Commencement Speakers

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    Commencement Speaker: Thomas Keller

    New York Campus—August 11–12, 2021 and May 6, 2021

    Thomas Keller’s name is synonymous with quality and high standards. The chef and proprietor of The French Laundry, in Napa Valley, and Per Se, in New York City, among other restaurants, he is the first and only American-born chef to hold multiple three-star ratings from the prestigious Michelin Guide, as well as the first American male chef to be designated a Chevalier of The French Legion of Honor, the highest decoration in France.

    Chef Keller has earned countless accolades, including The Culinary Institute of America’s “Chef of the Year” Award and the James Beard Foundation’s “Outstanding Chef” and “Outstanding Restaurateur” Awards. In 2001, Time Magazine named him America’s Best Chef. In 2017, Chef Keller led a team from the United States to its first-ever gold medal in the Bocuse d’Or, a prestigious biannual competition that is regarded as the Olympics of the culinary world. For embodying the state’s spirit of innovation, he was inducted into the 2018 California Hall of Fame. In June 2019, Chef Keller became the first USA inductee into the oldest savory chef association in the world, The Master Chefs of France.

    Keller began his culinary career in his teens as a dishwasher in the Palm Beach restaurant managed by his mother. In 1983, he moved to France, where he apprenticed in several Michelin-starred houses. He opened his first restaurant, Rakel, in New York City in 1986, before relocating to California to serve as executive chef at the Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles, CA. In 1994, Chef Keller took ownership of The French Laundry in Yountville, CA, and soon brought it to national and worldwide acclaim. With Snøhetta, a completed new kitchen and courtyard renovation was recently unveiled at The French Laundry. The redesign is the first major overhaul to the historic site in over two decades, doubling the size of the existing landscape, while providing a world-class working environment for Keller and his team to innovate their craft and service.

    Chef Keller’s French bistro, Bouchon, debuted in 1998, followed by Bouchon Bakery five years later. Both are within walking distance of The French Laundry. Since then, Keller has opened outposts of Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery in Las Vegas, NV. Another of his restaurants is family-style Ad Hoc + Addendum, also in Yountville, as well as La Calenda, a Mexican restaurant with Chef Kaelin Ulrich Trilling leading the culinary program. In 2017, Chef Keller opened Bouchon Bakeries in the Middle East with partner M.H. Alshaya Co. Celebrating Continental cuisine, The Surf Club Restaurant, celebrating Continental cuisine opened the summer of 2018 located in Surfside, FL. He is the author of six cookbooks, including his most recent The French Laundry, Per Se. There are more than 1.5 million books in circulation.

    Known for his leadership, Chef Keller has assembled a team that shares his philosophy in his restaurants, enabling him also to concentrate on interests outside the kitchen, including his and Chef/Proprietor Laura Cunningham’s Napa Valley wine label Modicum, as well as a magazine and retail outpost in Yountville, both titled Finesse. He has embarked on several innovative partnerships. In his newest collaborations, Chef Keller partnered with Armando Manni, an acclaimed olive oil producer, to develop a line of chocolates, K+M Extravirgin Chocolate, that is revolutionizing bean-to-bar chocolate production with its proprietary method of boosting antioxidant levels—and with Shaoching Bishop, a leading authority on caviar to launch Regiis Ova, a line of caviar that supports sustainability and selective sourcing.

    Chef Keller also co-founded Cup4Cup, a line of gluten-free flour blends and mixes that substitutes for all-purpose flour in home recipes. Chef Keller has formed a culinary partnership with Seabourn to help elevate the guest experience through the opening of The Grill restaurant and advising on menu items throughout the fleet. He is Brand Ambassador for Hestan where he has designed and consulted on various cookware lines. His newest partnership is with Cangshan knives with whom he has launched the Cangshan Thomas Keller Signature Collection.

    Together with restaurant designer Adam D. Tihany, he created K+T, a collection of silver hardware and cocktail ware for Christofle Silversmiths. Chef Keller’s collaboration with Raynaud and design firm Level has led to a sophisticated collection of white porcelain dinnerware called “Hommage.” Chef Keller also consulted on the films Spanglish and Ratatouille, the latter winning in the 2007 “Best Animated Feature Film” category at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.

    Thomas Keller


    Commencement Speaker: Cindy Pawlcyn

    California Campus—August 11, 2021

    Cindy Pawlcyn, a pioneer in the development of wine country cuisine, is the owner of Napa Valley’s legendary restaurant Mustards Grill. Since Mustards opened in 1983, Pawlcyn has been involved in the creation of many heralded restaurants in the greater San Francisco Bay Area including Fog City Diner, Bix, Roti, Betelnut, Buckeye Roadhouse, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, Go Fish, Cindy’s Waterfront at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Mustards Grill-SFO.

    Born in Minneapolis, MN, Pawlcyn grew up in an accomplished culinary family where garden fresh ingredients were an integral part of every meal and suppertime was always family time. “My parents raised me to appreciate good cooking,” she fondly says of her mother and father.

    At 13, Pawlcyn was working at a local cooking school and equipment store and helping in her mother’s kitchen. She ran a catering business through high school, and went on to earn a degree in hotel and restaurant management from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She further augmented her formal training by taking courses at Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne in Paris.

    Pawlcyn began her career in the kitchen of the Pump Room in Chicago, IL. She went on to cook in various other esteemed restaurants in both Chicago and Minneapolis before moving to California in 1979 to take a job at McArthur Park in San Francisco. In her first experience in a Northern California kitchen, Pawlcyn gained valuable insights into the region’s unique food culture.

    Pawlcyn entered the Napa Valley’s burgeoning restaurant culture as the opening chef at Meadowood in St. Helena and from there joined Bruce LeFavour at his acclaimed Rose et LeFavour. Armed with extensive kitchen leadership and regional culinary expertise, she successfully launched Mustards Grill in 1983, her now landmark and legendary restaurant.

    With over 40 years of experience working and living in the Napa Valley, Pawlycn remains intimately involved in the kitchen operations of Mustards Grill, which features its own culinary garden that supplements the locally sourced produce used in many of her dishes. Pawlcyn’s commitment to seasonal inspiration and the use of the region’s bountiful harvests continue to play a major role in the food coming out of her kitchen.

    “My father had a green thumb and he taught me a lot about growing produce and instilled a love for fresh flavors,” she says. “Everywhere I have lived, I have had a garden, whether it was a window box of herbs when I lived in Chicago or the large garden at my house. I feel it’s important for freshness and flavor and it brings people closer to their food.”

    Pawlcyn is the author of five cookbooks, Fog City Diner Cookbook, Big Small Plates, Appetizers, Cindy’s Supper Club and Mustards Grill Napa Valley Cookbook, which won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best American Cookbook. She is a three time finalist for the Outstanding Restaurateur Award from the James Beard Foundation.

    Cindy Pawlcyn


    Commencement Speaker: Johnny Hernandez ’89

    Texas Campus—August 11, 2021 and July 15, 2020

    Chef Johnny Hernandez is a celebrated chef, entrepreneur, and founder and President of Grupo La Gloria and True Flavors Inc. He is one of the premier Mexican cuisine chefs in the United States and a recognized authority on Mexican cuisine and culture. He first garnered notoriety as a rising star on the culinary scene in 2010, with the launch of his acclaimed flagship concept, La Gloria. His culinary ventures have since expanded to become Grupo La Gloria, a diverse and growing portfolio of signature restaurants and culinary projects.

    Chef Hernandez was born and raised in a community of first-generation Mexican-American families and grew up surrounded by the foods and traditions of interior Mexico that made their way across the border. Encouraged by his father to become a chef, he attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Johnny began his career at a number of exclusive resort destinations, including the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, NV and the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara, CA. Upon returning to San Antonio, TX in 1994, he opened his first venture, True Flavors Catering which earned national recognition for catering excellence. Today, his diverse and growing portfolio includes, La Gloria locations, The Fruteria y Botanero, Burgerteca, and Tortilleria La Gloria.

    The most profound influence on Chef Hernandez’s culinary style has been his extensive travels throughout Mexico. His time spent exploring the cultural nuances of each region’s art, agricultural, and street foods has shaped his vision to create authentic and accessible interior Mexican cuisine for American diners. His mission is to celebrate and preserve traditional Mexican food, ingredients and techniques. This mission serves as the guiding principle for creating unique dining experiences that reflect the rich and diverse flavors and culture of Mexico.

    He has been featured in numerous publications and TV shows, but one of his highest accolades came in 2016, when he showcased his culinary expertise and the flavors of Mexico at the White House as Guest Chef for President of the United States, Barack Obama.

    Chef Hernandez has raised more than $350,000 in scholarship funds through his nonprofit foundation Kitchen Campus, from his annual Paella Challenge Competition, which is held at the CIA’s San Antonio campus. He serves as a member of the CIA’s Advancement Committee and chairs college’s Alumni Council.

    Johnny Hernandez ’89


    Commencement Speaker: Heather Irwin

    California Campus—May 14, 2021

    Heather Irwin is the dining editor for Sonoma Magazine and the Press Democrat and the founder of BiteClubEats, an ongoing blog that jabs an irreverent fork at the restaurant scene in Sonoma County. An avid eater and writer, she has 15 years’ experience covering local restaurants, chefs, and food and has been a journalist for more than 25 years.

    Heather is also the founder of Sonoma Family Meal, a disaster-based non-profit founded in the darkest hours of the 2017 Tubbs wildfire. Working directly with dozens of local chefs including Kyle Connaughton, Douglas Keane, a team of Stark reality restaurant chefs, and many others SFM served more than 80,000 meals in the days, weeks, and months after more than 5,000 homes were lost. That work continued for more than two years, assisting families and seniors struggling to rebuild with weekly meals. Sonoma Family Meal was also active in the Kincade, Wall Bridge, and other recent disasters, paying restaurants and farmers for their food, which was prepared in a 10,000 square foot kitchen with more than 700 volunteers.

    During the pandemic, SFM served 250,000 meals in collaboration with 11 non-profit organizations supporting vulnerable seniors, farm workers, families, and those in quarantine and isolation. SFM supported local restaurants to prepare the food, paying out $1.7 million and keeping hundreds of restaurant workers employed. That project continues.

    For that work, Heather has been a Jefferson Award Winner, Spirit of Sonoma Winner and was honored by the Community Child Care Council, among others.

    She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and has moved 36 times, settling in Sonoma County in 2003. Heather has two very quirky rescue dachshund that like to stare at her while laying on her pillow.

    Heather Irwin


    Commencement Speaker: Nicola Blaque ’16

    Texas Campus—April 30, 2021

    Lattoia Massey, known professionally as Chef Nicola Blaque, is a restaurateur and chef based in San Antonio, TX. Chef Blaque is the executive chef and owner of the Jerk Shack, a Jamaican-inspired restaurant in San Antonio. The restaurant—which offers fare like jerk chicken, braised oxtail, and more—quickly became a staple in the community after it opened in 2018. Chef Blaque also opened Mi Roti, a Caribbean concept at the popular Pearl district in San Antonio, in the summer of 2020, and has major plans for expansion throughout the city.

    In addition to running successful concepts that have been recognized by GQ, Eater, and more, Chef Blaque is an Army veteran, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio, a private chef for members of the San Antonio Spurs, a wife, and a mom. Born and raised, until she was five years old, in Jamaica, Chef Blaque is passionate about introducing people to the flavors of the Caribbean. And, though she’ll be the first to tell you that the dishes she’s serving up aren’t always traditional Jamaican dishes, she’s passionate about infusing those flavors into cuisine her patrons know and love.

    Nicola Blaque


    Commencement Speaker: Melissa King ’07

    California Campus—January 29, 2021

    Chef Melissa King is best known as the winner of Bravo’s Top Chef All-Stars: Los Angeles Season 17. She holds more challenge wins than any other competitor in the history of Top Chef including the winner of All-Star’s Fan Favorite. She placed as a finalist on Top Chef : Boston Season 12. She has been recognized as “one of the best female chefs in San Francisco” and “40 under 40: Rising Star.”

    King completed a BA in Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine and attended The Culinary Institute of America graduating at the top of her class. She is also a certified level 1 sommelier. Her unique style of cooking combines modern California cuisine with Asian flavors.

    With over 15 years in the industry, King has helmed several Michelin-starred kitchens in San Francisco (Campton Place, Luce, and The Ritz Carlton Dining Room) under acclaimed names such as Dominique Crenn and Ron Siegel. She has cooked for notable figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Al Gore.

    As a proud Asian-American, queer woman, King has a passion for supporting the community—working with non-profit organizations and LGBTQI charities such as The Human Rights Campaign, The Trevor Project, Black Visions Collective, Asian Americans For Equality, and more. She was honored as a Celebrity Grand Marshal for San Francisco Pride and has modeled for Levi’s Strauss Co. in a global campaign advocating for the LGBTQ community. Along with being a chef, television personality, and brand partner, she actively participates in speaking panels supporting women’s empowerment, sustainability, food education, and entrepreneurship.

    King currently lives in San Francisco where she runs her own company focusing on partnerships and culinary experiences. She has a product line called King Sauce, a small-batched sauce and spice line available in her online shop. She also has an apparel line and offers online cooking experiences.

    Melissa King ’07