As the city’s financial district bustled through its morning rush hour outside of the historic Union League Club of Chicago, inside, 98 students of The French Pastry School of Kennedy-King College at City Colleges of Chicago took the first steps toward beginning their new vocation. Graduates of the full-time programs, L’Art de la Pâtisserie and L’Art du Gâteau, celebrated their commencement on the same day that the school received one of the highest honors that educators can be given by the French government: Ordre des Palmes Academiques (Order of Academic Palms), a recognition that was instituted by Napoleon to award “teaching and the development of knowledge.”
Graham Paul, the Consul General of France in Chicago, presented Chefs Jacquy Pfeiffer and Sébastien Canonne, M.O.F., with the topmost decoration a civilian can receive, that of a chevalier, or knight, of the order. The chefs dedicated their award to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy and observed a moment of silence for them and their families.
The commencement speech given by Jonathan McCabe, general manager of The Union League Club of Chicago, reflected these humbling sentiments as he charged the graduates to take their commitments to their industry seriously and to always do the right thing.
The graduating class was made up of a diverse mix of students: career changers, recent college and high-school graduates, and food-industry professionals looking for further training. Students came from all over the world and the country to study the art of everything sweet and baked, whether they immersed themselves in Baking and Pastry Arts for six months in L’Art de la Pâtisserie or specialized in Cake Baking and Decorating for four months in L’Art du Gâteau. Each of the graduating streams, or groups of students, selected a speaker to represent them: from California, Panama, Puerto Rico, Illinois, and Canada, the speakers were a symbol of the varying backgrounds of their classes and the colorful futures that await them in pastry. As Rebecca Weber of L’Art du Gâteau put it, “The universe of food is a big one, and there is room for all of us to succeed.”
McCabe related wisdom culled from his long experience in hospitality to the audience. After a career as an officer in the military, during which he was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, McCabe began to manage several high-profile clubs in Arizona. Since he began at the Union League Club, he has been named Club Manager of the Year in 2003 and Hotelier of the Year in 2010. “Welcome to your new life,” he greeted the students. “It will be grand because you chose it and you chose it because you are passionate about it.” McCabe congratulated the students on starting on the right path. “You've chosen your institution wisely, but remember [The French Pastry School] is only as good as the people who make it up—including the graduates … Do the right thing: Your reputation will follow you wherever you go.” McCabe's speech encouraged the new alumni to work as a team within the pastry industry throughout the rest of their careers; set an example for future generations of pastry chefs; and maintain their reputation as professionals. In the current world economy it takes bold, passionate people to invest in new training and pursue it; by taking that bold step in the hospitality field, McCabe said, “You have a ticket to go anywhere in the world.”
Paul extolled the qualities that make the school unique. “What is remarkable in the success story of The French Pastry School is the clear choice made right at the beginning to found a professional education institution ... on the model of the French artisan apprenticeship. Constantly striving towards excellence, this education embodies the work ethic and core values of French artisan values such as passion, creativity, love of work well done, and dedication to details.”
The award-winning chef instructors instilled these values by example throughout the programs, and the results could clearly be seen in the reception that followed the graduation ceremony. The entire second floor of The French Pastry School was taken over by the students’ pastry creations: plated desserts in miniature; slices of gleaming entremets and colorful petits gâteaux; towering showpieces made from chocolate, sugar and cake; rows upon rows of bonbons; bowls full of handmade candies; and a gallery of masterfully decorated celebration cakes. For many students, it was the first time they were able to present their family and friends with the results of their education.
As the students left The French Pastry School, they joined the network of alumni that gets stronger with every graduation. Throughout the term, the students worked with career counselors to find employment; many plan to move back to their home towns and countries to begin the journey to opening their own shops. Those staying in Chicago have earned positions such as baker at The Peninsula Hotel; pastry chef at Quince; assistant pastry chef at Everest; R&D pastry cook at Charlie Baggs, Inc.; and many more. Over the years, graduates continue to support each other through their successes as leaders of pastry kitchens and business owners, hiring recent graduates and connecting with each other around the world.
Photo: Graham Paul (c.), Consul General of France in Chicago, presented Chefs Jacquy Pfeiffer (l.) and Sébastien Canonne, M.O.F., with the topmost decoration a civilian can receive, that of a chevalier, or knight, of the Ordre des Palmes Academiques. Courtesy of Paul Strabbing