Emily Lemieux continues her 'People of JWU' series by interviewing Jeff, a JWU Providence culinary student. Jeff's rocky journey to JWU involves an early, secretive interest in cooking and an erratic, negative boss. Read Jeff's story.
Here’s the thing about Jeff Ponzio: he’s nearly impossible to get to know unless you get him talking about food. Ponzio is tall and skinny with long dark brown hair and being the son of an immigrant from Vietnam, despite how quiet he can be, never fails to crack jokes if it has any reference to being Asian. Even describing his mentor, he says, “It was kind of weird an 18-year-old hanging out with a 36-year-old Korean bald dude, but he looks like my uncle or something so it's ok.”
Ponzio is currently a junior at JWU Providence and one of the first students to be in the process of completing a four-year degree solely in culinary arts. He may not have his entire life planned out but he definitely knows one thing for sure, he will be in a kitchen because at the end of the day, food is what he is passionate about.
The first time my path crossed with Ponzio was not in a kitchen or in a restaurant, which is usually his natural habitat, but instead at a party. Ironically though, despite the party setting, he was hidden outside talking to the guys he arrived with about food. It seems that the more Ponzio talked about his love of the culinary world, the more apparent it became why food is such a big part of his life. Ponzio is especially proud of his heritage, having grandparents and a mother who grew up in Vietnam he explained that there are not many restaurants there. Instead, the people that live there seem to fend for themselves, shopping for and preparing all their own meals to survive. As he grew up, Ponzio spent countless hours in the kitchen learning about how his grandmother cooked back in Vietnam and slowly falling in love with food. “I was that kid in high school that liked cooking shows, but it was kind of a hidden thing. I was just this weird guy watching Alton Brown after school with his grandma.” Even today, it is clear that this is still the root of why he is drawn so strongly to food.
In high school Ponzio thought that food might be what he wanted to do with the rest of his life but by the time he graduated he was thrown a curve ball and knocked off track, leaving him unhappy at a community college majoring in business. At the age of 18, just a senior in a high-school, young, driven, and in love with food, Ponzio took his first job in a kitchen. The restaurant that Ponzio entered turned out to be a rocky road. The food was simple American food. One night, six months into the job, during the peak of dinner rush, the restaurant was short staffed, but Ponzio, being young, excited and driven decided to jump in and try to help out. Long story short, he jumped on a random station and it was a horrible night of service. When the manager arrived at the restaurant with numerous emails from customers saying that the food had been horrible, Ponzio knew he was in trouble.
“You know you had a pretty bad service day. Have you thought about looking for another job?” the manager asked before storming out and leeaving Ponzio shocked. Before he could catch his breath the manager stormed in a minute later. “You know you’re not cut out for this, it’s too fast paced for you, you won’t make it, but I’m going to keep you around to wash the dishes.”
That night was the first and last time that Ponzio ever resigned from a job in a kitchen. It was also the only time that he let someone knock him down thinking to himself, “What if I’m not good enough? It’s hard what we do. It’s long hours, stressful and fast paced.” So that night, the unbreakable Ponzio withdrew his deposit and acceptance to Johnson & Wales for the upcoming year.
Remember that Korean guy that Ponzio compared himself to in the beginning? Well, his name's Jacob Han and here’s where he comes in. A few months back, Ponzio visited a burger joint called “Loaded”, that didn’t seem like much from the outside, but on the inside it turned out to be gold. After trying just one item from the menu, a thick pulled pork sandwich with melted bubbling cheddar cheese on top, Ponzio realized that it was all enticingly made-in-house, and then proceeded to try almost every other option on the menu. Throughout high school Ponzio frequented “Loaded” and slowly became friends with the head chef and owner Han. Through this friendship he found a mentor. A few months later, while Ponzio was in business school, he got a call from Jacob offering him a job as a cook at his eatery but Ponzio was still skeptical as to whether or not he could make it in the kitchen. “The last job I worked in a kitchen, I was told I wasn’t very good.”
“You know, I haven’t seen you work but you seemed like you were passionate about it at one point so why not give it a try, ” said the precise, meticulous, and old school Han. And so Ponzio decided to take a chance and it paid off. Once again he began spending more and more time in the kitchen and as most ex-lovers do, he fell back in love. Whipping up a medium-well burger on a toasty poppy-seed bun with cheese oozing out the sides and a pile of thin, salty, crisp fries became the norm for Ponzio in the kitchen. And that is how Ponzio ended up here at Johnson & Wales, training to be a professional chef .
The real reason that Ponzio is such an inspiration however, isn’t because of his success story. Instead it’s because he’s only 20 and he’s already found out where he belongs and what he loves; something that some people never find in their life. “It doesn’t even feel like going to class. I don’t mind waking up at 5:50 in the morning to go to class for 6 hours. Oh, and the guy that told me I couldn’t do it, his restaurant closed three months after I left. He was one million dollars in debt.”
Emily wants to tell your story, email her at ELemieux01@wildcats.jwu.edu.