Text: My UCLA Commencement Speech



Good afternoon Dean Schaberg, Professor Porodi, faculty, staff, graduates and all the families here today.

Dean Schaberg. Thank you for thinking I would be a good person to inspire people with more energy and spirit than I’ve had for a couple of decades. I guess we’ll find out in a few minutes if you made the right decision.

So graduates. I may not be Kanye, or Natalie Portman, DiNiro or any of the celebrities giving these speeches this year but I am however, a sterling example of how your life can develop into something completely different then you initially imagine and how surprisingly good that turns out to be. Also I had the same atypical desire as you did to fall into the rabbit hole of language and cultural studies.

So huge congratulations on making the best decision of your life so far. Majoring in the humanities. I’ve always thought that the whole point of education at this level was to learn how to enjoy learning because it’s the only constant in a well-lived life, to engage that impulse to love learning is everything, because you’re going to need it throughout your entire life. That learning cannot stop at graduation.

I was part of a young generation that rebelled, oh how we rebelled and yet as we started to join the workforce I think many of us assumed that when we became adults, we could have a fruitful, rewarding life if we picked the safest, most predictable course. We were confident that if we entered onto a well-trod path, we could be fairly certain of what would be waiting for us as we moved from stop to stop on whatever singular road we chose. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face the everyday in the same indoor office option, even though it was the safe one. I already learned through cooking that I could earn a living and have a more flexible lifestyle. When I graduated with my degree in Italian Lit slash film I was panicked when I thought I had to enter a more sequestered work environment than the kitchen to earn a living.

So what did I do? I did what any fearful person would do I continued to build on what I had been doing all through college; I continued to cook for the caterer who had underwritten my undergrad education by paying me a wage. The decision was made out of fear, fear of throwing myself into an unfamiliar world that I perceived to be limiting. You are entering a world where the possibility of a single, predictable career track that lasts a lifetime is far less likely. Unless! Unless you have the belief, commitment and luck to enter and win the intellectual and emotional lottery. If you have a passion or an obsession about a subject… art, or literature, philosophy, diplomacy…, or the culture of that language you’ve been studying, who knows, maybe Icelandic woodworking. That sense of internal resolve and insatiable love for your subject…it may surprise you to know that that’s an easy road to take. You have no choice because you are driven and you’ll get dragged over the rocks and through quenching streams as you follow that bliss. You’ll continue to learn, and create work opportunities that are varied and will lead to more opportunity. Maybe you’ll earn well, maybe you won’t but the deepest satisfaction from your work will fill in the financial gaps and fill you with inspiration.

I’m lucky that my fear that caused me to not let go of the kitchen, even as I came back to UCLA for my graduate degree at what is now the Anderson School worked out. Balancing those two, seemingly unrelated worlds turned out to be a charmed decision. And not just because with an MBA in hand I surrendered to the seductions of good food and using my hands to make it, but because I continued to read about and practice my passion, food – while at the same time, learning about spread sheets, administration and best business practices at school, (by the way still feeling like an oddball), but now I embraced it. Before the internet, being a food nerd was a lonely occupation, but it was mine. In all the moments I wasn’t working for pay, I was working for free, traveling and reading, continuing to learn about food industries, culinary careers and starting to write.

I took my gap year between high school and college and traveled to Europe which is when I became besotted with Italian language and culture and the food – always the food. So as I started my formal Italian education here as an undergraduate, I also continued the lifelong process of learning through travel. Despite a nearly paralyzing shyness, (yes really) those initial interactions with those I met there, the mom from the B and B where I was staying, the teachers, chefs, home cooks and just folks from a different world than mine became my future fodder. Relationships were now richer and deeper because of my newfound language facility. I discovered that in some ways I felt more like myself and more at home half a world away from Los Angeles. Life got bigger, more complex, certainly more interesting and much tastier on all levels. Every time I returned home from another trip I had more to offer emotionally and intellectually. There were deeper reserves on which I could rely. And man could I cook.

When I was offered the job to host Good Food at KCRW I’d already owned, managed and cooked in my restaurant for 15 years. I thought I had finally had achieved the goal of meaningful work, a career… like those friends of mine who were physicians and attorneys. I had one of the longest running restaurants in LA, a wonderful kitchen family, devoted and loyal customers, several cookbooks published – things were comfortable and predictable. It was 23 years or so after I graduated from this marvelous institution.

I was given just fifteen minutes to say yes or no to the KCRW position. For a second I thought … but I’m not trained for the world of media or broadcasting! My UCLA degrees weren’t in Communication Studies! This wasn’t my intended Career Path Plan (forget that I had no plan)! Despite total fear of the unknown, I said yes…and discovered my dream job. I always knew deep down that despite the great rewards of my restaurant life it wasn’t the perfect fit. But I could never have imagined that all my years of food nerd-ery, of reading and talking to people about arcane food subjects, about food politics that were totally off the news radar at the time, too much time thinking about food as art and food as solace and food as community building – that all of that would give me a deep base of focused learning, insight, and expertise. All of which coalesced and aligned for me to be able to accept and thrive in the work at KCRW. Who could have known that all along it was an intellectual curiosity about people (the same curiosity that pushed me to become an Italian major) and how we’re revealed through food that would deliver me to a perfect job, a new career track, expanded visions and newly sparked passions?

If you’ve discovered a niche in academia during these four years and are making the commitment to stay on for further education, great! But I hope you also explore all the potential learning sources available to you outside of these walls. If you’ve decided that your formal education is complete or you will take a respite from formal education for now, that’s equally valid. Because the truth is that your real education begins when you walk off this campus and into the next stage of your life.

NY Times commentator Frank Bruni recently wrote:

… there’s only so much living and learning that takes place inside a lecture hall, a science lab or a dormitory. Education happens across a spectrum of settings and in infinite ways, and college has no monopoly on the ingredients for professional achievement or a life well lived.

Bruni was referring to the competitive, anxiety-provoking and trend-driven arena of college applications and admissions. But to me, his sentiment has a richer meaning when applied to those moments when you’re in a life transition such as the one you step out from today. You’ll have more moments like these. Transitions from job to job, from living on your own to sharing a life with others. Maybe you’ll move across the globe from time to time. It’s useful when you’re on the cusp of these transitions to remind yourself that a critical learning curve is about to happen. Throw yourself into it. Counsel your doubts, but dispel the fear. Discomfort is natural, it rips away complacency and generates activism.

Maybe you’re cautious or anxious because the world in which you are coming of age in is very different than the one that nurtured your parents. Maybe you’ve heard them worry about or seen them experience a lack of stability or security. That will be formative for you, indeed. But at the same time – Wow, how great that you’re not expected to predict or have 100% assurance about what you’ll be happy doing 20 years from now. How can you possibly know yet? You are only now paused at the first major fork in the road of your life.

The biggest challenge will be for those of you who may not find total fulfillment in your work life immediately. I’m here to say, that’s ok because there is…. life. Not spending your soul on work means you can save it for life and you can have the luxury to draw your own picture of what that is and will be for you, years from now. Cultivate a nimble mind when it comes to challenges. Strive to connect that which at first glance seems un-connectable, for example, food and academia (which when I graduated from this institution would have been laughable).

Trust me, you’ll find work. Will it be the most meaningful, thoughtful, life reinforcing work ever right out of the gate? Maybe, but even if it isn’t let balance guide you. Life is big and work lives within it. You might overhear a single sentence said by a colleague or someone visiting your workplace that will resonate and make you think or prompt you toward a wise decision. Perhaps you’ll meet your life partner. A cultivated connection could spark the desire to, invent, create or collaborate.

You’ve just completed one of the most structured eras of your life, That is a lot of classroom time from K through college. I hope you see what’s ahead of you as a wonderfully strange travel experience with plenty of opportunity for unexpected turn-offs and detours. Often those become the most rewarding. Many times we have be willing to become lost to find out what is most meaningful or locate a constructive new direction.

I’m here to tell you that You are enough, you are whole. At the same time you – and I, your faculty, in fact everyone here for this celebration – each of us is a work in progress. And it’s clear you made the right decision. Your University education was never meant to be a job training prescription or at all career limiting. And in particular an education in the Humanities by its very nature is an education of the whole person for a whole life, in the whole world.

I leave you with my love for pie as a metaphor. I spent my life cooking, writing about and teaching the culture of the Italian kitchen. My father was born in Russia. My mother is a first generation American. At KCRW I’d say that at least half of my interviews involve immigrant and world food cultures, so it’s kind of ironic that today, some people know me best as a person who is obsessed with that most American of foods, pie.

I guess what pie is for me is a lesson that learning and growth can happen in the most unexpected ways. For me it turns out that another chapter was hidden between two crusts.
I learned that even at this time in my life I could embrace a new discipline that previously involved only deliciousness. I learned that I could create community through craft and most of all I learned that pie is a wisdom, not a recipe. Much like life it’s about reconciling opposites. With pie it’s tenderness and flakiness, a balance between savoriness, sweet and tart. So I leave you with my sincere, and heartfelt congratulations on achieving this momentous moment in your lives and a wish for a delicious life and the sweetness of unexpected complexity.



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