When Javier Reyes thinks about his childhood in Mexico, he remembers the smells from his grandmother’s kitchen. She would carefully mix spices, herbs, sugars, meats and cheeses with other savory ingredients, and in the end, he knew she would always magically turn it into something delicious.
It was as a child that Reyes, now of Shorewood, first realized his love for culinary arts. But he didn’t recognize it as a passion until he graduated with a bachelor’s degree – in computer information systems.
That’s when Reyes’ aunt suggested he attend Joliet Junior College. Not only was JJC an affordable option after he’d already spent a lot of money on a four-year degree, but JJC was also well known for its Culinary Arts Department.
“I’ve always loved cooking. It goes back to when I was young, watching my grandmother cook in Mexico. So, even though I had a degree in computer systems, JJC gave me the opportunity to go for it and explore my newfound passion in culinary arts. It was the perfect fit for me,” he said.
Attending JJC as a culinary student was a turning point for Reyes. Just this past year, Reyes was chosen as one of 12 students to cook for Gov. Bruce Rauner and other Illinois legislators at the Executive Mansion in Springfield. As captain of the Culinary Knowledge Bowl team, Reyes took his teammates to the regional championship in Indianapolis and together they won a silver medal. Reyes is also part of the college’s Epicurean Club and the honor society, Phi Theta Kappa.
His latest accomplishment was being chosen as JJC’s student speaker for the college’s commencement ceremony on May 15. As student speaker, he will address more than 300 of his fellow graduates. Reyes said he hopes to inspire students to follow their dreams and tell them that it’s never too late to explore a passion.
One of the reasons Reyes has had such a great experience at JJC is the professors – in particular chefs Fred Ferrera, Andy Chlebana, Tim Bucci, Kyle Richardson, Mike McGreal and Paul Bringas. And because of the department’s small class sizes, Reyes said both the professors and other students have been like family since he started taking classes at JJC two years ago.
“Since it’s such a small program, we see our teachers all the time. And all the professors have been amazing and influential. They make the program fun. They are always there for you and are great mentors,” he added.
While at JJC, Reyes learned how to create a number of different culinary dishes, but his favorite by far has been bread making. The best way to become great at anything is to practice – and Reyes said that’s what his culinary professors have encouraged since the very beginning.
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to never be afraid that you’ll mess up because you’ll recover from it and learn from it,” he said.
After graduating from JJC, Reyes wants to open up his own Mexican restaurant. His dreams would have never been possible if he had not made the decision to go back to school.
“I’m different than many of the other students here at JJC. I’m not the same age – I had a whole other career,” Reyes said. “But working with food is something I love to do. It’s so important to follow what you want. I’m so much happier now that I chose to pursue a career in culinary arts.”
For more information about the culinary arts program at JJC, visit www.jjc.edu/culinary-arts.