Spanish chef José Andrés inspires George Washington University graduates

TV gourmet follows in footsteps of Michelle Obama by making prestigious graduation address

Spanish chef José Andrés during his speech.
Spanish chef José Andrés during his speech.

Before this Sunday Spanish chef and TV personality José Andrés had never attended a university graduation ceremony. He quit high school as a teenager and educated himself in “the kitchen of life,” he confessed to the 25,000-strong crowd at last weekend’s ceremony for graduating George Washington University students in the US capital.

The occasion was not his own graduation but rather his confirmation as one of the most important voices in Washington today. As the owner of the number of successful restaurants who has been invited to show off his talents in the White House kitchen, Andrés has also carved out a place for himself on the exclusive list of names to have delivered the graduation speech at one of the most prestigious seats of learning in the United States. Last year actress Kerry Washington had the honor of addressing the university’s graduating students; before that it was the turn of TV journalist Brian Williams. In 2011, then-mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg delivered the speech and before him First Lady Michelle Obama sought to inspire students setting out into the world of work.

Dressed in the university’s blue-and-black gown, Andrés admitted that when he told one of his daughters that he had been invited to such an important event, she immediately asked him “if he was going to cook for or speak to” the 25,000 guests. The chef apologized to the crowd for not having been nominated for an Oscar or having received a Nobel Prize – “yet” – and for not being as “interesting” as the wife of Barack Obama.

Success is about using your talents to do something bigger in the world”

Then he revealed the surprise he had in store for the graduating students and their families: a star-studded video that set the bar very high for whoever is chosen to follow him in 2015. The montage showed actors including Gwyneth Paltrow, Morgan Freeman and Owen Wilson turning down university president Steven Knapp’s request to deliver the address with a variety of excuses, before all going on to propose the same idea: calling Andrés.

After the joke, which received a standing ovation from the crowd on Washington’s National Mall, Andrés turned his address into a invitation for the new graduates to adopt a more ambitious definition of personal success, one that includes making a positive impact on the lives of others.

“The challenges we face today – hunger, poverty, inequality, war – have been around forever, but that doesn’t mean it always has to be this way,” he said. “Success is no longer only about achieving your goals. It’s about using your skills and talents to do something bigger in the world. This is the new American Dream.”

The chef, who recently obtained US citizenship, said he had always wanted to form part of this dream. “I fell in love with the idea that no matter what your background, anything was possible here,” he said, looking back on his journey as a Spanish immigrant in Washington and the effort it took to forge a brand that has been recognized in the capital for several years now.

“My story is not one of overnight success. When I found myself alone in a new country, I didn’t buy a lottery ticket and hit the jackpot. I just kept going,” he concluded.

Follow EL PAÍS IN ENGLISH on Facebook and Twitter.