Ellen's Commencement Speech for Le Cordon Bleu

Diane Lieu

Last Saturday, November 18th, Ellen spoke in front of 4500 (!!!) people to the graduating class at Le Cordon Bleu - Pasadena. She was also given an honorary degree to the culinary program she had dreamed of attending 11 years ago! In addressing the recent graduates, she reminded them to stay true to themselves and to live life boldly.

Ellen Bennett Le Cordon Bleu Commencement Speech

Yayyy!! Before I even begin you deserve a humongous hooray and so do your family and friends for helping you get here!!!!  You did it!!!

Thank you President Sands for having me. I’m extraordinarily honored, sweaty palms and all to be standing here in a chef coat among all of you. It’s not every day that you get to talk at the school that you’d wished you’d gone to.

I was born in LA in 1987 to a Mexican mother and an English father. I spent half my youth  running around barefoot on the dirt streets, outside my grandma’s turquoise house in Mexico. Playing soccer with the local kids during the summer and the other half of the year, I was in LA going to school, eating burgers at in and out, frequenting Home Depot (my favorite store growing up) and drinking tea at my grandpa Hedley’s house living a totally different life than the one I had in Mexico.

Yet, it was on these summer trips to Mexico that I fell in love with the simplicity of life there––and WITH cooking. Just seeing the smile of excitement on people’s face when a heaping bowl of beans and homemade tortillas was placed in front of them was so amazing to me, and I wanted to make people feel that way too. But what I remember the most about those trips was how everyone had what they needed to survive, nothing they didn’t yet they were still happy. (The life seeds were being planted)

And then one year after returning home from Mexico, my 9 year old life got flipped upside down. My parents marriage exploded and they filed for divorce. It wasn’t one of those pretty and clean “its not you, it’s me” kind of divorces, it was the ugly, sticky awful kind that makes you think you’re watching a Mexican telenovela but it’s actually just you standing in your own living room. In the midst of watching my parents fall apart right before my eyes, I kept thinking: Who is going to help us now? who’s going to succeed for us? That’s when I made a very strong decision, one i so clearly remember to this day: to take responsibility not only for my own success but for my own happiness, my own moments of failure. It was right then, that took a kung fu grip on the reigns of my own life and never let go.

I’m sure everyone of you has at one time or another been exposed to a challenge in life, and what I didn’t realize back then was how much overcoming those early experiences would shape the way I approached my future.  I turned my parents divorce into my life’s catalyst to succeed and as the fuel to push myself to new and greater heights.

It was during my high school years when I really began cooking---- I would see my mom come home super exhausted after a 12 hour shift as a nurse at the hospital. I wanted to feed her. So after school, I’d look up recipes online, walk over to the nearby supermarket, buy groceries and push the cart all the way home and get to work. I would iron her uniforms and walk my sister to school and take on anything I could to relieve the load on her shoulders. The circumstances of my life became opportunities for me to grow and took every one of them.

By the time I was 18, I didn’t necessarily have a checklist of goals or my life all figured out... but I did know that I wanted to cook... and my mother just couldn’t afford culinary school here, so I decided to find my own way and moved to Mexico City...

I rented a tiny little room that used to be an oversized closet as my first home in Mexico. I signed up for my Mexican citizenship and found scrappy ways of putting together a living - taught English lessons, did simultaneous translating, announced the lottery on national television and used every freaking skill I had to make money so I could cover my rent while studying restaurant management at a local university. I was even a booth babe - you know those ladies at conventions and conferences that dress up pretty and sell everything from canola oil to bulletproof vehicles... I was one of ‘em!

I took pointless jobs that now, don’t seem so pointless anymore. Those experiences taught me how how to talk to anyone about anything, I learned about failing and succeeding and then getting creative and not taking no for an answer.  l found that opportunity will come knocking on your door at the most random times and you can ignore it or not even notice it or you can seize it, take a leap of faith and step out into the crazy beautiful and wild adventure that is life and live it. And that’s exactly what I did.

After four years in Mexico at the ripe age of 23, I felt like I’d lived a whole life there and was ready to come home. And when i got back, everything was still the same here. Except I was the one who had changed, I had grown up more than I even realized and I was ready to achieve all my food dreams… I was here to build my taco empire.

I knew I needed to get a job at a restaurant first so I walked into several places not knowing the food scene in LA and asked to speak to the chefs… at one spot, I befriended one of the bus boys standing outside on his break, he kindly escorted me into the kitchen, pointed at the chef and then quickly ran off. That place was a 2 Michelin star restaurant called Providence. Could I do this?? I had no idea but I had gotten into the kitchen and I wasn’t about to leave. So i asked for a shot at working there, showed up for my stage a couple days later and kept showing up and when I didn’t know what to do on the line, I would clean… and I would clean faster, harder and better than anyone so that if anything, they would keep me around to make sure the kitchen was spotless. I would watch and learn as I scrubbed counters around the chefs and when they weren’t looking I would jump in and put the garnish right where I had seen them do it 15 times earlier that night. They began to notice and a week later, they offered me a job. I was a bonafide working cook proudly being paid real money even if it wasn’t a lot!! It wasn’t glamorous or easy, it was really hard. But I learned a lot… about observing, about endurance, people, emotions, breaking points and how you can almost always can do more than you thought you could. I learned that FEAR can be crippling especially in a kitchen but I also realized that in the time it takes you to stand there and worry about failing, you could also just have thrown yourself in, failed and gotten right back up again, to do it right the second time and keep going.

As my life as a line cook picked up and I got more confident in my work, I finally had a chance to pick up my head and look around the kitchen. I saw a pirate ship of rockstar cooks, preparing some of the most beautiful food in the city. But I also saw a lot of tired people whose whites had seen better days and yet that was invisible to everyone in there. I started thinking about what it would look like to give these cooks, these porters, these chefs --- my teammates in the battle of nightly service---- a sense of dignity no matter how many hours they’d worked so they could be as proud of themselves as the dishes they were creating. Cooking was like a sport to me, so why couldn’t we have awesome uniforms to match us.

Ellen Bennett Chef Aprons

THAT’S how the idea to start an apron company first popped into my head... and a few weeks later a chance PRESENTED ITSELF. I was in the kitchen prepping for service and my chef asked if I wanted in on an apron order. In a matter of seconds I convinced myself I could do this and TOLD him that IN FACT I had an apron company and that I would make him the aprons in less time and for less money. DON’T ask me how but he agreed. And so I finished my shift, raced home and called everybody I knew. I traded meals for knowledge and patterns, I found someone to sew my aprons for me and I proudly delivered the first batch. TWO days later my chef called me into his office and said “Bennett! These straps, they suck!!”

So I didn’t get it right at first, but I made it right. And what’s more, I knew I wanted to keep going.   I realized however silly at the time it sounded to my colleagues and friends that this was something that made me come alive.  I had a vision to cover the world in H&B aprons and to create the most durable, beautiful and functional chef wear anywhere.

I started hustling at farmer’s markets in the mornings, I’d go to food events with my chef on the weekends and then find ways as many other ways as I could to talk to more people. I remembered my family in Mexico and how you can do a lot with a little I realized I COULD do this and so I went face to face, person by person, chef by chef and just like in the kitchen, I would leap in, take shots, fail some, win a few but I would ALWAYS keep going. There was nothing refined about it but right before my eyes, my taco empire dreams morphed into the shape of an apron and I was on a freakin mission.

Over the next four years I took this dream from my living room, to a tiny office, and then a bigger one to a now 15,000 square-foot warehouse and nearly 30 employees in DTLA. We now make workwear and aprons for over 4,000 restaurants in the US and outfit chefs like Mario Batali, David Chang, Nancy Silverton, April Bloomfield, Marc Vetri, Grant Achatz and we’ve worked with companies like Delta airlines, google, spacex, Four Seasons, Blue bottle, and carnival cruises.  It was one step at a time. Sometimes 10 mistakes at a time. But we kept moving forward.

This was my journey, yours will be entirely different—but I’ve learned if you are willing to listen to the GPS within yourself, you’ll usually be ok.

Stretch your own mental comfort zone everyday and figure out how to say yes to the chances that life hands you, and if life doesn’t hand them to you, go out and make them, be willing to be scrappy as hell..willing to be poor...willing to pick up and move your life to a new place, willing to take on side hustles just to pay the bills because You CAN do it. It starts with your decision and you.

Congratulations class of 2016, may you live life fully and completely.

You’ve got this!