I’ll be honest: I limped my way across the finish line at my Northwestern graduation.
I remember baleful storm clouds creeping across the Evanston skyline on that June afternoon as Wynton Marsalis ’09 H rushed through his Commencement speech. And while it felt good to finally finish this undergraduate experiment in a harried, hurried manner, I had not achieved proficiency in any field of knowledge.
I had cut bait on my history degree and done the absolute minimum to eke out a diploma. During my (super) senior year, I spent my weekends at Evanston restaurants to learn how to cook. Yes, despite a monstrous pile of student debt and time invested, I wanted to become a chef.
This is a particularly stinging failure of the Asian American narrative. Our parents had not immigrated here to work a strenuous blue-collar job only for their children to return to the very same trade. We were supposed to turn the narrative around, become a respected professional — a doctor, a lawyer, whatever. Just, for the love of God, don’t let me catch you in front of a stove.
But what can I say? It was an irrational calling of an unconventional nature. I leapt in with both feet.
Of course, this had to be hidden from my mom, a single mother. You can imagine the heartbreak it would have caused. So I got support from my most important resource at Northwestern — my friends. There were many times when I threatened to repeat a habit of giving up on myself. I didn’t excel in high school, so I cut class. I barely graduated as a result. I excelled at the cello, but I gave up when it got hard. I was expelled from The Juilliard School.
I had no idea what I was doing at a university like Northwestern, and the freedom to make my own choices was damning. The school threatened expulsion.
But not this time, I told myself.
I liked it here too much. I was finally surrounded by people with whom I had mutual respect and genuine camaraderie — good people who wouldn’t let me quit. These friends dragged me to the library, proofread my papers and banged noisily on my door when I didn’t want to go to class. And when I experimented with buttered noodles and grilled pork tenderloins for my friends, they encouraged me to keep at it, despite me barely knowing how to make a vinaigrette.
I didn’t end up using my history degree much. But I did finish the damn thing. And honing the determination to reach a summit no matter the multitude of disadvantages and obstacles in my way would serve me well.
I moved back to New York City and began training at Michelin-starred restaurants. Years later I became a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park, voted the world’s best restaurant in 2017. This was a dream come true.
And so my friends saved me. It wasn’t pretty, but we got there, and at Commencement the dissonance of the cheerful trumpet music juxtaposed against an ominous Midwestern rainstorm seemed appropriate in retrospect.
No achievement is without its hardship or fear. And no achievement is truly the result of a single person’s efforts. There would be many struggles ahead that I only overcame due to stalwart friendship.
It takes a village — one filled with compassion and trust. And Northwestern gave me a village for the first time in my life.
Eric Huang ’09 runs Pecking House, a chili-fried chicken restaurant in New York City.