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Dublin High School Alum Marcos Castro Conquers Cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America in New York

April 20, 2015
Marcos Castro - Culinary Institute of America

Marcos Castro

The magical preparation of a delicious meal happens out of sight, behind the swinging doors of a bustling kitchen. Our next Life in College profile catches up with Dublin High School graduate Marcos Castro, who started his journey to becoming a chef in Dublin High’s Culinary Arts program and has continued for the past two years at the famed Culinary Institute of America in New York.

Mr. Castro and his mother relocated from the San Diego area to the Bay Area at the time when he was becoming a middle school student. He attended Wells Middle School and then matriculated through Dublin High. In a moment that changed everything, Marcos wanted to surprise his mother by baking a cake for her birthday. Knowing that by doing this at home would ruin the surprise, he innocently approached Culinary Arts instructor Jackie Lawson and inquired if he could utilize the school’s facilities. Ms. Lawson agreed and the surprise remained intact. Subsequently, Jackie reached out to Marcos and invited him to become a full-fledged member of the newly burgeoning culinary arts program at Dublin High. After contemplating, he agreed and the result was a life-changing moment. Mr. Castro immediately thrived during this experience as he quickly gained mastery as both a student and as a leader among his peers.

While his potential was evident to Ms. Lawson, the question remained: What might he pursue upon graduation? There are numerous culinary programs available locally, including well-respected programs at both Diablo Valley College and City College of San Francisco, among others. But, why not shoot for the moon? One the most prominent culinary learning destinations in the United States resides at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York. Without a hint of trepidation or a “fear of failure”, he applied. Armed with a resume that was filled with real world experiences and a strong recommendation letter from Ms. Lawson, Marcos was accepted to Culinary Institute of America.

Marcos Preparing a Meal

Marcos Preparing a Meal

Over the last two years, we have followed his exploits and experiences. Enrolled students have the option of completing a two-year program in order to become a Certified Chef. Students may then elect to sustain enrollment for the purpose of completing a Bachelor’s degree. Marcos is taking this path.

We initiated this interview process earlier this spring and recently concluded it. He was in the midst of completing classes in the kitchen that would teach techniques centered on cuisines from around the world. Further, he was required to learn about wine and to become a “mini” sommelier. Studies then moved into a section known as “restaurant row” where the students must select to work at two different restaurants for a six week period – functioning in both the back and front of the house for three weeks each. This would ultimately come to a crescendo in the exercises of the costing and cooking “practicals.” During this time, the candidates would be required to pick out a menu randomly, effectively prepare them within two hours and then to have them judged. This would be the ultimate pass-fail exam. While it may resemble something that we may watch on the Food Network, this challenge becomes as real as it gets for these students. recently had the opportunity to engage with Mr. Marcos to discuss his experiences, and to discuss his future goals. It was fascinating and we could not help but notice his maturation process. When we initially met, you had just received your acceptance to the Culinary Institute.  With the passage of time – living and studying away from home, what have you learned about yourself?  Be specific.

Marcos Castro: “Being away from home has been nice but also really rough. Being in a new town, a new state, there is so much to do. There are many places that I can explore and try that I have never tried before, as well as meet people that are either from here or away from home as well. Yet, being away from home is a little harder because dinner isn’t just waiting for you at home, gas doesn’t just magically fill your car and when something is needed from the store it’s a half hour drive so I have to make it count. There has always been a level of freedom that I was given at home, I was able to make certain decisions on my own and that also prepared me for living out in New York for school. Things in life don’t just appear, are paid for or done for you, you have to work for them and do it yourself if you want it done.” After attending middle and high school in Dublin, we will assume that it was a very different experience living in/near Hyde Park, NY.  Describe what this area is like.

Culinary Institute of America

Culinary Institute of America

Castro: “Moving from San Diego to Dublin was already a big change and took some time to getting used to, but this is now my home. Dublin itself is not very big but there are many stores, amenities and forms of entertainment that are nearby. When I first arrived to New York by plane and saw the major sights that must be seen, I knew I finally made it. An hour and a half drive later, I wondered what a one horse town I’ve ended up in for schooling. Being in upstate New York has definitely made me appreciate Dublin but also California a lot more than I did before. The town that the Culinary Institute is located in, is the also the home for Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frederick William Vanderbilt. The town is proud of its history but also seems to be stuck in time. There are many really old homes that date back to the town’s original settlement and it seems that not much has changed since. The weather is either hot or cold, there is no in between for New York. The snow that falls looks like something out of a picture, hills and mountains coated with snow, trees dusted in the winter wonderland. Yet if you step into that picture, it’s about three degrees or lower and you’re up to your waist in snow. Getting from one place to another isn’t extremely difficult but it is a drive whether going up north or south of Route 9 to wherever you need to go. Once I finish school here, I am definitely moving back to the west coast.” You had mentioned going through three week rotations to demonstrate mastery of different culinary skills.  How did you adapt to this pace of study or what is it relatively easy?  Please explain.

Castro: “When you first start at the Culinary Institute of America, you are put into a 15-week fundamentals class, two days a week. The next two days are academic classes and the last day of the week is an off day. At the time that schedule seemed like forever and we were all so tired from each day that we had that kitchen fundamentals class. Only to find out that after fundamentals, class is five days a week. That’s morning academic classes and night kitchen classes, depending on the schedule that you were given. I look back now being towards the end and wish I could back to the starting schedule. Each class is three weeks long, Monday through Friday. Each kitchen class being something different that covers skills in that cuisine or technique. It is all very fast paced and there’s no one to hold your hand along the way, you must have read and achieve an understanding of what you are doing that day or let your grades suffer. The chefs that teach us the skills we need have different styles of teaching and require more or less preparation that the next. It’s easier to go above and do more preparation or studying, than to be doing the bare minimum, because you could be on the ball or end up failing.”  Help us to understand some of the relationships that you have developed with your fellow students and instructors.  How and why will you continue to keep in contact?

Marcos Castro and Friends

Marcos Castro and Friends

Castro: “The Culinary Institute is a very large network of chefs, managers, executives, sommeliers and more that are all connected by the school. My fellow students in my start date are more like my family than acquaintances. We are the group that impresses every chef, dean and professor we’ve had because we are one. We look out for one another in class, try to help with tasks and stick together no matter what comes our way. We don’t let someone drown or finish last in this competitive school, we help push each other and make each other stronger. In the kitchen we get thing done but outside we are friends and are there if anyone needs us. Besides that people that are in my start date, there are others that I have met through dining, the student rec center, volunteering and work. Everyone has their own dream and path that they are taking. It’s nice to know and have other people that share similar aspirations. There are some chefs that I’ve had that I can go to and ask for help or guidance. And, there are others that I’d probably never speak to again because they don’t care to make a bond. The people that I meet at the Culinary are not only valuable to have and know for the future but are also friends that I can rely on. We are linked by the Culinary Alumni Network and also have contact information that we can use to keep up with each other.” Given your career interests, why was the Culinary Institute the best fit for you?  Also, share an experience or two that might have caught you off guard or was something that you were not anticipating from this experience.

Marcos Castro with Peers at the Culinary Institute of AmericaCastro: “When I first arrived I wanted to become a chef. There was no other plan or change about it. But as I went through the schooling I found out there is more than just being a chef. I actually ended up wanting to do catering but my ultimate goal is to work in the front of the house or food and beverage management. The whole aspect of hospitality and personal contact with a guest or customer was something I enjoy even more. Being in the front of the house, working with the people that make the restaurant or hotel work in front of a guest’s eyes is something that interested me. My Bachelor’s degree will be in Advanced Wine, Beverage and Hospitality but that doesn’t mean that I never want to be in the kitchen. I will now have the knowledge about what goes on in the kitchen and what it takes to run the operation, I can step in and help when needed and can even pursue a higher position in the kitchen.

“As I went through the program there have been chefs that had high expectations but none as close to the chef I had for the Cuisines of the Mediterranean. The chef I had was very particular on how things ran and she would not allow a person to be out of place. She pushed us to go faster, to think quicker and become better chefs. The chef was the Commanding Officer and ran her kitchen as if we were in the military. The school is already based off of militaristic ideology and this chef was really turning the heat up in the kitchen.

“She demanded that you know what you were doing each day, the origins of the items, the history and other uses. Products must be weighed and that the kitchen be spotless at all times. This class seemed ridiculous and was torture. Yet as the days went on, these practices were followed and they didn’t seem absurd or unnecessary anymore. They were practices that should be followed by every chef out in the world. If your kitchen is a mess, if the supplier is shorting products, the food safety practices aren’t being followed then it’s not a kitchen that should be worked in, or eaten from. The things that the chef taught us were important practices to be followed. If you know what is happening in your kitchen to the “T” then you’ll be successful. Though it seemed to be a class from the fiery world down under, in the end I appreciate and admire the chef and the valuable lessons she taught.”  While you have been guided by some of the leading figures in the culinary arts, think back to Dublin High School.  What did you learn from Culinary Arts instructor Jackie Lawson that continues to be relevant to you today?

Castro: “Looking back to the culinary class at Dublin High School, I know that some of the very simple things have stuck with me. Everything from knife cuts, cleaning produce, purchasing food items, etc. have been part of my everyday at the Culinary Institute. The experiences and the tricks that I learned from Jackie have been put to use in the kitchen classes, as well as the management of my colleagues.” Once you complete your degree, what are your career ambitions?  What space do you plan to work in and where might you like to be?

Castro: “After completing school with my Bachelors degree, I want to go into formal front of the house management or become a food and beverage director for a large hotel or business. My dream would to be to work as a food and beverage operations manager for Disney. I think I would want to start smaller, beginning with the Disneyland Resort; then branch off to the companies cruise lines, parks and resorts that are located everywhere.”

So, there you have it. It was a story that we followed for two years and the results were spectacular. For Marcos, he has accomplished a feat equal to those that have been achieved by others at some of the finest learning institutions. To Ms. Lawson, we want to thank you for inviting an inquisitive student and future Culinary Institute of America graduate into your kitchen to bake a surprise birthday cake. We simply have no idea where our next generation of movers and shakers will emerge.

Photo credits: Marcos Castro and Jackie Lawson

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  1. Robert permalink
    April 24, 2015 8:19 pm

    The Culinary Institute of America is not in New York City, it is in fact in the Hudson River Valley, in Hyde Park.

    • April 26, 2015 10:51 pm

      Thanks – error in the title and intro, correct in the text. Fixed.

  2. Monica Verdugo permalink
    October 9, 2015 10:20 pm

    I’m the proud mom of Marcos! Can, I have a copy of the pictures you posted?

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