Henry found himself embraced by the students, who were of diverse ages. “They were all very welcoming and inclusive. It was amazing.”
May 21, 2019

Henry Cenicola, A 72-Year Old Valedictorian Earns the First Culinary Arts Degree Awarded at PCCC

Henry Cenicola is PCCC’s first graduating student to earn the AAS degree in Culinary Arts, since the Culinary Arts Program at PCCC was established three years ago.

He is also the eldest valedictorian in PCCC’s 50-year history. “I was shocked when they told me,” said Henry who will deliver the valedictory address at the 47th Commencement morning ceremony.

Recalling the moment he learned the news from Chef Louis Hernandez, director of the Culinary Arts Program, Henry said, “Chef Hernandez called me to his office, and when I went in, the other chef instructors were gathered there. ‘This can’t be good,’” Henry thought. 

When Chef broke the exciting news, Henry was speechless. “I’m not the kind of guy who likes to be the center of attention,” he said.  “I’m the quiet person who usually sits in the back row.”

Chef Hernandez was also overwhelmed, saying “For all of the chef instructors and myself included, it is very emotional and extremely rewarding to have a valedictorian in only our second graduating class in the Culinary Arts Program.
“Henry was an extremely dedicated student in my Servsafe, Catering, Culinary Cooking Methods, and Internship classes and proved himself over-and-over again. All of the chef instructors can attest to his dedication. We wish Henry “Hank” Cenicola continued success.”

Henry, who grew up in Paterson, had completely different careers previously. After graduating from high school, he went into business with two friends, establishing textile  company in Paterson that lasted 17 years.  Then he worked for 26 as textile manager for a medical device manufacturer in Wayne, until that company closed.

 “By then, I was close to retirement age, but not really ready to retire,” said Henry.  It was his sister who had seen an advertisement about PCCC’s culinary programs and had a brainstorm.

“She told me I should go look into it, and even took me there herself, because she knew I wouldn’t go on my own,” said Henry, laughing.  “I liked Chef Hernandez and how he explained the program,” said Henry. “I was very impressed by the facilities and started thinking that this might be good for me.”

His wife and three adult children agreed, so Henry enrolled and started on his degree program.
“At first, I worried about the age gap between me and other students,” he said. “I wondered if I would feel like the elephant in the room.”

But Henry found himself embraced by the students, who were of diverse ages. “They were all very welcoming and inclusive. It was amazing,” he said.

Already a competent cook at home, Henry enjoyed learning the techniques and information covered in the courses. “There’s a lot to be aware of,” he said, “especially when you have to cook gluten-free or be concerned about food allergies.” Overall, he prefers cooking to baking. “You can be a little more creative with cooking,” he said. “There’s more wiggle room than with baking.” 

In addition to culinary classes, he also had academic courses. “They were good,” he said. “I liked my composition class, even though I’m a terrible writer.”

Apparently, that opinion is not shared by others.  Henry said he wrote a toast for his daughter’s wedding in one of his composition classes. “When I showed it to my wife, she said, ‘You’re going to do this,’” meaning deliver the toast at the wedding.  “Then my daughter’s future-mother-in-law read it and said the same thing, ‘You’re going to do this.’” 

Henry felt mortified about speaking in public, but now realizes that was a good preparation for his valedictory speech.

Like any other student, Henry learned valuable lessons from the two internships he served as part of his degree requirements, one with a bakery and the other with a small restaurant in Wanaque. Sometimes internships help students realize what they don’t want to do.

“I realized I don’t want to be a line cook or work in a restaurant,” he said.  “I’d like to work part-time, possibly in a catering business, or something like that, but I’m still thinking it over.”

Now graduating, Henry gives high marks to PCCC’s Culinary Art Program. “I would absolutely recommend it to anyone. Even if you know nothing about cooking when you start, you will be well equipped to enter the field by the time you finish. Chef Hernandez has done a great job building this program, and the staff of chef instructors are great.”

In fact, Henry thinks each chef added a special flavor to his experience. “Chef (Philippe) Kaemmerle
has amazing skills and is a fun guy to be around. Chef (Steve) Levitt taught me Introduction to Culinary Arts and told me how to get my academic house in order. Chef (Patrick Pierre) can look at a dish, dissect it, wonder what he can do to make it different, and get amazing results.”

For now, Henry is focused on his valedictory speech. “I’m anxious about this,” he said, hopeful that his sessions with public speaking Professor James Sanders will help him to relax. But with the support of his family, which includes three grandchildren whom he calls “the light of my life,” Henry has all the ingredients he needs for another success.

Written and photographed by Linda Telesco