Chef Gets His Start at Ulster BOCES

Ulster BOCES means different things to different people. For Wayne Rockwell, a 2016 Onteora High School graduate, it meant adapting and continuing to pursue his dream of becoming a professional chef, despite the coronavirus.

Rockwell says enrolling at the Career & Technical Center was always a given. Both of his parents attended the school—his mother for cosmetology, his father for welding, and his brother graduated in 2011 from the Custom Robotics & Manufacturing program. The Rockwell’s commitment to Ulster BOCES is a family tradition. After the death of his grandfather in 2017, the family created the Robert H. Rockwell Jr. Memorial Scholarship for students pursuing a college education in Heating, Ventilation & Air Conditioning; Welding & Metal Fabrication; Manufacturing Technology; or Motorcycle/Outdoor Power/Turf Management.

Rockwell discovered his passion for food when he was 15-years-old so he knew the Culinary Arts program was the perfect fit for him. “I liked to make people happy and bring out a meal and see people smile,” he recalls.

“I liked to cook for other people and I acquired skills and knowledge I wouldn’t have received at my home school,” Rockwell says about his experience in the kitchen at Ulster BOCES. Those experiences bolstered his confidence, but during his first year in the program, he recalls feeling some self-doubt about his skills after witnessing some of his classmates’ talents. “There were people who knew other things, so I questioned whether I should do this,” he admits.

Rockwell says one of his instructors, the late Victor Arnao, recognized his commitment after a busy day when dishes didn’t get washed and he asked if he could stay and help out. “I stayed late and called my dad to pick me up. That’s when Arnao asked me to participate in the ProStart competition,” he says. He and four other Culinary Arts students placed first in the state competition and received approximately $30,000 each in scholarship opportunities. “It allowed me to take an opportunity that I might have not otherwise taken,” he recalls.

The ProStart experience was an eye-opener. “I was staying after school three or four days a week and going to competitions and relating that to an actual restaurant experience, and it made me realize that I could see myself doing that for a living.”

The knowledge Rockwell gained at Ulster BOCES continued to benefit him after he graduated and began pursuing his associate’s degree at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Rockwell said he felt very confidant going to the CIA. One of his Ulster BOCES instructors, Linda Carter advised him that college students take ownership of their time and responsibilities. “No one is poking you in the back saying you have to do this or you’re going to fail,” he says, adding this concept wasn’t new to him. “It was like going to BOCES.”

Rockwell continued to take advantage of learning opportunities while in college. He did a four-month paid internship at the Four Seasons Hotel and Resort in Orlando, Florida. After completing his internship Rockwell returned to the Hyde Park campus and began working on his bachelor’s degree in food service and business management.

After graduating from the CIA, he applied for a position in the Marriot Culinary Voyage program and was hired as a manager-in-training at the Ritz-Carlton in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. After buying a house in January, Rockwell continued the 12-to 18-month Voyage program until he was furloughed for two weeks in April due to the coronavirus outbreak. He returned to work for one week before the hotel closed. Rockwell says the company tried to keep its employees on and offered them a buyout in June. “I sold my house and moved back to the Hudson Valley to restart my life and get back on my feet,” he says, explaining that he is currently applying for positions in the restaurant and hospitality industry, but he is staying active in the industry as a self-employed caterer for private events.

Rockwell’s future plans could include an entrepreneurial path. “I have always kicked around the idea of a catering business,” he says, but even so, he and his girlfriend are waiting to see what happens with the virus over the next couple of months.

Regardless of what the future brings, Rockwell is optimistic. “I still have a belief that the industry will be okay. The reason I say that is because there have been pandemics and wars in the past,” he says. Rockwell believes the culinary industry will see at-home dining and takeout trends continuing in the post-Covid world. “In times of hardship, that’s where innovation comes from.”