Chris Okorie is a man, transformed.
Back in 2009, he was an aimless teenager. Unable to find work after returning to post-Katrina New Orleans, he spent most of his days shooting dice on the corner with friends. One afternoon, a passerby, annoyed by their game, told them about Café Reconcile, a nonprofit restaurant that serves as a training ground for students seeking jobs in the food industry. Chris was nonplussed, until a friend enrolled and found a job. He reconsidered and successfully completed Café Reconcile in 2010.
He never gave more education a thought until the program director told him about The Chef’s Move scholarship which provides a full tuition to the International Culinary Center. He applied and won. Though Chris was excited by such an amazing opportunity, he was torn. His grandmother, Marilyn, a powerful influence, was in precarious health. She would have none of it and insisted he go. In 2012, he moved to NYC to enroll.
More than the obvious benefits of studying at one of the world’s best culinary schools, Chris found ICC instilled a thirst for knowledge. “Before the scholarship, I didn’t want to learn beyond what I needed for my job, but the chef-instructors really inspired me. There is still so much I want to learn. Right now, I’m reading The Flavor Bible, Marco Pierre White and Chemistry for Dummies because cooking is basically a big chemistry set.”
Another powerful lesson was the critical importance of teamwork. In New Orleans, the kitchens he knew were much smaller; each person could work in isolation and get the job done. Not so at ICC. What started as a group of strangers soon became much more. “At first, the class was quiet, no talking. Then level by level we became closer and closer and then worked side by side. Trusting people and working as a team was the most valuable lesson. You have to have their back and they have to have yours.“
There were low moments, to be sure. His grandmother passed away before he finished the program, but Chris persevered and went on to win a three-week fellowship in Italy. “I’m fortunate. Food found me.” He’s been featured in Essencemagazine and on NPR and is currently working at John Besh’s Restaurant, August. His advice to those considering the industry is straightforward and real. “There are lots of rewards, but it’s not so glamorous in the beginning. Learn as much as you can. That’s my everyday goal.”