THE LAST TRUE THINGS—My Commencement Speech at the CIA


Yesterday, I had the honor of giving the commencement speech at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone for the students in the Accelerated Culinary Arts Program and Wine and Beverage Graduate Certificate Program. The speech is reprinted here in its entirety. Congratulations to these young professionals who will carry forward the culture of wine and food in America.  

 

One of my staff at Karen MacNeil & Company is a former graduate of the Wine and Beverage Graduate Certificate Program and yesterday I asked her how she thought you—today’s graduates—feel: completely exhausted or completely ready to tackle the world?

And she said: Completely exhausted AND completely ready to tackle the world.

I suspect that when you look around at the famous people in our industry, it may sometimes seem to you like all of the exciting things in food and wine have already been done.

But that is not true. Making the United States one of the world’s most dynamic food and wine cultures is a process that is only in its infancy. The generation of wine and food professionals before you turned on the engine and started the car. But the car is now yours to drive … and drive FAST.

 

In a moment, I’ll talk about why wine and food even matter. But first, based on my own 40 years in the industry, I thought I might offer four points of practical advice.

 

First, Be a True Professional

The CIA is incredibly good at establishing and teaching the very highest standards of professionalism, and now those standards have been woven into the fabric of who you are.

But professionalism is more than knowing the right way to do something or the right thing to do.

The greatest professionals are constantly creative in ways large and small. They think about the trajectory of where the culture of wine and food has been, and then imagine the open sky of the future. They are restless creators. Be restless.

 

Second, Be Ambitious

Being ambitious is NOT about landing the perfect high-level job right off the bat.

Being ambitious is about liking the hard work it takes to get someplace in life and being relentless in your pursuit.

I moved to New York in the 1970s to become a writer. At first, I wrote about everything: politics, social issues, and so on. I lived in a 5th floor walkup in Spanish Harlem and was on food stamps. One day, I hit on the bright idea of trying to write about food on the theory that if I wrote about food, maybe people would give me samples of things to taste and, at the very least, my diet would improve.

I collected 324 rejection slips which I thumb tacked to the wall of the apartment.

But my 325th piece sold—it was about butter. I got paid $30 which was the best $30 I’ve ever made, and I immediately went out to the hippest bar in New York and ordered myself a whole bottle of Champagne.

 

Third, Keep the End Game in Mind

Money is important but money is not the most important thing right now. Access to the right people, refining your skills, being in a position to be challenged, and proving your worth are all more important and will matter more in the long run.

It took me ten years to write The Wine Bible. Ten unpaid years. There was no promise of success. The average wine book sells about 10,000 copies. I had no idea if The Wine Bible would sell even 50 copies.

By year six of that ten years, even my friends were saying I was crazy spending so much time on a project that didn’t pay me anything. But The Wine Bible became the best-selling wine book in the English language with over a million copies sold.

 

Fourth, Be the Generation Who Merges Food and Wine

As I mentioned, I started as a food writer and eventually moved into the world of wine. Back then, those two worlds were entirely separate. People even referred to themselves as a food person or a wine person, with the implication that no one was both.

It’s time to bring those worlds together. Conceptually, wine and food have been inextricably linked for the last 8,000 years.  If you are a graduate of the Accelerated Culinary Arts Program, know as much about wine and beverages as you can. And if you’re a graduate of the Wine and Beverage Graduate Certificate Program, make it your business to really know food.

In the end, the larger and most exciting pursuit is gastronomy as a whole.

 

And finally—why do wine and food even matter. What is it about them that we all hold so deeply? What is this endless attachment?

Perhaps it is this: wine and food are among the last true things. In a world digitized to distraction, a world where you can’t get out of your pajamas without your cell phone, wine and food remain utterly primary. Unrushed. The silent gifts of nature.

In every sip taken in the present, we drink in the past—the moment in time when those grape berries were picked. In every bite, our bond to the earth is welded deep.

Wine and food cradle us in our own communal humanity. Anthropologically, they are the pleasures that carried life forward and sustained us through the sometimes-dark days of our own evolution.

Drinking wine and eating food—as simple as those actions can seem—are both grounding and transformative. They remind us of other things that matter, too: love, friendship, generosity.

 

Thank you and good luck.

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