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Adrienne Cheatham knows a thing or two about life as a culinary professional at the top of her game: She was executive sous chef at Le Bernardin, executive chef at Red Rooster Harlem, and corporate chef de cuisine for Marcus Samuelsson, before launching her pop-up dinner series, SundayBest. Oh, and — no big deal — she was runner-up on Bravo's Top Chef Season 15.
And Chef Adrienne just got the chance to impart some of that wisdom on an impressionable audience: as a commencement speaker for the Institute of Culinary Education's 20019 graduating class.
She shared with the class a variety of lessons she's learned over her career — and among those, one stands out for its universality across professions. "Simply don’t be an a--hole," she said. "It’s not just for people going into restaurants. The number of people you meet while working in a restaurant, magazine, television show, or wherever you go from here is insane."
Chef Adrienne told the class that being nice — in addition to being generally good practice in life — will also serve you well professionally. "I can guarantee you will run into some of those same people at another point in your career. And if not directly, you’ll run into someone who knows them and they’ll call for a reference," she said. " Front of house, back of house, PR, media, we all face deadlines and things can get stressful, the people that work well when things get tough and can actually have a good attitude while doing it are the people who get more opportunities."
She cited a poignant example from her own experience. "I worked an event where Marcus Samuelsson was also cooking, his corporate chef was someone I kinda knew, we crossed paths briefly at another restaurant and when Marcus considered recruiting me to join the team he of course asked him how I worked," Chef Adrienne said.
"My friend told him, 'She works hard, has focus, and can still smile while sweating it out on the line.' What Marcus and other chefs have told me mattered most, and I understood later, was that skill can be taught, attitude can’t. And when you’re building a team you want people around you that are good people who treat others well.
In addition to being kind, Chef Adrienne emphasized the importance of setting clear goals and seeing them through — staying laser focused on those top priorities, while also managing to view the larger picture in context.
"Sometimes I get so focused on a goal that I forget to pull up and look around at what else is going on," she told the ICE graduating class. "Set goals, short term, long term, they’re important and will help keep you motivated, but don’t forget to pull up from time to time and see what else is going on."
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