Cheena Chatti to CIA: Thomas Zacharias Masters Culinary School

Thomas Zacharias, Graduate of Culinary Institute of America

Thomas Zacharias, Culinary Institute of America Graduate

Here is another example of an  extraordinarily accomplished student, Thomas Zacharias, who showed great courage in leaving his home country of India to pursue his dream. Remember his name. He is destined for greatness. I’ve invited him to tell his story:

It was on an unusually cold June morning in 1998, in my beautiful South Indian state of Kerala when I was first bitten by the culinary bug. The monsoon rains had just kicked in and the air smelled heavily of the earth. I was standing in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her cook lunch for the rest of our family. After years of relishing her food every afternoon, I was finally taking an interest in what actually happened in her kitchen.

That day, she placed a cheena chatti (a precursor to the wok) on the stove and lit it with a match. She heated up a little oil and threw in some mustard seeds, curry leaves, and dried red chilies. I jerked back in fright as the mustard seeds spluttered in the hot oil, releasing its complex spicy aroma.

She smiled as she pointed to the stove and said, “Don’t let the flame scare you. Cooking is about mastering the heat.” Little did I realize that nine years later I would be at the finest culinary school in the world learning to master that very same heat.

After completing high school, I decided to pursue a career dedicated to gratifying people through food and wine. I enrolled at the prestigious Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in India, where I graduated top of my class with a Bachelor’s Degree in Hotel Management.

I had job offers from some of the best hotels in India but felt that I was still unseasoned. To further enhance my culinary knowledge and experience, I left my family, friends, and the security of my home of 21 years to study at my dream school, The Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

When I first drove into the stunning CIA campus, I could sense the rush I was longing to experience for months—like the feeling you get when you make your first perfect consommé. It was pure exhilaration and it was definitely worth the wait.

Roth Hall, the former Jesuit monastery building, stood there in all its celebrated glory; the Vatican of the culinary world as we know it. The beautiful Anton Plaza lay before it overlooking the spectacular Hudson River and the striking fall foliage of the valley. Glimpses of the exquisite award-winning Italian ristorante Caterina de’ Medici, perfectly placed in a Mediterranean setting surrounded with a bountiful herb garden pulled me in. Of course, the Conrad N. Hilton library stood tall, proudly being one of the greatest sources of food knowledge in the world. Five minutes on this campus and I knew I was in the right place.

Before I knew it, I was immersed in classes. It surely went fast. The school’s Progressive Learning Year (PLY) academic system implied that a student has to be constantly up to date with his assigned daily work. No excuses are entertained — not even the classic “my dog ate my homework,” which could make more sense here than anywhere else.

I nevertheless decided to make the best of my time here and so, it wasn’t unusual for me to spend hours on end in the library reading up on world cuisines and the science behind basic cooking techniques, not to mention legendary chefs such as Escoffier and Careme and Bocuse. They always had to throw me out when the library closed for the night.

I completed my 18 week mandatory externship under accomplished Chef Shea Gallante ’96 at the Michelin-starred restaurant Cru in Manhattan. Though the hours were long and the paycheck small, I was only grateful to be gaining such a valuable experience.

Back in school again and submerged in the heat of classes, I decided that I needed to do beyond just academics and applied for the position of editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, La Papillote. To my surprise, I was hired. It was a position I had dreamt of for more than a year. I had great plans for the paper, which I duly accomplished. My extensive experience as a tutor in the Writing Center helped immensely.

Then one day, while in restaurant row, (the last set of classes one partakes in before graduation), and chopping fresh herbs for service in the St. Andrew’s restaurant kitchen, I was told that there was someone waiting outside to see me. The man—who was of medium height, wore thick-rimmed glasses, and could be in his late 50s—introduced himself as Henry Woods, Associate Dean of Faculty Development at the CIA. My mind switched itself into defense mode and I wondered what trouble I’d gotten myself into.

Dean Woods, however, quickly put me at ease. He informed me that I was selected as one of two students to represent the CIA, the world’s premier culinary college, as a student honor delegate at the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation Salute to Excellence to be held in Chicago on May 16, 2009 — six days before I was to graduate. I was beyond thrilled.

The Salute is an annual event which witnesses hundreds of exemplary culinary students, distinguished faculty, and esteemed industry professionals from all over the country meeting together in one location to interact and talk about the present and the future of the foodservice industry in America. This was one of the greatest opportunities for any student at the CIA; all my hard work and dedication towards this school had finally paid off.

I am now in my last class at the CIA—Advanced Table Service at CIA’s flagship restaurant, Escoffier. I have retired from my positions as editor-in-chief as well as tutor and am preparing for life post-CIA. I have been chosen to be the graduation speaker for my graduation, and possibly may be chosen as valedictorian. As I gather together the words for my speech, I cannot help but reminisce about how far I’ve come from the days I spent in my grandmother’s kitchen. I cannot help but think of all the chefs in this school who have taught me several valuable lessons, both within the realms of the kitchen and beyond. I realize I will soon be part of a larger family of professionals who proudly carry the CIA name with them wherever they go.

I could not be more proud.