This post is dedicated to my best friend at school. He comes from a completely different background than mine, he’s 18 years younger than I am, he’s 2 feet shorter than me, and he’s Indonesian. None of these contrasts matter, really, and I hope they never do.
What this young guy has that’s endlessly inspiring and amazing to me, is drive. His sole purpose in life right now is to cook. But he’s not just getting by in his classes, or merely choosing a simple, corporate externship site. Oh no, he must get straight A’s, he must master the fundamentals while keeping his sights locked on the next big move, and his externship site must be the finest restaurant.
Do you want to hang out with Henderson Wong, maybe go out for some beers late into the night? Sorry, that’s not happening, and definitely not on a weeknight. There is endless homework to be done, knives always need sharpening, the portfolio could always use a new photo, and there’s always a michelin star rated restaurant online to check out. On the weekends, he’s gone. His dad gave him a new car for getting over a 3.5 GPA last year, so he drives to New York City to work at restaurant Daniel, where he externed and was offered a job anytime he’s ready.
Hendy has willfully positioned himself here at school with great effort and strategy. He’s playing perfectly the game of becoming a great chef. Let’s look at his path so far:
1. Before he’s even 18, he starts cooking at a prestigious hotel in Indonesia, and quickly takes on management duties.
2. With no encouragement from his parents whatsoever, he researches culinary schools in North America and settles on the CIA. His dad wants him to go into business just like him. Hendy wants to cook. A battle ensues. Hendy comes out victorious. He is granted his wish to come to the CIA.
3. I plop down next to him in a small auditorium off the admissions building, a room full of strangers gathered together to begin the ceaseless torrent of paperwork and lectures that will be three full days of orientation at the CIA. He’s got his electronic pocket translator he carried with him for only three or four days until his grasp of the language was strong enough to ditch it. We start talking right away. He smells like airplane, mostly because he just got off one. A high school kid, just graduated, he hauled himself halfway around the world to come to cooking school.
I get the impression right away that this young guy can hold his own in a conversation. He speaks clearly, he listens, and responds intelligently.
4. Two days later, before classes start, I run into Henderson at the career services office. Like me, he’s already trying to get stages at great restaurants in New York. He very eloquently reveals to me his views on the food scene in Indonesia, and his goals for revolutionizing the cuisine there.
5. It turns out Hendy is in my class. He’s quiet, serious, and he has his own knives. During chef demos, he stands directly next to the stove with his lighter, he anticipates which burner the chef will use next, and just before Chef drops a pan down, Henderson flips the switch of the stove and ignites it. He never once misses doing this for the entire length of our very first Culinary Fundamentals class.
6. Henderson prepares thoroughly to attend the Bocuse D’Or preliminary competition at school. He shows up in a slick but understated outfit(biz cas), a nice folder with his resume and portfolio, a small pile of books to be signed by Chefs Keller, Boulud, and Achatz, and an open ipad with a friend up on Facetime. He has already read Daniel Boulud’s cookbooks, is deeply inspired by him, and wishes to receive some guidance. He’s totally nervous in the days leading up, and I try to give him confidence via text. But he doesn’t really need it. He just doesn’t realize he doesn’t need it yet. Sure enough, he’s speaks to Daniel Boulud at length, and Boulud encourages him to trail at his restaurant for an externship. Henderson accomplishes his goals for the day. Hendy and I meet up afterwards, and talk about how important that day was for us. We met the best chefs of our time, interacted with them, and began forming relationships with them. It was a day to remember.
7. Henderson does not squander this invitation by Boulud, and he trails at restaurant Daniel. I help him work on the wording of his cover letter, and coach him with email exchanges.
During that time period he also trails for his second favorite restaurant, Eleven Madison Park. Both restaurants invite him to extern, and he chooses Daniel. He sets up his externship three months before his start date. At this point, most students in my class haven’t even thought about where they might extern. He is the first person in my class to trail at a big restaurant in New York, besides me.
8. As we move into our next classes, Henderson and I start sticking together, preparing for class, doing homework together, and working together in the kitchens. He calls me big bro, and I call him little bro. When the first cooking practical comes, he stands outside the kitchen watching me cook, and I watch him when it is his turn. During this time, Hendy is traveling to the city on the weekends to scope out apartments to rent while he is on extern. He does this all on his own without much assistance. Pretty impressive for an 18 year old, no?
9. Hendy enters a tapas cooking competition, and designs a number of small plates fused with the influence of Indonesia. He seeks coaching from a number of chefs. We can’t find quail eggs closeby for one of his dishes, so he gets on a train to New York City, finds them, brings them back, and we test his plates. Dude, he got on a train to the city just to get quail eggs! He designs an extensive booklet with pictures and explanations of his plates. He is accepted into the first round of the competition. I miss the big day of Hendy’s cooking competition. He doesn’t proceed to the next round but who cares-he did it.
10. Henderson leaves to extern at restaurant Daniel, and begins looking at the adjunct business program at Cornell University. Always thinking ahead.
11. After externship, he decides he wants the Cornell program when he graduates from CIA, and starts application process. He works even harder in his cooking classes and starts getting more involved with extracurricular stuff to increase his chances for acceptance. The dude is on it!
12. He shows me his apartment outside of Hyde Park. It’s basically empty, with a bed, take out containers scattered everywhere, and notebooks and cookbooks everywhere else. On his kitchen counter, instead of food there are plastic sealed cardboard rounds for practicing piping in baking and pastry class. The cardboards are covered with rudimentary piping shapes made with a disgusting combination of chocolate and gel known simply as piping gel.
13. Since he came back from extern, it becomes clear to me that Henderson has already changed significantly. He’s not as nervous or apprehensive. Encouraged by his success at Daniel, he has even more confidence than he began with. He is happy, excited, rooted, and in the zone.
14. Henderson has some great photos taken while he prepares foie gras shaped into peaches for the opening of the new Bocuse Restaurant on campus. He makes one of these pictures his profile picture on Facebook, and it begins to appear to me(and many others who liked the photo) that Henderson is becoming a chef.
16. It occurs to me that Henderson is doing everything right. He’s not just cooking as anybody can learn to do if they survive the CIA. He’s putting himself out there. He’s creating opportunities, and he’s following through with every shot he is granted. He has short-term goals(kick ass at school, work at Daniel on the weekends, get involved with on-campus activities, etc.), mid-term goals(get into Cornell and work at Daniel for a while after that), and long-term goals(open a restaurant in Indonesia and get Michelin stars). I truly believe he will accomplish all of this. I am watching a star being born, and it’s frickin’ awesome.