Chance Encounters Help Williams Fulfill Lifelong Dream
The calendar was about to turn over to 2018. By all accounts, Gloria Williams had packed a lot into her 72 years of life.
She had earned a bachelor’s degree in medical technology from Saint Louis University, worked in the medical field for 25 years, raised three children and even written four books.
But one of Williams’ lifelong dreams remained unfulfilled. She wanted to study culinary arts, but at her age, felt her time to do so had passed. A chance encounter in a local library changed that.
“I was standing in line at Natural Bridge Library waiting to make copies, when I saw a multi-layered chocolate cake on a saved screen on a nearby computer,” Williams recalled. “I asked the young lady if she had baked that cake. She replied that she had indeed baked the cake and had recently graduated from St. Louis Community College with a degree in culinary arts. I told her that I had always wanted to study culinary, but felt I was too old. She said her classmate was 85 years old and had completed the program. She encouraged me to get in touch with Ms. Brenda (Delaney) in the culinary department at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. I met with Ms. Brenda to simply get information about the program, but she started taking my personal information and then told me I was enrolled, and classes began January 17, 2018.”
Almost a year later, Williams was studying culinary arts in southern France at Gastronomicom International Culinary Academy. Again, a chance encounter changed the course of her studies.
“My opportunity to study in France was God-directed. One day while on my way to class, I saw a blue poster with white clouds that said, ‘Would you like to study abroad? Call me, Chris Sulincevski.’ I backed up, wrote the telephone number, and called Chris (STLCC’s study abroad coordinator). Chris asked what country I wanted to study in, and I said that I was in culinary arts and wanted to study in France. Chris said, ‘but, of course.' That is how the journey began.”
One obstacle Williams had to overcome was financing her trip. Her faith once again provided the answer.
“With God, anything is possible. I did not have funds to travel abroad and nobody in my family had traveled abroad,” Williams said. “But Orbitz Travel Company had a one-day special round-trip ticket from St. Louis to Paris reduced 50 percent. The National Restaurant Education Fund, St. Louis Community Foundation, money from friends, and the use of a newly acquired credit card made the trip possible.”
Welcome to France
Williams arrived in France on Jan. 3, 2019, amid a governmental revolt over low wages, lack of affordable housing, and low retirement income for senior citizens.
“Everyone was on the streets – the young, couples, and senior citizens. Fires were started and there were numerous bomb threats,” Williams said. “The U.S. Embassy advised American citizens not to get involved. I did not speak French, but God provided angels who came to my aid and helped me to get from point A to point B.”
Trains, airport terminals and buses had to be inspected for bombs, Williams noted. It took 26 hours to finally arrive at Gastronomicon.
“The school was located very close to the French Riviera, and the apartments were wonderful,” she said.
During her studies and through personal observations, Williams learned much about French cuisine. Freshness, she noted, is key.
“Food is shopped for daily. You can taste the difference that freshness makes, and it also aids in food digestion,” Williams said. “Spices and herbs are used lavishly. The appearance of food on the plate and sauces are important.”
Williams also said she was exposed to foods like pigeons and quails, as well as spices and herbs that were not used in her classes at Forest Park. Wine also is enjoyed with meals, and even children are given wine mixed with water with meals.
French Culture and Lifestyle
Despite the richness of French food, Williams observed that most French people appeared to be fit and trim. She noted that people’s daily activities included walking, climbing stairs and bicycling.
“I did not see many people who were fat or had pot bellies,” Williams said. “I lost 34 pounds during my four months in France.”
Williams said she found the French culture to be more welcoming to diversity and African Americans than the United States. She was the only American – and the only Black female among the 34 international students in attendance. She made many friends during her stay, and gave a speech at the graduation ceremony.
Williams provided other observations about French culture and lifestyle:
- “I was judged by the content of my character and not the color of my skin.”
- “The French have a laissez-faire attitude to life and do not let small issues upset them. They do not ask to speak to the manager, when upset, like Americans.”
- “Buildings are not restructured on the outside only rehabs can occur interiorly. The French love their old buildings and want to keep them looking old.”
The four-month experience abroad highlighted Williams’ quest to complete that associate degree in culinary arts. She graduated in December 2020.
“My diploma in culinary arts is important because it is a sign of completion, and I feel it will open doors for me to help my community,” Williams said. “The excellence of the instruction, equipment, and supplies prepared me to work anywhere. I learned recipe preparation, reduction and enlargement, menu planning, and the reasons why some foods are served raw, boiled, fried, baked, or grilled were stressed. I learned that food must look, smell and taste good.”
Because ethnic cuisine is such an important part of the culinary industry, Williams said students could benefit from guest appearances by African American, Mexican, and Asian chefs.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Williams’ future plans in the culinary field are on hold.
“I cannot help but think of classmates who quit before graduation because of family obligations, finances, and the large amount of academics which they felt reduced time spent in culinary,” Williams said.
She also has a bit of advice for Forest Park students.
“I am grateful that I was able to travel to France and received scholarships. It is partially because I read the bulletin boards on campus,” Williams said. “I would encourage my classmates to pay attention to bulletin boards because Forest Park has many posted opportunities. Perhaps my fellow culinary students will take culinary classes in Italy as well as France, the automotive students will study in Germany, and the mortician students will study in Egypt. It will certainly broaden your horizons.”
(Editor’s Notes: Read more about Gloria Williams in this article from the Dec. 7, 2018, edition of The Scene, the student newspaper at STLCC-Forest Park.