Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Thoughts On My Bachelor’s Degree

Thoughts On My Bachelor’s Degree
by Lacey Benjamin '14, from La Papillote

I find it ironic that the first thing I decide to type directly after my Bachelor’s graduation from the CIA is an article about what exactly I think about the degree I just spend 3 years working so hard to get.

To the reader, hello. In case we haven’t met, my name is Lacey. It’s nice to meet you. Today is January 16, 2014. I just graduated. When I say that it is one of the most surreal feelings in the entire world, I’m not kidding. As I walked across the stage, shook President Ryan’s hand and validated the years of cooking and studying that have brought me to this point, I realized that there isn’t a thing in the world I would give up my education for. Now, I know exactly what you’re thinking; why is she doing this? She’s supposed to be done, right? I think there is a difference between being done and feeling done, and to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t actually feel done until I managed to help clarify some of the stereotypes that surround those who choose to enter the BPS program at the CIA.

I’ve heard them all. “People who can’t cook go for their bachelor’s degree.” “It’s only if you want to go into management,” “I can learn everything from BPS in the industry,” and my favorite, “What more will you gain from having a bachelor’s degree?”

Before I started at the CIA, I had people telling me I didn’t need to go to culinary school at all, and I ignored them. Then, I had people telling me the CIA wasn’t that good, and that I could learn just as much at another school and save some money, and guess what? I ignored them again. Then, as AOS came to a close, I had people telling me BPS was a waste of time, and guess what? I ignored them too.

About half way through my 9th (and final) semester, I had a realization. We all need a reason to do the things we do, to make the decisions we make. We want to feel right about our choices, and feel like we are making the right decisions. I tried to understand the criticisms I have dealt with, tried to put myself in the mindset of those who thought negatively about any stage of my educational decision. I came up with one odd thought. I still can’t manage to wrap my brain around it, but it seemed that at any stage, getting an education was a negative thing. Like, those who were less educated where trying to validate their superiority through their lack of time spent in a formal school setting. It still baffles me to this day.

Throughout the foodservice industry, we all seem to believe that in order to be a successful chef, real world experience is a must-have. I’m not disagreeing with this in the slightest (I actually believe in it wholeheartedly), but what alarms me is the fact that it seems that most think that those who choose to spend more time investing in themselves in the form of education are lacking something by not jumping right into the trenches on the line; like getting experience is one giant race that everyone feels rushed to get started in.

I understand this anxiety. We all need to finish AOS and get out there and show ‘em what we’ve got. I really do understand this feeling. BPS? Nah, I just want to cook. All of that bookwork is useless. “Who needs it?” one may say.

Something I came to understand through a lot of personal analysis is what exactly my motivation was for earning a BPS degree from the CIA. This is an extremely loaded question, believe it or not. There really isn’t one word, or even a one sentence response that could come up with all of the reasons, but I will do my best to give you one: I earned a Bachelor’s Degree of Professional Studies because I believe in myself. Is there any more reason I need?

In trying to keep this frank, I’ll make a list of some of the things you can expect to get from a BPS from The Culinary Institute of America:
1. You will learn how to ask the question “why,” and you should use that question a lot.
2. You will be challenged.
3. You will learn how to think, rather than just do.
4. You will take classes that not only help you understand your place in the world (this is why you need history class, people!), but also, your place in the lives of others.
5. You will learn to embrace the traits you have and use them to your advantage.
6. You will (and should) accept that nothing will be handed to you.
7. You will learn to understand and embrace all of your weaknesses in the hopes of working to improve them.
8. You will learn to understand the value of education and knowledge in your life as a part of what makes you a more well-rounded human being and contributor to our industry.
9. You will take away the skills to be able to bring a positive influence to any setting that you may find yourself in.
10. You will learn the habits that will forever make you a lifelong learner.

Now, as you may have noticed, there is nothing mentioned about class work, learning how to make any type of beverage you want, balancing the books, and all of that jazz. These things are a given, but what is important to remember about an education is that sometimes, it isn’t what physical, traceable facts you get out of it. Someone can look at your transcripts and see that you took a course on brewing and another on accounting, but these aren’t the things that make the BPS degree great.

For those who worry about the time or the money that is wrapped up in earning a BPS from the CIA, a quote I learned from Leadership and Ethics (Dr. J, you’re amazing!), applies greatly to this principle. It is from Earl Nightingale, an American motivational speaker and author. He said, “Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.” I love this quote! I think I can speak for a vast majority of the students at the CIA in saying that the reason we chose this industry was not for the money; it was for a love of food, beverage, and hospitality. I can say that as I prepare to enter a kitchen (yes, as a line cook), at Restaurant August, I am not thinking about money. Yes, it’s important, it makes the world go round and so on and so forth. But that doesn’t mean that it has to define your life. If there is one thing I can say about having a successful career, it’s that passion and full belief in yourself are two things that are needed throughout the entire process and if you set out with honest intentions rooted in passion and a belief in the positive contribution you can make, money will find its way to you.

And, just to make sure you don’t think I am saying this because someone else was paying for my degree, I wish. I did it myself, and I am so much prouder of what I accomplished knowing my hard work and dedication are what got me to the finish line. To anyone who thinks they can’t afford the degree; if you want it, it can be done. It may be a process, but a little bit of the “never say die” attitude goes a long way. When life hands you lemons, make some killer limoncello out of them.

For those how think that they can’t handle the homework, and that “If I’m going to be a chef, why does it matter if I can write a paper? Doesn’t only what I do in the kitchen matter?” This is flawed thinking. The problem with limiting your education and defining what degree you have based on the purpose of what job you want is that it will come to define the rest of your life. An education is not a “means to an end.” It is an investment in yourself, not simply the job you want. And in my opinion, there is nothing wrong with being an educated cook; it simply shows that you have taken the time to let the braise finish cooking in the oven. It means that you have not cut your formal learning process short. It means that you won’t have to live with tough braised short ribs for the rest of your career, simply because you decided only cooking them half way as “enough to give me what I want in a job.”

So, here are my last morsels of advice to you, the reader. A list of things I personally got from my education:
1. Do what terrifies you. You learn the best when you’re uncomfortable and in the weeds.
2. Do that in which you know you are not good at.
3. Focus on your weaknesses instead of your strengths. IT keeps you humble and reminds you of that which you do not know. It’s how you stay a lifelong learner.
4. Stay hungry.
5. Don’t get comfortable too early in your career. Focus on discovering and defining what it is you think good food should be, and hold on to it.
6. Don’t be angry of judgmental. They’re wasted emotions and get you nowhere.
7. Be kind. The world needs more of it.
8. Say yes.
9. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and treat them how you would want to be treated.
10. And finally, do what you believe to be right, and don’t ever sell yourself short.

To every chef and professor who has helped me learn these things (you know who you are), I want to say a heartfelt thank you.


  1. Congratulations - Good luck at Restaurant August! I'm sure your family is so very proud of you!

    My daughter Kristin is starting at CIA on July 8th and has been facing these same issues from friends & family - your story validates her passion for learning and going all the way!

  2. You're wise beyond your years. Funny how even industry leaders and successful chefs scoff at the "non-kitchen" classes as something that a chef will never use. Nonsense! Everyone in the kitchen is part of a business. For the business to run smoothly and profitably there are business principles that can be applied to even the bussers and dishwashers. It's not just a creative endeavor, it's a business first and foremost, that seeks to fill a market niche by reaching out through the kitchen for an audience that appreciates (and pays for) the product they put out. When more industry professionals get that then maybe the failure rate of so many establishments can begin to drop.