Winter Commencement Address
Charles (Charlie) H. Trotter
Sunday, December 23, 2001, Kohl Center
Congratulations to all of your for your incredible accomplishment and good luck for what you’re about to embark on. Let me tell you a little story about my background.
I studied political science and philosophy here before a lot of you were born, I’m sure. Often times these days I’m asked, “How did you get into the world of food and cooking and restaurants?” And I’ll say, “Well, I’ve always loved to eat and I decided I wanted to be a cook.” And they’ll say, “Well, where did you go to school?” And I’ll say, “I went to the University of Wisconsin,” and they’ll say, “I didn’t realize they had a culinary program.” I’ll say, “I have no idea if they do or they don’t – the thing is, the food that was served in the dormitories was such that food was all I thought about, so I decided to change that — to make sure that food was always going to be significant and substantial in my life.”
When I graduated, probably like a lot of young people, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I wanted to make sure that whatever I did, it would not be a job. It would be something where it would be very easy to do every day and I wouldn’t think about having to go to work. I would just think about trying to grow and refine myself and fulfill myself.
So the greatest thing in the world happened to me. I got a job as a cook for minimum wage — $3.10 an hour — and I felt like the luckiest guy in the world, because I thought, I can’t believe these people are willing to pay me $3.10 to teach me how to do this amazing thing. We all have to eat every day. Every great thing in life ends up happening around the table. Family occasions, weekends, Sunday afternoons, holidays, graduating, getting a job, getting a promotion, proposing to a loved one, one country conquering another country — everything ends up around the table. Along the way, I learned that you can study any culture, any group of people in the world, by studying what they do to gather food and how they put food together.
I’ll tell you something I learned along the way, and that’s that you’ve only just begun, and you have to make sure that it’s a constant, ongoing education. And that’s how you stay young and very focused on things. So to this day, running this restaurant for the past 15 years, I still feel like I’m a student, and a base a lot of my drive and motivation on my experience here at this university — learning how to think critically, reading the great books, learning how o entertain multiple and even conflicting ideas at the same time, learning how to motivate people, learning about leadership.
That’s the other key thing — the word “leadership.” That’s what you all are today. You’re all leaders, and it’s important that you never, ever deviate from the idea, from the understanding, that you are going to be your own fiercest leader, your own toughest critic, your own most prodding boss.
Often times people come to me for employment and I’ll say why do you want to work here? And they’ll say, well, because I’d like to become a manager. I want to learn about management, and I’ll have to lower the boom and say (that) I cannot think of a more worthless pursuit than wanting to become a manager. Who cares about that? You can do that later in life. Now is the time to forget about title, position, wage and to only think about knowledge that can come your way, because you still need to feed your head for a long time to come. It’s the only thing that counts.
The most important thing, though, is to think of yourself as a leader, so whatever the expectation, whatever the standard that you may encounter — any job, any position, anything that you do, any boss, whatever he wants you to do — your own standard has to be beyond that. Then you begin to achieve significant things. If you don’t achieve something significant, then it really doesn’t matter. And you’re in a position to control your own fate, your own destiny.
Along the way, it’s imperative that you find a way to help other people who might not have the means or the opportunity or the insight to do something special. And it’s very easy. Sometimes it’s just showing up once in a while and helping people learn to read. Sometimes it’s being part of a fund-raising activity or a special charitable event.
For years, because I’m in the food world, I have had the opportunity to prepare special meals for people and help raise money for great and worthy causes, and that has been important for me and for my staff. But something very important has happened in the past three years. We started our own culinary education program, and it’s a two-part program. One part – the easy part – is that we raise money. We’ve raised about $300,000 to provide scholarships for young people who don’t have the means or the opportunity to go off to culinary school. That’s easy to do. We just organize a special dinner or event and all the money goes to the cause.
The second part, which is much more interesting, is a hands-on program. Twice a week we have Chicago public high school students come to the restaurant for something that we call “The Excellence Experience.” They literally arrive on a school bus at 5 o’clock in the afternoon — 20 students, two or three teacher chaperones – and these are not people who are interested in the food world necessarily, and we could care less if they get into the food world. We’re just trying to show them what passion is all about. They come in and they go on tour. They sit at one big table and, for two or two-and-a-half hours, they have an eight- or nine-course menu and they hear from about a dozen of our staff members, who talk about what they do every day, how they work with humility and respect for everything around them, and how they try to go the next level every single day.
Then we insist that the young people ask questions, and it’s really great, because in the early days, they were very nervous. They would say things like “Has Michael Jordan ever dined here?” or “What’s the most expensive wine you have here?” — these crazy questions. Now we talk about sustainable agriculture and genetically modified foods and how to motivate people and the nobility of service.
It’s a great sight at seven at night when the school bus pulls back up in front of the restaurant, vying for space with stretch limousines and luxury automobiles, and the students come tumbling out the door and people are saying, “Are we in the right place?” But it’s making a difference, and it’s showing people that it doesn’t matter what you do — if you paint houses, if you start a business, go to law school or deliver mail. If you give the thing 150 percent every single day, it’s going to give back to you more than you ever gave to it.
This is message — you get what you give. And if you want a lot — and you’d better want a lot — you’ve got to be prepared to give, because taking care of others and doing things for people comes back to you in ways that are immeasurable.
So, to all of you I say, “Congratulations!” And I cannot wait to toast you when you’re down at the restaurant having a celebration dinner. Good luck!
(Renowned restaurateur and master chef Charlie Trotter received a bachelor’s degree in political science from UW–Madison in 1982. In addition to owning and operating Charlie Trotter’s, his award-winning Chicago restaurant, he has authored several cookbooks, and his television show, “The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter,” can be seen on PBS stations across the country. )