ICE’s 2022 Commencement Welcomes Speakers Jacques Pépin, Mary Attea and Shenarri Freeman
On May 10, 2022, Institute of Culinary Education graduates from 2021-2022 will be able participate in a live commencement ceremony at New York University’s Skirball Theater, featuring Keynote Speaker Jacques Pépin, along with alumni speakers and chefs Mary Attea and Shenarri Freeman. Commencement ceremonies are always occasions for looking forward, and this is especially relevant for the graduates participating in this year’s festivities. After several difficult years for the hospitality industry due to the pandemic, the end actually seems in sight, and May 10 marks the first in-person commencement for ICE graduates since 2019, following a virtual commencement ceremony in 2021 whose keynote speaker was ICE alumna Gail Simmons.
The term “commencement,” while marking the end of the educational journey, is a word that actually means “beginning.” For many ICE graduates, it is the beginning of their professional future, with all of its myriad possible paths. (Take it from a 2011 graduate whose path has included food stylist, bartender, restaurant manager, fine dining captain, coffee shop baker, sommelier and now, food writer. The path isn’t always linear or fixed.)
Helping to illuminate the path for this year’s graduates, the Institute of Culinary Education is pleased to welcome culinary visionaries Jacques Pépin, Mary Attea and Shennari Freeman to the podium.
Chef Jacques Pépin’s relationship to cooking can perhaps best be summarized by the title of his autobiography: “The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen.” At the time of its 2003 publication, Chef Jacques’s culinary career spanned over 50 years, and included hundreds of restaurants in both France and the U.S., dozens of cookbooks and numerous television appearances. He was one of the first chefs to appear on the Food Network in its 1993 infancy, so when his autobiography was published he was more than just a chef; he was a celebrity chef, a term that had only recently taken hold in the American lexicon. And yet, to tell his own story after a lifetime of achievements, Chef Jacques still chose to call himself “The Apprentice.” This belies one of the most important foundations of his career, and one that makes him especially apropos as a commencement speaker: you must never stop learning.
For Chef Jacques, becoming a chef was nearly a foregone conclusion, having been literally born into a restaurant life. He began working at his family’s restaurant in Bourg-en-Bresse, France at an age when most of us aren’t let anywhere near a stove. His culinary education was a time-honored one: apprenticeships and appointments of escalating prestige beginning from when he was merely 13 at Le Grande Hôtel de l’Europe in Bourg-en-Bresse. Following a long stint in Paris, his eventual move to New York made him contemporaries with both Julia Child and James Beard, two culinary luminaries whose ongoing impact can also be felt by many generations of those with culinary aspirations.
While his would seem a linear path from restaurant family to celebrated chef, Chef Jacques’s journey was not always a straightforward one, and he took risks and learned from others as often as was possible. One particular credit he gives is to a Paris-based organization called Société des Cuisines de Paris, where a chef could turn up — even on his precious day off — and be given a day’s work in whatever restaurant needed cooks that day. Through this, he learned from nearly 100 different Parisian chefs while in his 20s, and never let go of the crucial principle that every chef has something he or she can teach you; you must never assume that you have nothing left to learn.
Despite having never formally attended culinary school himself, Chef Jacques has nonetheless become one of the leading chef advocates for culinary education: serving as the Dean of Special Programs at then-named French Culinary Institute from its inception in 1982, helping to establish a culinary curriculum along with Julia Child at Boston University in 1989 and establishing the Jacques Pépin Foundation in 2016, which supports free and low-cost culinary education and life skills to underserved communities.
While Chef Jacques has a very traditional, French chef upbringing that is characteristic of his generation, Chef Mary Attea’s story is a contemporary tale of the time it sometimes takes to discover one’s passion for the kitchen — something that many cooks and aspiring culinary school students can relate to. In her Executive Chef bio on the website for The Musket Room, the Michelin-starred restaurant which she helms, Chef Mary describes her path to the kitchen as “winding,” since her academic life began as far from kitchens as one can imagine: criminal psychology. (Although perhaps she will remark in her commencement speech on whether this background does in fact come in handy…)
Chef Mary noticed, throughout her undergraduate and graduate education, that she was often more interested by what was going on at the various restaurant jobs she worked to support herself than she was by what was going on in the classroom. In a 2021 interview for the Andrew Talks to Chefs podcast with Andrew Friedman, Chef Mary described how she was spending more and more time outside of her scheduled shifts at the NYC restaurant where she worked during her brief stint in graduate school to absorb information from the managers and chefs there. While she was still a server, she asked the head chef whether she might be able to come in once a week to help in the kitchen. By assisting with prep, garde manger and making family meal, it became clear to Chef Mary that the kitchen was where she belonged.
After making the decision to leave graduate school for a life in restaurants, it took nearly five years for Chef Mary to take the leap from front to back of house, eventually attending ICE as a means of aiding in that transition, while still maintaining server shifts during her culinary program. Hers is also a useful tale of the symbiosis that can and should exist between front and back of house in restaurants, an attitude she strives to maintain between her cooks and servers at The Musket Room.
Following her program at ICE, and as a point of differentiation from the restaurants where she had been a server, Chef Mary specifically sought mentorship from a female chef, externing with Anita Lo at Annisa (which consequently means “women” in Arabic), where she went from intern to sous chef in the space of a year. (Not bad for a “winding” path.) She eventually became Annisa’s Chef de Cuisine before working at High Street on Hudson alongside star baker Melissa Weller, prior to her Executive Chef appointment at The Musket Room, where she is now part of an all-female management and ownership team.
Chef Shenarri Freeman’s story is similar to Chef Mary’s, in that it took working in restaurants during an academic program to ignite her desire for a life in the kitchen. Inspired by her work experiences at restaurants around the Washington D.C. area, including Restaurant Marvin, Jack Rose, SongByrd and Momofuku CCDC, she moved to New York in 2019 to pursue the Health-Supportive Culinary Arts Program at ICE, following a seismic life shift in 2017 that resulted in her becoming vegan. While wellness and a chef’s life aren’t always synonymous, Chef Shenarri has taken on healing through food as a personal mission.
“Greens” became Chef Shenarri’s nickname seemingly just ahead of the time that “plant-based” became one of the buzziest expressions in food media. Whether these things are correlated remains to be seen, but Chef Shenarri’s meteoric rise to the forefront of the American conversation about vegan dining is nothing short of aspirational.
Just last year, Chef Shenarri stood at the virtual podium as the ICE graduate commencement speaker, representing the 2021 class, after completing her Health-Supportive Culinary Arts certificate program in 2020. She received a “Most Likely to Succeed” award, and to say she has made good on that promise in a lightning amount of time would be understating it. Following the opening of her plant-based East Village restaurant Cadence in 2021 — a fresh, vegan approach to the soul food dishes of her Southern heritage — she attracted the attention of media outlets such as Time Out New York, Esquire, Vogue and the New York Times. (It doesn’t hurt that Solange Knowles posted about Cadence on Instagram, either.) She was recently a James Beard award semifinalist nominee for Best Emerging Chef. As far as illuminating a culinary path for recent graduates goes, no pressure, but this is apparently possible just a year outside of the culinary school experience.
Photo of Jacques Pépin by Tom Hopkins.