On Friday, October 24th, the fourth session of Community Kitchen Academy graduated. Jacob Renfrew gave the student graduation speech and the Skinny Pancake’s Chris Benjamin gave the keynote address.
Here we’ve include a transcript of the speeches:
I’d like to begin by thanking you all for being here today.
When I first signed up for this class, I didn’t know quite what to expect. I did know that I was searching for a new path in life, and had a feeling that this program might be able to point me in the right direction. I’d been interested in cooking and baking for years, but never thought that I could do it at the professional level. It feels really good to admit that I was wrong about that.
The past thirteen weeks have been an incredible and highly rewarding experience for me. Not only have I learned far more about the food service industry than I expected to, but I’ve learned a lot of new and positive things about myself as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve become a very much improved, and more confident person during my time at the Community Kitchen.
Most of the credit for that must be given to my amazing chef instructors: Jamie Eisenberg and David Moyer. No speech in the world could put into words just how grateful I am for their hard work, guidance, and all that they’ve done for me. Chef Jamie has been patient, supportive, encouraging, and completely invested in my education and future success. I wouldn’t be standing here right now if she hadn’t challenged me to set aside my fears and achieve more than I thought was possible.
What I want to make clear, though, is how much of a real team effort these past thirteen weeks have been. I’m fortunate to have worked and learned alongside a group of talented individuals that I’ve grown truly fond of. We’ve gone through ups and downs, successes and failures, and everything in between together, but I honestly believe that we’ve become better and stronger people for having done so. They’ve worked really hard to get here today, and I want them to know how much I respect them, and how much I’ve appreciated their friendship. I wish them all the best.
In closing, I’d once again like to thank Chef Jamie and Chef Dave for giving me this truly amazing opportunity to learn and improve the quality of my life. I’ll never forget it. I’d also like to thank my classmates for all of the fun and memorable experiences that we’ve shared as a group. I’ll definitely miss working with you every day. I’d also like to express gratitude to my family for their love and support. And finally, I want to thank all of the wonderful people behind the scenes who make this program a reality for those who genuinely need it. I hope that many more will benefit from it in the future.
CKA Commencement Speaker
Skinny Pancake Director of Operations
When Chef Jamie asked me to be your commencement speaker, I immediately felt great pride and honor over the privilege. As the days ticked down to this date, and the need to write this speech became imminent, that pride and honor turned to terror and confusion. While I have experience in writing in a public forum, what business did I have passing on advice to the next generation of the best and the brightest? I believe that right should be reserved for much older people who drone on about what it was like sixty years ago at their graduation, and how they walked up hill both ways to school in snow that was shoulder-high. The type of speech that you forget in about an hour, and your mother remembers for the next ten years. What could I possibly dictate that would have meaning? Well at about this time, after pursuing a few websites for guidance, I finally settled on my own memory of my graduation speech. What would I have liked to know then that I know now? What has guided me well and what virtues have made my career what it is today? I will endeavor to pass on this wisdom, or barring that, my perspective.
First, a little about where I came from and who I am. I’ve been in the food business for practically my entire life. Since I was old enough to open up a truck door, I was Dad’s little helper carrying boxes of pre-made sandwiches to stores all over the state for my grandfather’s wholesale sandwich company, Ben’s. I learned how to open cans of ham with a pair of old tin cutters when I was eight (food safety was a little different 30 years ago), made sandwiches in the shop from the age of 12 (so were labor laws), and learned the art of BS at my father’s knee as he talked with all manner of characters to be found on the road. Work ethic was part of my blood, and I worked many hours and learned many lessons.
While food was certainly an important part of my life, golf was my passion. And I pursued it vigorously, earning the top ranking in the state, and high placement in New England. Upon graduating high school, I was awarded a full scholarship to a small college in North Carolina. My dreams were a career in the PGA. I had visions of grandeur, touring the country, making money playing the game I loved and beating all the odds. It goes to show that my ability to predict the future was not as precise as I thought.
Unfortunately, or in some ways fortunately, my dreams were dashed by a crippling injury to my knee that ended my career (truth be told I was playing ultimate Frisbee with the football team when I twisted the wrong way blowing out several tendons, cartilage and meniscus in my right knee). At the time I was crushed, and had no real idea of what to do.
This was the first challenge of my life. The second was my Dad. We were always close, best friends for years. He was my confidant, my coach and in many ways, my grounding force. But when I returned home from North Carolina, I realized that I didn’t want to return to North Carolina. My knee injury certainly had something to do with that, but I have to admit that a certain girlfriend at the time was also a catalyst of me not returning. Young love. My Dad was extremely upset. Tempers flared (we both are hard-headed and quick to anger). He was afraid that I wouldn’t go to college. I thought he just didn’t like my girlfriend. I remember the argument vividly. I said I could find work, that I had a decent enough education. I had gotten C’s. He looked at me then and said something I’ll never forget “C’s mean average. You want to be average all your life?”. The argument triggered a year and a half discord between us where we didn’t exchange one word to the other. I was determined to show him that I was not average, and endeavored to be the best from that point on (more on this later).
So I went to Johnson State College, putting myself through school with no financial support from home. I worked my way through the restaurant business on the merits of hard work, a voracious appetite for knowledge, and a desire to learn it all. Taking 18 credits in college, I worked every spare moment I could in restaurants around the area. From bussing tables at a 40 seat restaurant, serving tables at pubs and breweries, bartending at a Mexican themed restaurant near a ski resort, and eventually becoming a dining room manager at a fine dining restaurant in a 4 diamond resort in Stowe. I was going to be the best, come hell or high water.
Four years later, I graduated with a BA in Hospitality and Hotel Management, concentrating on F&B management. I decided to throw in a resume to New England Culinary Institute and see what happened. I passed the interview process and was hired as the Assistant Manager of NECI Commons, their flagship restaurant on Church Street in Burlington.
In my decade of service with NECI, I learned some of the most valuable lessons working with some of the most talented people this industry had to offer. I learned that becoming a teacher meant attaining mastery on a subject, and was taught how to teach by great mentors, one of whom is in this room today. Through osmosis, I became immersed in culinary techniques from world-famous chefs. I learned what it was like to manage people, both things that work and things I would never do again. I became the youngest GM in the history of the company at the tender age of 24, and was part of the Executive Search Committee for a new president four years later. The message here is that I never stopped learning, never stopped working to achieve my goals, and never gave up. Closing the Commons, working in Montpelier, helping to transform the Inn at Essex from ground chuck to beef tenderloin, were all stepping stones in my career to where I am today. And I can honestly say that I’ve never been happier working for a company that works so hard on so many fronts to be the best.
For those of you who have ambitions to create your own empire (and I bet more than a few of you do), look no further than the Skinny Pancake for inspiration. Owners Benjy and Jonny Adler started the Skinny Pancake in June of 2003, shaping a cart out of the old floor boards of their parents shed. From those humble beginnings, a great story began and continues today.
Through the years, they bought a bus called Sueno and turned it into a mobile festival unit bringing great food to all from as far away as West Virginia to local venues like the Champlain Valley Fair and Addison Fair and Field Days. In pursuit of a commercial kitchen, the brothers stumbled upon our flagship restaurant in the Main Street Landing building found at the Waterfront in 2007. With wild success, they opened another location in 2009 not far from here in the old Ben & Jerry’s restaurant in Montpelier, dubbed the mini Skinny. The Chubby Muffin was opened in the old north end as ends to the means. This large area served as a new restaurant, but also, more importantly, became our commissary kitchen that would not only produce large amounts of food as needed for the several facets of the business, but also as a vehicle to buy large amounts of local produce and bumper crops that could be stored in quantities to be used all year. Extending the season is not a new concept, but it was one that we practice with great veracity and results before it became a main stay in the state. In 2013, we opened three restaurants at the Burlington International Airport, where we became the first restaurant group in the nation to bring 100% local proteins and cheeses to dining guests, with a healthy dose of seasonal local produce.
This company has grown from a staff of three and maybe $30,000 in sales to an organization that employees over 150 people, realizes close to 7 million dollars in sales, and pumps over 1 million dollars into the local economy through buying local food and supporting local causes. The Skinny Pancake is not special just because we make fantastic food, nor because of the great team of people we employ. It’s due to the vision of the owners and the mission that we embody. Benjy likes to say “there is no cash without cause, no profit without purpose, no money without meaning.” It’s a statement that has deep meaning throughout the company. We make decisions daily that are often the more expensive option, but the right one for the company. We are Vermont’s largest member of 1% for the Planet, where we donate 1% of all of our revenues to environmental and agricultural causes. We sponsor numerous organizations, creating innovative solutions and events that bring the local food community together in meaningful ways. We recently created the first local food festival, Eat X NE, with collaboration from some of VT’s heaviest restaurant hitters, with proceeds benefiting nonprofit organizations such as the Intervale, Northern Organic Farming Alliance, and Slow Food Vermont. Over 69.3% of our purchases were from local or local value added products in our most recent audit. This company doesn’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk. Local food is a movement that has real meaning in this industry, and as you move into the kitchens, regardless of where you go, it is important that you embrace it. It’s not only what people want to eat, but what they want to support.
So now for the part where I’m supposed to impart the wisdom of experience to the next generation of restaurateurs, where my advice will hopefully help you navigate the future of food service and the careers you are about to embark upon. You are fortunate that you are one of the most highly sought after talents in this industry. I have worked in this state for 18 years, and I can easily say that talented, hard-working, culinary trained staff are the number one asset that hospitality leaders are looking for. You have careers in this industry for so long as you have the will and motivation to pursue it, and you should take comfort in that knowledge.
But here’s the lessons I feel will make you more successful, that will allow you to grow into roles that are more challenging yet rewarding. They have served me well in my career, and while some have come naturally, others were learned the hard way.
It seems like a no brainer, but I have found that the work ethic of the younger generations has been compromised somewhere along the way. I have always prided myself on being the hardest working individual in any organization that I’ve worked for. I work long hours, take on additional responsibility, and I’m never above working the line, serving tables, washing dishes or mopping a floor. I did what it took to get the job done. When we opened the airport in the South terminal of BTV, I worked 33 hours straight to ensure it went well. That is a record at the SP, and my staff has great respect for me, in part due to that, in part because I’m always right there with them. When you work hard, others notice. And if you want to rise in this industry, hard work pays large dividends.
Be a change agent.
A mentor once told me that change is inevitable. That you can either embrace it or run from it, but it’s going to happen. I learned this the hard way, being resistant to change and it certainly cast a shadow on my achievements. If you can’t embrace change, be willing as a minimum, to give it a hug. The more willing you are to try and make changes for the positive in the workplace, the better positioned you will be to become a leader. And leaders like to have people that they can rely on to enact change and improvement. So be open to new ideas, new thoughts, and don’t be afraid to make the best of a rapidly changing environment. It will make you stronger in the long run.
Think twice before hitting send.
Early in my career, I was infamous, for speaking my mind extremely clearly when I felt that I had been wronged, when someone screwed up, and I didn’t care who my audience was or what the repercussions were. I’m sure Dr. Fisher can relate some stories of my email etiquette or lack thereof. In this age of technology, realize that everyone has access to everything. Once written, it can never be undone. Tone and intent can never be fully understood. A slight deviation of this is texting. For the record, texting is not an acceptable form of communication for anything other than a funny story or determining what someone is up to for the evening. It is not the way to call out for a shift, not a vehicle for delivering feedback or coaching an employee, nor even an acceptable way of reporting that you are going to be late or that you quit. As a minimum, use the phone portion of the device or as an even crazier idea, sit down and actually talk to the individual. You may be surprised at the results.
Have a goal and work with your future in mind.
Throughout my working career, I always wanted to end up being employed by a company that cared about it’s staff and mission, that was growing rapidly enough to keep me interested (I get bored easily), and allowed me to live a comfortable life providing for my family and allowing me to retire someday. Every decision I made in this industry, I did with precise calculation to get me to my goal. I thought about the skills that I had, the qualities that I lacked, and I worked with individuals, or companies that would get me closer to my ultimate goal. I’ve always had a knack for making the right decisions, but this would not have been possible had I not constantly been weighing employment decisions that would get me there. If I left a company, I gave a minimum of a month’s notice. And I left a company only when I knew I had learned all I could and that the next job would provide further growth, further advancement. I took steps backwards to take steps forwards. When I left the Essex Resort and Spa I was a Director of Food & Beverage of one of the premier resorts at the time. I moved on to manage a small 80 seat restaurant on the waterfront that showed promise in growth (Skinny Pancake). I did the jobs that others weren’t willing to do. I accepted additional responsibility with no additional rewards. I worked extra shifts on salary because of not only knowing that I was needed, but due to the respect I earned from many. I wrote for the Burlington Free Press in their Savorvore section for a couple of years without any compensation. Why? Because it was great exposure, honed my skills as a writer, and allowed me to reach an audience that was far greater than left to my own devices. But I always had the goal of greatness, and I’m happy to report that I’ve settled down with a company that provides all of the things I sought.
Trust your gut.
Whether it came to career moves, knowing where to be on the floor, hiring personnel or simply whether or not a protein was safe to serve, my intuition has always been my best ally. When I left NECI, I felt it was an opportunity to find out how other organizations existed. I also believed that to remain with NECI would ultimately result in possible unemployment down the line. So I remained with the Essex after NECI pulled out and later learned of more staff cut backs at NECI. My gut was proven right. I remember interviewing a potential server candidate that had vast amounts of experience, said all the right things, was charming and warm and had the right ideals. But something didn’t feel right about him. My spidey sense tingled. I ended up passing on his employment. I later learned that he was charged for manslaughter in an unfortunate incident that occurred in New York City at a restaurant. So listen to that inner voice…it may prove more intuitive then you think.
Be ready to make mistakes.
We’ve all made them. I continue to make them on a somewhat regular basis. But it is how we handle failure, and what we learn from those disappointments that will truly make you strong. They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you continue to make the same mistakes, make the wrong decisions, you will ultimately progress backwards in your career. Learn the lesson, accept responsibility, and move forward with enhanced awareness.
Become a teacher.
Nothing furthers your own understanding of a subject like the pressure to teach others the correct way to do something. To become a teacher, you must be the master of the subject. One of the greatest pushes of my own career was teaching a variety of subjects at NECI. To maintain respect from both my students and my peers, it was critical that I learned as much about the subject matter I was teaching so I had the answers to questions. It took many long hours of study, experiment, and failures to finally hone my skills as a teacher. It has been valuable when training staff, developing managers, and developing a well-functioning team. While many of you may not end up being professors at a school, this industry will require you to train or coach others. As your rise through the ranks, remember your favorite teacher and try and remember what made them great. Emulate those techniques and they will serve you well.
Be happy in what you do or get out.
Life is much to short to be miserable where you are. And by not being happy, you risk bringing down those who depend on you, both professionally and personally. My Executive Chef told me once that it’s important to develop a thick skin and a positive attitude. While there is truth to that, especially in the kitchen, if you aren’t happy in the work environment then find what makes you happy (providing adequate notice of course). After several months of working 80-100 hours a week at the Essex, I realized that I was missing my children grow up in some of their most critical years. My wife was a stranger more than a partner, a roommate more than a soul mate. I resolved to leave and find a better life and I’ve never regretted the decision to do so.
Don’t confuse efforts with results.
The reality of this business is that restaurant mortality rates are high, employee burn out is real, and only the very best survive. You can work a hundred hours a week, you can invest your life savings, but if you don’t make the hard decisions, if you’re not willing to do what needs to be done, then it won’t matter. You will fail. You’ve done a marvelous thing by getting an education, but don’t stop learning. Surround yourself with talent, continue to learn, work hard and show up 100% committed to what you are doing. I promise you that you will create results.
It’s better to be respected than liked.
This is a life lesson that every successful leader learns at some point in their career. While friendship will inevitably be a great boon to your career, it’s important to not allow this to become the guiding principle in how you conduct yourself professionally. By doing your work, being on time, doing what’s right, and not making excuses for friendship, you will become respected, and people will honor your requests because they respect you as an individual, not as a friend.
Be the Best.
Call it my competitive nature, or my drive for success, or just my sheer cockiness and over confidence. But in everything I do, I’ve worked to be the best in this industry. Since my father’s comments, I’ve endeavored to be anything but average. And I’ve had modest success. But you have to believe you can be great. You have to exude greatness. I remember an interview I had with a General Manager of a five-star hotel that was being built in Stowe. I was extremely nervous about the meeting, and I was very excited about the job. At the time, I thought it was what I wanted in life. I thought I had the skills and the experience. And I had always succeeded in my job interviews. Until I met this gentleman. He walked into the room and power and confidence radiated from him. He was pleasant and polite but his gaze pierced through my clothes and read directly into the depths of my heart and soul. I thought back to my previous interviews, and kept repeating techniques like they were a prayer or chant in a séance “don’t fidget. Maintain eye contact. Don’t stutter. Think before you speak. “. After a few light pleasantries were exchanged, he asked the first question “What’s your five-year plan”. My response? “uh…good question. I don’t know”. Game over. Nerves and desire crushed my cool and collected response. I was thinking of what he wanted me to say, instead of simply saying what I knew in my heart was the right answer “I want to be an acknowledged leader in the hospitality industry, working with a company that can benefit from my skills and leadership in a mutually positive way.” Had I said that then, I’m not sure where I would be today. But I can attest to the truth of the moment: Had I believed that I was the best, that I could be the best, I would not have failed in that moment.
So when you go out there to interview, or cook, or manage, be the best that you can be in that moment. Constantly work, learn, teach and, yes, fail so that you can be the best. Because only by succeeding in your own eyes will you have truly succeeded in the world. Only when you’ve paid your dues, sacrificed your pride, accepted change for what it is, thought through your goals and your strategies, will you truly find what many seek and few find: success, happiness and respect. I think deep down at the core of who we are, we all seek those things, in one form or another. You now have a solid education; you have the benefit of youth and drive to sustain you through the grueling hours of the industry, and you have an industry that is hungry for your participation. Congratulations on your successful completion of this program. You have many more triumphs, hurdles, speed bumps and decisions ahead of you, and your education and experience will serve you well. But the challenge that each of you must face is how you choose to handle those next moments of decision. I’m confident that each of you will find success in different ways. But ultimately, the only one that can truly decide how well you have done in life is you. Seize the day. For today, your future is bright with unlimited potential, and it is waiting there for you to conquer it. Good luck and God Speed.
For more information on Skinny Pancake, including their locations, catering and commitment to local food, visit the Skinny Pancake website.
For more information on Community Kitchen Academy, including enrollment and employer info, visit the CKA website.