Williston Cum Laude Address

Photo by Matthew CavanaughEditor’s note: On January 16, Mark Franczyk ’00, a former investment banker turned chef, was the special guest speaker during the Cum Laude induction ceremony at the Phillips Stevens Chapel. The following is his address.

How’s everybody doing? Good.

So just help me out here, lay of the land, seniors, where are you guys sitting? Seniors. Juniors? Kind of mixed. Sophomores. And freshmen up there. There we go. Not much has changed.

Show of hands. Who loves cooking or even just a good meal, good steak, good cake? Okay. And…who loves banking? [Laughter]

Okay. Looks like my work here is done, basically nothing to talk about. It’s a pretty clear response.

So why did it take me 10 years to determine that I should be working as a chef and not as an investment banker?

I like to think of myself as decently intelligent. I mean, after all, 15 years ago I was sitting in these seats, having just been inducted, half listening to the speaker. I actually don’t remember if there was a speaker. I don’t remember at all. I remember that I had a dress shirt on that was extremely uncomfortable and that’s actually the only thing I remember from that day.

Watch the video of Mr. Franczyk’s speech.

But before I dive in let me just say sincerely congratulations to all the inductees today. The hard work that brought you to this point is truly impressive. I can say with complete candor that my time at Williston was probably the most rigorous academically and otherwise that I had throughout my entire academic career, so in some ways, maybe, it’s all downhill from here. The hard part’s over, just relax. Unfortunately, not quite.

When you leave Williston, the historical facts, the mathematical formulas, the verb conjugations will slowly begin to fade. Or very quickly fall out of your memory. But I know Williston students, you’re all highly motivated, you’re high achievers—all of you, not just the ones being inducted today. I know that there are even probably some who have worked even harder through their four years at the school. And the athletes, the artists, everybody’s excelling in their own field, from the seniors up to the freshmen.

Freshmen, can you guys hear me? Yeah? You’re good up there? You know, I was actually realizing that when I was inducted, you guys weren’t even born. [Laughter] That made me throw up in my mouth a little bit. So a little scary.

But it’s because of that high achievement drive that I think that my story is a good cautionary tale. And in fact it’s so important that I’m going to take a little cue here from a chef that I’ve worked with. Do you guys know Jacques Torres, by chance? Have you heard of that name? He’s kind of like a modern Willy Wonka. He’s very prominent, he’s a dozen chocolate shops and everything.

But I did a class with him, and he takes eggs, and basically if he sees someone who’s not paying attention, he throws an egg at them. And nothing quite like the threat of having an egg fly at your face if you’re not paying attention keeps you engaged. So just so you know, I’ve got three. So keep track as we go through here.

So you’ve already heard my high level bio, you’ve got most of the color. It probably sounds a little obnoxious. But I’ll go through it again: Williston 2000, four years as a day student. Like many of you, I was the quintessential over-programmed Williston student: Cum Laude, Arete, The Willistonian, swim team, theater, Teller Chorus, Caterwaulers, yadda yadda yadda.

I was certainly not the best or the brightest in my class. But I was pretty much obsessed with being a high performer. So much so I would obsess about every point on every test. I actually, during the course of some of my tests, calculate okay, I’m pretty sure I’m at a 85 right now, maybe with 10 percent probability, I’m at a 90. That’s the kind of stuff I would do in my head. I would also at the beginning of class, hope that they would assign homework assignments, so I could try and get it done before the end of class. I know that there are probably some of you guys who play the same games. Things don’t really change that much.

I shared most of those characteristics with my other Cum Laude peers, many of whom have gone on to achieve great things, most of whom are still being treated for anxiety disorders as a result.

But I was accepted Columbia, early decision, and this theater kid went to New York thinking that he’d major in English or something in the arts.

But those practical realities set in and I thought, ‘Okay, English majors became English teachers. Art majors became baristas. Basically, theater majors are jealous of baristas.’ So quickly decided maybe I needed a better game plan. So I decided to major in economics. I didn’t hate it. I was decent at it. And it seemed like a good step towards a high powered and lucrative career.

Maybe that was mistake number one.

I made Dean’s List every semester, although I struggle to recall much, if anything, from my actual classes. I had basically perfected, beginning at my time at Williston and continuing through college, “learning for the grade”.

Call that mistake number two.

Like many of my Columbia peers, a lack of creativity paired with a desire to be in the power game had me pursuing a career in investment banking, which by the fall of my senior year, I had locked up a role as an analyst with J.P. Morgan, so I knew where I was going to be going.

Perhaps that was mistake number three.

Here’s where it gets really obnoxious. When I was at J.P. Morgan, within two years with the firm, I had figured out how to play the game there, became an  assistant vice president within two years was working with many of the top executives names who are still on the front of the Wall Street Journal, for better or for worse.

I  would spend the next eight years working upwards of 100 hours a week in the office, sleeping about four hours a night, usually with my Blackberry on my chest so that it would buzz when the Asian markets would wake up or the European markets, so I could be hyper responsive at all points in time.

I became a ‘client guy’, and I was tasked with convincing companies why and how they should issue debt or equity, working in equity capital markets and worked on the largest follow-on equity deal in U.S. history.

If all of that sounds extremely boring, that’s a good thing. I hope that’s the case.

Because even though I was performing at the top of my game at a top firms in the country, I was absolutely miserable doing it.

I had permanent bags under my eyes… had lost about 20 pounds since my time as a student at Williston. Over those 10 years, I ended up in the ER on three occasions.

My crowning achievement in constantly having this drive was waking up one morning at 4 a.m. having passed out on the floor of the office bathroom, hitting my head. I managed to literally crawl back to my desk, blacking out once more on the trip back and finished my work for the afternoon and left about mid day.

In summary, I’d say I spent my 20s basically in a state of constant panic, very much the way I had functioned at Williston to end up as a Cum Laude inductee. The satisfaction of completing one deal was always met immediately by the anxiety of  having to start the next.

So if I’m going to offer one piece of advice, it’s take the time to enjoy your successes, very much like we’re doing here, because without that, it’s completely meaningless.

So who wants to be an investment banker? Okay…

The crazy thing was how long I was blind to the fact of what I really wanted to do and the fact of the matter was most mornings I would come in and the conversation was always a recap of the restaurants I’d been at over the course of the weekend. Bankers are big Excel nerds and I had actually started an Excel spreadsheet where I had been tracking all of the restaurants I had been at. I kept all the receipts with itemized items that I had tried at these different places and had filed them in a filing cabinet. The Food Network logo was actually burned into my plasma TV. That’s a pretty good indication of what was being watched at home.

Surprisingly enough, even as my time as an investment banker, I managed to get married. Although I met my husband at Columbia, if I hadn’t met him before banking it probably never would have happened. He also became a banker. So the two of us would basically spend the week not seeing one another. And Friday was the sacrosanct “date night” to go out to a restaurants.

So restaurants, good food, getting away from it all, that paired being calm and being relaxed. Those things became very much joined in my mind.

After a decade, I finally decided to quit. It actually took me five attempts to get out. Every time I would be paraded in front of different executives who would try to give me a pep talk and convince me about why I should stay. The truth of the mater is most of their arguments did revolve around money, and I actually had one person who literally said to me, ‘But you can fix any problem with money.’ It was at that point that I was like I am done. The conversation is now over.

So exactly 350 days ago, I left my Park Avenue office for the last time.

I had no immediate plans. But the culinary interest was always something that had been burning in the back of my mind. I never openly admitted it to anyone though. I was going to openly explore other options, I started volunteering at a soup kitchen, I did some volunteer income tax preparation for families in Harlem, I started doing more home cooking, started my food blog, basically reconnecting with everything that working 100 hours a week completely did not allow me to do.

A short two weeks after quitting was when things really started to get moving. As a Christmas gift to my parents, and admittedly to myself, I signed up for a recreational cooking class where we worked with an executive chef from one of the top restaurants in the city. I had no illusion about the fact that my skills were very rudimentary, but at the end of the session, the chef, in a comment that I’m pretty sure now was a joke, said, ‘If anyone wants to come work in my restaurant, let me know, you can come on in.’

I decided to jump at the opportunity. I sent him an email that weekend, not fully taking in the fact that it was probably a joke, and by the next week had lined up a day to work in his restaurant. That’s my other piece of advice: Never let an opportunity go by because it’s amazing where things can lead.

I ended up working in the restaurant for a day and it was like being in an episode of Top Chef, it was crazy, chaotic. Halfway though the day, the chef came up to me, handed me a raw scallop and said, “You have 60 minutes to prepare me your best dish. Go.”

I have never been so panicked in my entire life. I ran to the bathroom with my iPhone, hoping to get a signal to look up scallop recipes. Unfortunately, there was no signal and I had to just basically work my way through it. But it was fantastic.

After the 14-hour day, I felt like death. It had kicked my butt. I was on my back for two or three days afterwards, but the fact of the matter was I had absolutely loved it.

Went from 14 hours in an office to 14 hours in a restaurant, doing what I loved. It was amazing. So it was time to refocus that Williston drive. I knew my weaknesses, I knew I needed some formal training, so I enrolled in a two-month cooking intensive. By late summer, I was fully invested in going to culinary school, so on August 15 —oddly enough on Julia Child’s birthday—I started at the French Culinary Institute for 600 hours of traditional French culinary training.

Old habits die hard, so even though I was enrolled in cooking school, and was volunteering, and had my food blog, that wasn’t the Williston way, I still had a few extra hours left over. Emboldened by my skills, I decided to reach out to a number of restaurants to set up trails, Trails are effectively day internships. You go in, the chef can see what you know, what you don’t know, how quick you work, how clean you work. Typically a restaurant’s not going to have any interest in a student just starting off, but the fact of the matter is, if there’s one skill I picked up from banking, it’s being able to talk my way into anything.

So I talked my way into a number of places.

I worked at Dominique Ansel’s bakery. Have you guys heard of the Cronut? He’s the inventor of the Cronut, so I got to spend a day doing that. Ended up interning at the Alta Marea Group for several days, which is where I have ended up today and work every morning. I start the day, at 6:30, elbows-deep in dough where I used to spend it on a trading floor.

One thing I do have to point out is that throughout all of this, I had tremendous support in what I was doing. I have to thank my husband, my parents, my sister, all of my friends, they had all been calling for me to quit for quite a long time. And I know I can’t ask for you guys to have support, but what I can ask is that you are supportive to one another as you may pursue non-traditional paths.

So here I am a year later. I currently make a fraction of what I did before (or rather a fraction of a fraction of what I made before). But I no longer wake up dreading the day. I no longer find myself frozen on the trading floor asking, ‘What the hell happened? How did I get to this point?’

Instead I look around and I’m in the kitchen surrounded by some of the most inspiring chefs and other people and I can say, ‘How the hell did I get to this point? This is awesome.’

So to the 14 inductees, and to everyone else, take a moment to sincerely congratulate yourself on your successes that got you here today. But as you look to the future, remember that you have a tremendous number of opportunities and options open to you. Just because it’s not one of the familiar paths, does not mean that it’s the wrong one.

Don’t need to be a doctor. Don’t need to be a lawyer. Don’t need to be a banker. Just because it’s the non-traditional choice, doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong choice. My pick now would be to take a good look at where everyone else is running and go the opposite direction. Because the fact of the matter is, you’ll probably be much happier in the end, and on the journey you’ll have a lot more leg room.

So congrats to everyone. And with that, best of luck in your future endeavors.

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