Alumni Spotlight // Justin Mays

By Daisy Martinez,
Associate Director of Alumni Affairs

I am always happy to chat with grads who stop by the school and update us on their achievements, and I am often reminded of that old adage, “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover”. Justin Mays is a prime example of this. His youthful charm belies the extensive life experience he has under his belt, and his quiet, shy manner leaves you wondering how he navigates the tumult of a professional kitchen. After hearing his inspiring story, I knew that it was one “book” I had to share.

What were you doing before you attended culinary school?

I joined the Air Force in September of 2006 and headed to San Antonio, TX, for my military basic training. After that, I completed my career schooling in Biloxi, MS, before heading off to my first base in Panama City, FL. Little did I know at the time, the journey that was ahead of me was going to fuel the fire that pushed me to finally come to ICC and jump into the culinary world.

After a year in Florida, I was reassigned to Osan Air Base in South Korea, about 45 minutes south of Seoul. This is where my curiosity for food really took off, as I was exposed to all of these ingredients that I had never heard of, let alone seen. I tried everything I could get my hands on! Several hospital visits for food poisoning later, I learned what I could and couldn’t handle.

That year was both educational and exhilarating, and then we were moved to England. There, I met a lot of really good home cooks and was a part of a food group named the “Fairford Fatties”. Needless to say, we searched for as much “good” food that we could find. I also had made some friends in the restaurant industry and really enjoyed listening to their stories of dinner service over a few drinks. I think this was the first time of many that I would look at the ICC website and dream about one day launching my culinary career.

What was the next step for you to reach your goal of a culinary career?

From there I was off to Istanbul, Turkey. Long story short, loved the food, met the woman I would marry, and made a connection with a country unlike any I had before. My new bride and I headed back to Korea, where we were blessed with two beautiful girls. My first move back to the United States in six years was to St. Louis and for my wife’s birthday we went to Sydney Street Cafe in the downtown area. The food blew us away! At that moment, I knew I had to make my dream a reality soon. It was killing me, literally. I couldn’t sleep without dreaming of cooking and creating. It pulled at me and made me experience goals and aspirations I had never dreamed of. But, I had a wife and kids to take care of, so my dreams were just that…

I got out of the military while in St. Louis due to some ongoing medical issues and moved to my hometown to become a distribution manager for a large steel and aluminum company. I had essentially what I had always worked for: a nice salary, two nice cars, a nicely furnished home, and financial freedom. By most standards, I was on top of the world. Well, you know how they say money can’t buy happiness? Well, that was true in my case. I was missing something in my life that I needed. I lacked fulfillment and happiness. Not to mention, by this point I was literally driving my wife crazy about becoming a chef. An opportunity presented itself, and I decided that if I didn’t do it then, I never would.

Photo from the Wallsé Gallery
Photo from Wallsé

That’s a big step to take when you have a family to provide for. What kind of support did you get from them?

My wife and I looked around and wondered “how are we going to make this possible?” What would we do with all of our stuff? How would we afford everything? I guess when you want something bad enough, you find a way. My wife and I took to Craigslist and started having yard sales to afford school, then sold my truck. We knew we couldn’t afford to come to NYC all together, so my wife and kids stayed with family in Istanbul while I started my training at the ICC.

However, I discovered I wasn’t ready for that separation from my wife and girls. Their absence became unbearable, and after four months I brought them back to NYC to be with me until I finished. I worked with some friends and happened to have a buddy who was going to be out of town so we rented his place. The end goal was moving to Turkey upon graduation and finding something there, but we ran into hiccups with my citizenship paperwork and not to mention security issues that were plastered all over CNN. We made the decision to stay in New Jersey where my family could have a nice place to live while I chased my dream.

Okay, so now you are attending the ICC, and your family is back with you from Turkey. How long after you graduated did you find employment in your “field of dreams”?

I worked as a Chef de Cuisine at Savann Restaurant in Harlem while in school and a few months after graduation. While I loved my time there, I needed to elevate my cooking to a different level. I saw an opening at Wallse for an Entremetier Chef in the West Village and started doing some research on the place. I discovered it had been a Michelin-rated restaurant for 15 or 16 straight years, and I said to myself, this is it. This is where I want to be.

That is a really inspirational story. Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

I want to push my limits and have my limits pushed daily for excellence. I want to learn and develop, not just into a cook, but a chef. I want to have that background that separates me from my peers; the experience of an education that is worth its weight in gold. I’ve found that, and now my journey continues. We have a long way to go, but my quest for perfection and my desire for a brand will be fulfilled. I’ve sacrificed too much for it not to.

Chef Justin was able to apply the ICC Military Scholarship towards realizing his dream of attending the ICC. Maybe you can too!
Military Scholarship
Applicant must be a military veteran, active military member or the spouse/child of a veteran or active military member who has been honorably discharged from the United States Armed Forces.