Melissa Gray: ProStart alum discusses working hard and never giving up your dreams in the restaurant industry

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Where did you graduate high school?

I graduated from Eastside High School in Gainesville, Fla.,  as part of the Institute of Culinary Arts program under Chef Billie DeNunzio and Chef Pamela Bedford.

What was your first restaurant job?

My first restaurant job was at this little place in my hometown of Alachua, Fla., called Ristorante Deneno. It was small to say the least; the kitchen was like a hallway and there were four of us in there. I was the youngest by far, at the age of 16, and I was the only girl. I learned so much there. I had a great teacher, Chef Doug Viola, who made it his mission to see me be successful. He always encouraged me and pushed me to do more within the kitchen. As part of that, on Sunday night’s when he was off, I was the one in charge of the kitchen. I ran the line and did all the inventory and ordering. It was a huge responsibility, but it gave me so much confidence as I was applying for culinary school.

What is your current job/title?

Most recently, I was a Front of the House Manager at The Culinary Institute of America in California.

Why did you choose a career in the restaurant industry?

I wanted to do something that made me happy. I love to cook and be creative and what’s more I love making others happy. There are not many jobs where you get the opportunity to enrich someone’s life by doing something that is enriching yours. It is a true blessing.

What advice do you have for students and people just entering the restaurant/foodservice industry?

My advice to people just entering the restaurant industry is to remember that each job is just a piece of the puzzle. We have somehow gotten it into our heads that we have to pick one job and stay there forever. Take each job for what it is, a chance to learn and grow. Never be afraid of moving on; don’t become complacent.

What advice do you have for people looking to achieve success in the restaurant sector?

My advice would be to of course work hard, but more importantly to never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. The owner of a restaurant I worked at in high school laughed at me when I told him I wanted to go to The Culinary Institute of America. I have never forgotten that feeling, and others along the way who tried to tell me where I belonged just because I was young and a girl. Work hard for what you want and never give them a reason to doubt you.

What specific qualities/skills does it take to be successful in the restaurant industry?

It takes lots of flexibility. Each day, each moment, is different in the restaurant industry. Being able to roll with the punches and remain calm under pressure is an invaluable skill.

88% of restaurant employees are proud to work in the restaurant industry. What makes you most proud to be a part of the foodservice industry?

I am proud of being in this industry because we are known for being hard workers, creative and passionate. I am proud of the work we put out and the impact we have on food trends worldwide. I am proud that this is my family.

ProStart is where all these ideals of hard work and flexibility in the kitchen came from. My chefs were and are still amazing mentors and friends to me. ProStart was truly a foundation for so much of my success at The Culinary Institute of America and in my professional career. From knife skills to public speaking to time and stress management, ProStart had such a huge part in my life.

During my time in ProStart, I was captain of my Management Team. We placed 1st in Florida and came in 5th at the 2011 National Competition in Kansas City. During breaks from college, I would help coach the Management Team of my alma mater.