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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

Gregory Gourdet ’93 gives the 2023 Commencement address on the Garth.
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Gregory Gourdet ’93

Acclaimed chef and restauranteur Gregory Gourdet ’93 gave this talk at Commencement 2023

Thank you! Graduates, loved ones, distinguished faculty members, and trustees. It is an honor to be here with you today. I’m so grateful to St. Andrew’s for the privilege of being your Commencement speaker to the Class of 2023! 

You all specifically have had quite the unique and challenging few years to get to where you are today and you should be so proud of all it took to get here! 

My road to today too has been less than linear. 

Exactly 30 years ago this time I was sitting just where you all were with big feels. I sat where you sat—excited, nervous, happy, sad, and hungover from 4 years of self-learning.

It was a day of mixed emotions as I was leaving my best friends, this gorgeous campus, and the place where I learned so much about myself. I was off to NYU, back to New York City, back home.

I grew up in Queens in a very culturally specific upbringing and it's funny because it took me coming to St. Andrew’s—a school of 250, nestled amidst cornfields and great blue herons, in the smallest state in the country, for me to realize a whole big world existed and I could do anything in it. 

My parents migrated to the States in their 20s to pursue education and to start a family. They were scientists, managed hospitals, and had multiple jobs at a time over their entire careers. I had planned to be a doctor my whole life because of this upbringing. I was entering a pre-med program and starting on the road for the career I had always thought I wanted.

The path ahead of me was clear. Or so I thought. 

Studies proved harder than expected and they did not click. I seemed lost in Bio and Chemistry 101, and also somewhat lost in life. I realized the curriculum just wasn't for me. I can imagine how it felt for my parents who sacrificed so much for me to see me struggle in school. 

St Andrew’s had instilled a deep love of nature and the outdoors in me (Art in Bio with Dr. McLean was one of my favorite classes). I quickly realized this living in the city again, With a longing for the outdoors, I enrolled in a wildlife biology program at the University of Montana and planned a big move out West. 

I also felt close human connection was missing in my life after graduating. I was commuting on dark subways and living in a concrete jungle a far cry from Noxontown Pond. Our friends circle felt it too—we called ourselves “the posse.” So as I planned my next chapter, a group of the posse, after going our separate ways and spending our freshmen years in respective colleges around the country, moved to Montana to summer together again.

Who knew we would miss SAS dorm living so much? That alone is truly a testament of how life-changing the experience of St. Andrew’s was for us. Trust, these relationships will be the connections of a lifetime.  

Two years in to the wildlife biology program, one day while studying barbed wire in a class surrounded by cowboys, I again realized maybe this wasn't my calling. But I was unsure of what to do. My parents had made even more sacrifices to send me to yet another school, this one all the way across the country.  

With their continuing support, I took a shot at what would become my enduring passion. But even then, the path to where I am today wasn’t a straight one.

In Montana, I had begun cooking for myself while living on my own for the first time. I quickly realized it brought me joy. I got jobs washing dishes and making sandwiches and just loved the environment of restaurants and the art of cooking, even if I was just making veggie burgers and pasta salads (humble beginnings but a foot in the door). By the end of my fifth year of college, I had a bachelor’s in French (my third major) and an acceptance letter and start date for the Culinary Institute of America—the best culinary school in the country, the other CIA.

Grade-wise I will admit I wasn't the best student here, at NYU, or the University of Montana. But for the first time in my life, I felt passion for what I was doing. I devoured my classes and became an A student. I sliced my onions perfectly, even for French onion soup, I made sure my risotto was al dente and creamy and my consomme was flavorful and crystal-clear. It was pure joy. 

I went back to the city after school and started my formative professional career. I was the first extern from the CIA to work at Jean-Georges, the uptown temple of modern French haute cuisine. 

Jean-Georges lightened and redefined French cooking with juice-based sauces and herbs and spices from around the world. Cooking for one of the world’s best chefs and among some of the best professional cooks in New York, I jumped right into the deep end. I was thrown into the fire for those few months.

It was a sink-or-swim situation and I left after those few months feeling like I held my own. I made it out having only cried once in the kitchen. 

That experience taught me that the same pressure that may try to break you, can inspire you to pick yourself back up and keep moving forward. 

A year later and a few days after graduating from the CIA,  I walked back into Jean-Georges as a full-time employee. I would be starting in Nougatine, the cafe next to the more formal dining room. My station was garde manger, which is a fancy French word for the salad/cold foods station. I was eager to work at this level of detail and precision and work my way up the ladder.  

Year after year I slowly made my way around the kitchen, moving on to the hot line where we got to cook hot food and play with fire. I was learning how to saute, pan fry, and roast, how to blanch, emulsify, and baste. I was on a clear path to success.

Over the next seven years I worked at three of Jean-Georges’ restaurants, becoming a sous chef and even a chef de cuisine and running a big New York City restaurant in my late 20s. 

The sky was the limit. Then I flew too close to the sun. 

After those intense days prepping and high-pressure nights cooking, I’d go out and not come home until the sun was up. I was caught up in New York City nightlife. Balancing my career and after-hours jaunts became more and more impossible. A drug and alcohol habit that took shape when I was younger turned into full-blown addiction. And at the height of my opportunity, it all came crashing down. I became a shell of myself to friends, family, and employers. I finally entered rehab. But my circle didn’t understand the complexities of addiction, nor did I. 

Again, the West called. Looking for an escape and better life, I moved to Portland, Oregon, and after a few more rocky months decided on my footing and chose a healthy career path. I got sober with the help of AA and made amends to friends and family, I changed my diet, completed marathons, and became an ultra runner, started traveling around the world, eating and studying food and culture. I competed on multiple cooking shows, including Top Chef. I channeled all my addictive energy into positive things. I jumped out of bed every day ready to tackle anything that came my way with big eyes and a smile. 

In 2019, after working for others my entire career, I felt ready to do my own thing and open my dream restaurant. I quit my job of ten years, ready for a year of research, travel, and construction in 2020.

But like for all of us—oh, did things change. Just like you, I was home waiting for the world to tell me what to do, all the while making the best of the situation. I asked myself: Will restaurant dining ever come back? Just as you probably asked yourself: Will I ever sit in class again?

And just as you were finally all able to take your masks off and finish your degrees, your dream of dreams, I was able to open Kann Restaurant, my dream of dreams.

I stand in solidarity with you, Class of 2023. Getting here today has been a tremendous feat and I applaud your tenacity. You planned, you organized, you cleaned up after others. You reinstated the traditions that define our spirit and culture. You refused to let Covid define you. As a class, you exemplify servant leadership. And it is a good thing you do, because the world needs you more than ever. 

As a generation, we look to you to help change the world. A world in which books are being banned, women and queer rights are constantly being taken away, a world that increases in temperature every year, and a world where guns are more important than the lives of our dear youth. We stand by you as you head into the world, armed to change it. 

My message to you today: The linear path is a myth, or at least the exception. No journey worth taking is without stops and starts. No one can predict what’s to come. You all already know this. You experienced this truth earlier than I did. You know the secret. Take this knowledge with you as you enter the world, as college students, as professionals, as friends, as citizens of the world, and warriors in the fight for justice.  

If we’re not prepared for these bumps in the road, it’s easy to get discouraged, but recognizing that it’s not the shape of the path but your ability to persist that will get you somewhere worth going. You’ve done so much work already just to graduate in these unique and challenging times.

Today my life is joyous, passionate, and challenging. I am sober and grateful, I keep learning new skills. I have worked with hundreds of inspiring people who have changed me for the better, just as I hope I have changed them.

I've filmed commercials, written a best-selling book, won awards, traveled the world, and have my health. I embrace and study the biology and chemistry of cooking and it feels very full circle to do so. That year at NYU wasn’t wasted, Mom and Dad! I opened what critics call the best new restaurant in the country and I hope you can come visit us one day.

If you had told me this would be my life 30 years ago, when I sat in your shoes, I would have found it all incredible.

And that is the point. Life is incredible. The past four years you have spent together have been incredible. Be prepared for many more. And stay in touch. There is great solace in the comfort of the memories and shared experiences your time together here created, especially during this delicate state of the world. 

So today, Class of 2023, as you enter your next era, I ask you: Please dream big. Know you are allowed to take the space you want in this world. Know that the vision may change and the road will wind but you will find phenomenal things along the way.

Life will change in ways you never expected. You will change in ways you never expected. No matter how much we plan, life will look differently than we think it will. Stay the course and don’t be afraid. 

Everything we do in life prepares us for the next thing. Today you sit ready for your next big thing. And as life’s challenges and opportunities come up, remember, sometimes it takes living in the moment to realize you have been preparing for it for years. You got this!

Class of 2023, stay loving, stay brilliant, stay gritty, stay wise. May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears. Continue to be fueled by passion in all you do. 

Congrats to you all! 

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