STLMAG.com had this to say about Chef Ziegenfuss’ commencement speech to the 2012 graduates of L’ECOLE CULINAIRE:
Editor’s Note: The following is the text of a commencement speech, written by Greg Ziegenfuss for the 2012 graduates at L’Ecole Culinaire-St. Louis. Ziegenfuss is delivering the speech at the time of this posting, Sunday, June 10, 11 a.m. Highlights have been underlined.
Ziegenfuss, a native St. Louisan, attended the Culinary Institute of America-Hyde Park, where he graduated first in his class. He is the Executive Chef and Vice President of Operations at the Butler’s Pantry, a major catering company in St. Louis.
I am honored to be a part of this exciting day, celebrating your graduation and the beginning of your chosen careers as Culinary Professionals. This excellent school has given you the basics, the tools, and the foundation you need to move forward with your career. Many of you came here with little or no experience; for some of you this is a second career, a new beginning. When you began, you were diamonds in the rough. Your chef instructors started fresh, then, polished you and even chiseled you. But you are hardly ready to be put into a ring; you now have to do the work in order to truly shine. Your careers are just beginning. Every day is a new day. Be hungry, strive to be the best and the brightest.
It is an exciting time to be a Culinary Professional. When I began my career, there was a perception that the only persons working in restaurants, hotels or catering were unable to succeed at anything else. Today, if you are willing to work hard, continue to learn and hone your skills, you will be regarded with high esteem by both your peers and the dining public.
Keep in mind that you are professionals, and as such, you should look the part and behave like the professionals you are, especially when wearing your uniform. Keep your shoes shined, your pants and jackets clean, pressed and buttoned up. Remember it only takes a few moments each day to look like a professional chef; however, it will take you years of hard work, studying, successes and failures before you will be chefs.
Always remember the basics: hot food hot, cold food cold. This school has taught you the fundamentals like sautéing, grilling, roasting, braising, garde manger, baking, knife cuts, cost control, sanitation, purchasing, and basic management techniques. It is now your job to perfect these skills, broaden your knowledge, and experiment with different cuisines. However, when experimenting, remember it is important to know your audience. Food should be interesting, approachable and recognizable.
Embrace cultures and cuisines which are different from your own. Travel. When you are in Rome, eat and drink like the Romans do. I have, in the past 35 years, been all around this world of ours. I have eaten octopus in Brazil and abalone in New Zealand. I assisted butchering a hog in Germany which we then roasted over a spit all day. I have eaten a brain sandwich in South St. Louis and haggis in Scotland. The list goes on. The point is try everything, and anything you can; you will not know what it tastes like or if you like it unless you try it. With the Internet, the Food Channel, and international travel being so commonplace, the dining public is more culinarily educated and familiar with exotic foods and cuisines from around the world than ever before.
Choose wisely for whom you work. Become part of a winning team and work together with your team mates. Choosing and being on a winning team will make you and your employer money. Your employer should be fair, honest and respectful of you and your family, and you owe it to them to be the same. While money is important, so is being happy. Just ask Albert Pujols. Don’t confuse being comfortable with happiness; be sure you are being challenged and have ample opportunities for advancement.
Learn to communicate in a professional manner with everyone in the kitchen. The days of the screaming, cussing, pot-throwing chefs are behind us. Treat your associates and underlings as you would like to be and deserve to be treated. Treat everyone professionally and with respect and they will do the same for you.
Google is as important as the Mother Sauces. When I was in culinary school and one of our chef instructors assigned us to research muligatawny soup, it took me three hours in the library to find and research it. Today, most of you have a hand-held device that you can use to search the Internet and you can get this information in mere minutes. Use this tool, as well as the countless web sites and food blogs to your advantage.
Be aware of your online presence. If you wouldn’t say something to the face of your mother, father, grandma, employer, husband or wife, or allow them to see a questionable picture of you in person, do not post it on Facebook, tweet about it or post it on a blog. We live in a very small cyber world.
Alcohol is a beautiful thing. The basis for the best sauces is wine, fortified wine, cognac, brandy, eau di vie, or hard liquor. Food is meant to be paired with fine wines, even beer or occasionally a cocktail. Unwind with an adult beverage, enjoy a cocktail or two after work but do not let it become a crutch or a problem. I have seen many promising careers derailed because of alcohol abuse.
Utilize all of your senses in the kitchen: sight, sound, taste, smell and texture. You need to see everything going on around you. Observe others and learn from their actions. Listen for the familiar sounds in the kitchen, they almost become like music. The popping of French beans being blanched, the sizzle when a piece of chicken is placed in a sauté pan, or the hum of a freezer running properly. Train your sense of smell. Learn to recognize and identify distinct smells. Bacon smells one way when perfectly cooked and another when burnt. Learn to recognize these, and all distinctly different smells. Taste everything! Know what something should taste like even if you do not like it. Never say to me “I do not eat this.” You must be willing to try everything! I am not a fan of hollandaise; however, I can make a perfect hollandaise that will rival any in town. I will make it, taste it, adjust the seasoning, acidity, and texture, re-taste and it will be perfect. Become familiar with umami and know which foods are rich in this taste sensation. If you are unfamiliar with umami, Google it.
Sanitation is as important as anything we do in the kitchen. We have a duty to serve the public safe, wholesome food. The health inspector is your partner. Work with them, listen to what they say. Their job is to work with you to ensure the food we serve is safe and wholesome.
Being green is not just a buzz word. Recycle, reuse, compost. Do not waste gas, electricity or water. Not only will you save money, you will be helping to ensure there are ample resources for future generations.
Be fair to your purveyors and suppliers. Buy locally when possible and when it makes sense for your business. Remember that your suppliers are your partners, and while you must demand the freshest, highest-quality products at the best price, remember they too are in business to make money and, for you to succeed, so must they.
You must learn from all of your experiences, positive and negative. You must constantly sharpen yourself, be it through hands-on training, continuing education, travel, periodicals, cook books, or the Internet. You must remember that even the sharpest knife will become dull and virtually useless if not sharpened regularly.
Good luck, work hard, be passionate about food and prosper!