. I'm sure that there are some of you listening to me right now, who are bored with school, you're smart enough to be successful, but utterly disinterested. I would like to say to you that your best course of action is to stay engaged, stay involved and don't let these years pass without giving high school your best effort.
|Michael delivers commencement address at the |
Culinary Institute of America in 2011
I graduated in 1987 without much of a plan. I had always liked eating and grew up a fan of Julia Child and so I thought I would give professional cooking a go. Through my aunt I was able to set up an apprenticeship at a French bakery in Bethesda, Maryland. From there I moved back to Hopewell and was lucky enough to land a job at the Forager House in New Hope, Pennsylvania, just across the river from Titusville. It was one of the best restaurants in the area, and one that I had been to several times growing up. Once, at the age of 11 or 12 I was brought back into the cramped kitchen of the Forager House to meet the Chef, Richard Burrows. It seems I had impressed the Maitre d with my knowledged of French food, all learned watching Julia Child on PBS. Little did I know that years later I would find a mentor in Chef Barrows in that very same kitchen. Cooking in professional kitchens turned out to be the perfect fit for a young person like myself. The first few years of my career were some of the most exciting years of my life. I learned something every day, a new technique, a new skill, a new recipe. I thrived on the excitement of cooking in professional kitchens. I learned about the history of fine cuisine. I learned about language and culture, the history of ingredients, great chefs and great nations. I found that to learn about the Cuisine of Italy or France or Japan is to learn something of their culture, their language, their people and their history. It was all learning all the time. I loved it then and I still do. I continue to learn something new every day and I am so thankful to have found and fell in love with the Craft that is Cooking. The most important things that I've learned are the things I've learned about myself. I learned that that I did have the ability to be a good student and that I have abilities that didn't reveal themselves while in high school.
The recipe for success in school and success in the professional world share many similar ingredients such as hard work, dedication, perseverance and planning. My shortcomings in high school fell away as I entered professional kitchens and later as a student at the Culinary Institute of America. I became the type of student I should and could have been all along. The difference was me, I decided that school was important to me, worthy of my full effort and key to my future. Once I made my culinary education a priority my life and my career came into focus. Since graduating from school I have cooked in new York, Paris, Seoul and Japan, I have cooked for 4 presidents and Pope John Paul the 2nd. My wife Cristina and I have opened 2 successful restaurants in LA, where we employ over 200 people and we've had two beautiful children, Isabella and Dante. I can tell you without reservation, none of this would have been possible were it not for education. The education I speak of I received, for the most part, on the job in fine kitchens under the tutelage of great chefs. Education is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as follows: the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially by a school or university If there is one message that I can get across to you today it would be this; Life is an education, every hour of every day you are surrounded by knowledge. Don't squander opportunities to learn and make the most of the opportunities presented to you here at Hopewell Valley Central High School. (all emphases mine)One of the highlights of the evening for me was that Michael was introduced by my mentor, my high school art teacher, Dr. Robert O'Boyle. Without a word of a lie, were it not for Dr. O'Boyle (back then he was just Mr. O'Boyle) I would not have gone to college right out of high school. Like Michael, I was heading toward graduation with no real plan. Dr. O'Boyle and my mom practically tackled me and made me fill out an application to art school. I filled out one application, and one application only, and much to my surprise I was accepted.
Once I was accepted I think I just figured I might as well go...
Talking with Dr. O'Boyle last night was incredibly moving. He remains one of my biggest supporters and believers in my talent, which is touching beyond words. He came bearing a gift for me of a drawing pad and art supplies, intended to remind me of my talent and to continue to nurture it.
He told us that in one of his classes yesterday, after the assembly where Michael delivered his speech, one of his students remarked that hearing Michael's story made him realize that maybe there were more possibilities open to him than he had realized.
And to me, that's the crux.
This cockamamie idea that state Departments of Education can assess college and career readiness in kids as young as Kindergarten is, in my opinion, reckless and destructive. To tell a student they are not college or career ready at ANY point in their academic life is simply wrong. You never know when someone will begin to make that journey, and no one should be penalized for not doing it soon enough to please the a bureaucrat in Trenton.
Life is full of twists and turns. It is the role of schools and educators to be a constant source of knowledge, wonder and encouragement, like Dr. O'Boyle. A constant force for good, creating lifelong learners, pushing students to push themselves and be their best.
But ultimately the drive has to come from within, and it simply can not be assessed or measured.
To believe it can be is the folly of fools.