The audience expected celebrity chef José Andrés to focus his Commencement speech on paella, and he delivered.
The native Spaniard filled his keynote address with metaphors about cooking, explaining to graduates that like cooking, life can be boiled down to a perfect meal. Andrés, who dropped out of high school, said he received an education in the kitchen, but was recognized today with a degree.
As he was growing up, Andrés often wanted to make paella with his father in his hometown of Mieres, Spain, but his father told him to build the fire instead. Only years later did he realize that his father was teaching him that he needed to master the basics before he could move on to the next level.
Andrés, who’s become arguably the most sought-after chef in D.C., said through his successes and failures opening 14 high-end restaurants across the nation, he’s learned that there’s no recipe to life. Without adapting quickly to challenges, he promised graduates that they could not succeed.
“If things don’t go as expected, make the unexpected work in your favor. Change the name of the dish,” he told the group of 25,000 graduates, administrators and families on the National Mall.
But there is a cocktail to life, he said, eliciting cheers from the crowd. “Add your heart, your soul, your brain, your instinct and shake it hard,” he said. The secret ingredient is a sprinkle of criticism to keep motivated.
“There will always be more people bringing you down than bringing you up,” he said. “Prove them wrong.”
But his career wasn’t always a success story. He had trained under Ferran Adria, one of the most widely acclaimed chefs in the world, but when he arrived in New York City as a 20-year-old, he spent all of his savings on a cab ride to his new job. He only had enough to get him halfway, but he said that challenge pushed him to become the epitome of the American Dream.
Though Andrés, a James Beard award winner, is now credited with drastically redrawing the landscape for D.C. cuisine, he said skeptics tried to make him second guess his chosen menu, which consisted solely of Spanish tapas, and his location in a then-dreary Penn Quarter.
Now, tapas are a signal for a trendy and innovative restaurant and the small dishes are “part of the American mosaic.”
Andrés is a prime example of the American Dream, having just earned his citizenship this past November. But that ideal is shifting, he said, urging the graduates to shape a new American Dream that better accounts for the less-fortunate.
“It’s not about having high-paying jobs, big houses, fast cars. There is nothing wrong with that, but the new American Dream is bigger,” Andrés, 44, said. “It’s about achieving your success while making an impact in the world.”
Also a philanthropist, Andrés has founded programs such as World Central Kitchen, which was established after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He said he founded the nonprofit to find long-term solutions to worldwide hunger, instead of “throwing money at the problem.”
He has led the D.C. Central Kitchen since his arrival in the city and is the chairman of L.A. Kitchen. Both are nonprofits that work to combat hunger in urban neighborhoods.
He was an adjunct professor at GW, where he taught a course about the relationship between hunger, public health and food insecurity. He also serves on GW’s Urban Food Task Force and is a special adviser to University President Steven Knapp on bringing sustainable food practices to GW.
When Andrés was selected in March, students lashed out against the decision on Twitter, commenting that they should have attended universities with more prominent speakers like University of California-Irvine, where President Barack Obama will speak next month.
Andrés admitted that when he was chosen, even his three daughters were confused, asking him if he was expected to speak to the graduates or cook lunch for them, like when he served paella to students in Kogan Plaza this semester.
Andrés tackled the criticism head on, kicking off his speech with a two-minute video starring politicians and celebrities such as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and actors Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow and Owen Wilson.
He said when Knapp called him to ask if he would headline Commencement, Knapp told him he was the first call, but Andrés joked that he did not believe him.
The short film depicted the stars taking phone calls from Knapp, who asked them to keynote the ceremony. Each turned down the invitation, and some suggested Knapp ask Andrés instead.
“I’m actually really busy that day,” said “Modern Family’s” Jesse Tyler Ferguson as he sipped a martini, before suggesting Andrés as an alternative.
At the ceremony, Knapp awarded Andrés an honorary doctorate in public service. Social justice activist Maudine Cooper, who served as president of the Greater Washington Urban League for more than two decades, and Russell Ramsey, an alumnus and former chair of the Board of Trustees, were also honored with degrees.
Knapp charged the Class of 2014 with staying spirited, curious, energetic and committed to service. He urged the graduates to respect others and learn from each other’s differences in culture, tradition and opinion.
“You are our future,” Knapp said, repeating his words from last year. “We depend on you to repair what earlier generations have broken, to build what we have left unbuilt, to learn what we have not yet learned, to heal what we have so far left unhealed.”
Student speaker Gabriel Felder, a political communications major, paid tribute to his father at the podium. A month before dying in a 2010 shooting at the Manchester, Conn. warehouse where he worked, his father advised him to not waste his time at GW.
“I took the advice to heart, but what I realize now is that I really didn’t need it,” Felder said. “To be a GW student is antithetical to wasting it. We are perhaps best known as those who don’t just seize opportunities but make our own.”
Although his father was not there to see him graduate, Felder said he is confident he fulfilled the advice to make the best of his time at GW.
“I am a Colonial after all,” he said. “We do not mope and wait for the world to deliver better things. We know never to take the present for granted and that life does not begin until we say it does.”