Acenette Gonzalez ’14, CIA Graduate, Contest Chef, and Focused Competitor
As a little girl Acenette (Ace) Gonzalez would listen with rapt attention as her father regaled her with stories of his workday as a waiter in a local Dallas, TX restaurant. “I loved hearing about his job, and his interaction with customers and the kitchen crew,” says Ace. “I knew I wanted to be part of that world.”
In a college prep course during her freshman year of high school, Ace was asked to choose a college. “I chose The Culinary Institute of America because it’s the best culinary school in the world,” recalls Ace. A Teen/Parent Boot Camp at the Hyde Park campus sealed the deal for the budding culinarian.
Ace started working at the age of 17 as a prep cook at a Hilton Hotel in Dallas, TX to get the six months of experience required for admission to the CIA. “I originally planned on attending the Hyde Park, NY campus but decided to study at the San Antonio campus because there is so much Latin culture there,” she says. “It’s such an inviting campus right in the Pearl Brewery complex with restaurants and farmers market literally right next to the CIA.” Little did Ace know that she would become the first student to study at all three domestic campuses of the CIA.
The direction of her studies became instantly clear for Ace during her externship at Restaurant Sugarri in the fishing village of Hondarribia, Spain under Chef Chef Manu Thalamas. “It was truly a farm-to-table restaurant,” Ace explains. “We’d go to a farm early in the day and buy all our produce. The food we picked would be served the same day—the epitome of freshness.”
Back in San Antonio, Ace would embark on another exciting journey: culinary competitions. “The San Antonio campus holds many events. I worked the annual Paella Challenge and the regional S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef regional competition,” Ace says. “With the latter, I wondered why no CIA student was representing the school so the following year, I entered the competition.” Ace won the regional event, then took the top spot at the national competition held at the CIA at Greystone in March 2013. Winning the event was “so life changing,” says Ace, who received $3,000 for her efforts. In 2014, Ace and two fellow CIA students joined forces to form team TLC (Tender Loving Chili) and won the top prize of $1,000 at the 23rd Annual Chili Cook-off. That year, she also won $5,000 at the Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management (SHFM) Scholarship Showdown at the Mohegan Sun Hotel and Spa in Uncasville, CT. “Winning competitions definitely gets my name out there,” says Ace, “and the proceeds certainly helped me with my tuition.”
After graduating with her Associate in Applied Science in Culinary Arts, Ace was persuaded by her mother to pursue her bachelor’s degree. This brought her to the Hyde Park campus. “The campus is stunning,” Ace says. “You stand in front of Roth Hall and are just in awe. But what really blew me away were the production kitchens and the diversity of the student body; you meet people from all over the world. And there is so much to do on campus beyond the classroom. There are student activities and clubs, guest lecturers, food demonstration, and lots of opportunities to meet people working in the industry.”
“The bachelor’s program was definitely worth my while,” Ace continues. “I made so many friends and connected with fellow students who share my passion in the American Food Studies: Farm-to-Table concentration semester away at the Greystone campus. The best part of that experience was the CIA’s farm and the wineries in the surrounding area. It brought another whole dimension to my education.”
Under culinary director and co-founder, Larry Forgione ’77, the American Food Studies: Farm-to-Table concentration culminates with hands on experience in The Conservatory Restaurant, on the Greystone campus. “Studying with Chef Forgione was amazing. The experience confirmed in my mind the direction I want my career to go,” explains Ace. “I learned how to grow food, cost it out, understand the financial benefits of owning a farm, and what it takes to manage one.”
Ace gained valuable connections at each campus. “The faculty come from all over the world to teach at the CIA and the student body is incredibly diverse,” she says. “It’s neat to see how the chef-instructors differ from each campus and the experiences they bring to the classrooms and production kitchens. I even had an instructor who cooked a banquet on the Great Wall of China!”
With her bachelor’s degree in culinary management in hand, Ace is preparing for her next culinary competition. “I’m training working towards gaining a coveted spot representing the U.S. at The ICEX Training in Spanish Gastronomy Program in Valladolid, Spain. Only one student is chosen from each participating country,” Ace explains. “The program culminates with the 2015 International Tapas Competition.”
Ace has a firm plan for her future in place. “I want to work for the best and most creative people. I want to learn as much as possible before I start my own venture, which by the way, will definitely be in Texas!” Then Ace will be able to regale her father with tales of her own kitchen experiences.