JERSEY CITY, NJ — C.J. Reycraft, Jr., an award-winning chef and owner of Butcher Burgers in Downtown Westfield, was a judge at the ProStart Culinary NJ state competition recently. He offered some words of advice to the aspiring chefs there:

“This is my second year of judging this competition and I am blown away by the talent of all of these young cooks. The future of the restaurant business is very bright and full of promise,” Reycraft told them. “Let's face it, the road ahead is going to be filled with challenges and triumphs. Life will be lived on life's terms. It's up to you all to dig deep and fight through adversity to realize your full potential.”

His own journey through life was never a straight path, Reycraft said.

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“You are looking at a college dropout that battled through drug and alcohol addiction. My choices made my life into an unnecessary struggle. Through cooking and working my butt off, I was able to turn my life around. I hope none of you has to live through the pain of substance abuse. Life is hard enough without adding fuel to the fire. Even after getting my personal life in order, life did not become a bowl of peaches and cream. There are good days and bad days. No matter what you need to keep fighting for your dreams and resist temptations that will deter you from achieving your goals.

“Culinary school was a God send for me. After I failed out of school, I was figuring out where my future would take me. Once I stumbled upon The International Culinary Institute's cooking intensive program, everything clicked for me. All I had to do was show up and cook. No math classes or English studies. Just my knives and the bustling sounds of the kitchen.

“Many close friendships were made. Lots of techniques learned and yet cooking always has more to teach us. After graduating, I went straight to work. That's where my real education began. Working for $6 an hour in one kitchen five days a week and picking up a second position one day a week in another restaurant. Work became an obsession. I was devouring cookbooks and learning as much as I could. 

“I've missed many family functions and weekend parties. Cooking was my priority. I worked extremely long hours and kept my goal in sight: Become a restauranteur. After many years of hard work, I was able to realize the dream of opening my own restaurant at 31 years of age. No matter what life has thrown my way, I have found a way to thrive. The harder you get hit, the stronger you become. Personal growth and change are two of the most uncomfortable and painful things, but are necessary to achieve success in business and in life.

In our industry, the workload is intense, the stress is unbearable at times, and yet we keep pushing. Those are benefits to us. We keep our heads down and cook, living for for the adrenaline rush. All of us know what pressure feels like. Your performance today is evidence of that. We take raw product and transform it, almost by magic, into a beautiful and delicious art form for our customers.

“Your passion and pride in what you do is what will elevate you to do bigger and better things. Keep that hunger to learn fresh in your mind at all times. As hard as you are working to get better, others are working just as hard to improve their skills. Every day in the kitchen is a learning experience.

“Respect and learn from your coworkers and superiors, especially those who have spent years working in restaurants. Their experience can benefit you greatly. You will absolutely earn their respect by showing up on time, keeping yourself busy and organized, and going the extra mile without being asked. Make sure you ask them questions! If you're not certain about a task or want to know more about a technique, do not hesitate to ask! Use your eyes and soak up as much information as possible. Learn how to bus a table, carry plates, take an order from a table. Everything you learn will guide you in your careers.”

Editor’s note: Butcher Burgers is an advertiser on TAPinto Westfield. To learn about becoming an advertiser, call 917-676-2302 or email jlieberman@tapinto.net.