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Student Finds New Beginning and Culinary Success at STLCC

Pradeep Gopalakrishnan

Trapped by a life that offered little hope of improving, Pradeep Gopalakrishnan needed a change. Never imaging how fortuitous his choice to move would be, he relocated to St. Louis in search of a new beginning.

Fifteen years ago, without a high school degree and an attitude that mistrusted everything and everyone, Gopalakrishnan moved from the New York City area to work in his brother Prasad’s restaurant in St. Louis. It was here he’d began working toward a general education degree and started to figure out life.

He never imagined he’d meet Stacey, then a server at Thali Palace who now is his wife. With her patient guidance and the backing of her entire family, Gopalakrishnan’s outlook has changed greatly.

“She’s been one of the biggest supporters in my life” he said of Stacey, with whom he’s expecting their first child in June. “It changed the trajectory of my path. Meeting her was one of those things in my life that helped me move in the right direction.”

Gopalakrishnan’s future received another boost in September when he won the American Culinary Federation St. Louis Chefs de Cuisine’s Junior Chef of the Year Competition, which pits top culinary arts students in the St. Louis area. Entrants create a menu and use industry-sanctioned techniques in prepping the food.

They had only an hour, and the competition dictated what the competitors would do during specific segments of that time. For example, the first 10 minutes was dedicated to setting up the kitchen – getting the pots, pans, cutting boards and all the other tools ready.

Image of winning dishGopalakrishnan, 34, spent weeks preparing for the competition, including practicing the proper ways to debone a chicken and how to cut vegetables. A second-year student in both the culinary arts and baking and pastry arts programs at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, Gopalakrishnan spent extra hours practicing at his work as a cook at The Gatesworth, which kept him from spending time with his wife.

Stacey supported him the entire way and may have celebrated the most when Gopalakrishnan won with his presentation of braised chicken and mushroom ragout, sweet potato and apple puree, and broccolini.

“I'm so proud of him,” Stacey said. “It has been awesome to see the relationships he's built through school and the ACF, and we are so grateful for all the support. Watching him thrive was really amazing.”

Beyond the recognition of being the best student chef in the region, Gopalakrishnan, who will graduate with degrees in culinary arts and baking and pastry arts, also received a knife set – a prized possession for any chef – and a chef’s coat with his name on it.

Classmate Finishes Second

Gopalakrishnan’s classmate Gavin Ball took second in the competition and parlayed the finish into a job at the Bogey Club, one of the top country clubs in St. Louis. The second-year student, who will graduate next December with degrees in both culinary arts and baking and pastry arts, had been working at a small restaurant in Lake St. Louis.

“Second place, to me, means I need to keep working at it,” Ball said. “I need to perfect my wish. I need to take the criticism the judges gave me. I need to implement it into what I’m doing for next time so that I don’t come in second place.”

Both Gopalakrishnan and Ball plan to try out for a team that represents the St. Louis area in a national competition next year. For Professor Casey Shiller, who nominated Gopalakrishnan and Ball to enter the competition, he knew his students had the ability for a strong showing.

“Seeing the skills developed in school translate into a precise cooking demonstration shows their dedication outside of the classroom pays off,” Shiller said. “Both Pradeep and Gavin put in immense time and effort to refine their hand skills, exhibiting to the professional culinary judges their commitment to further the craft in which they’re studying.

“As a professor, there’s no greater reward than seeing your students succeed in front of leaders in the culinary field.”

Gopalakrishnan said he was especially grateful for the encouragement and guidance he received from Shiller and fellow STLCC instructor Robert Hertel in the process. He also received guidance and support from his supervisors at The Gatesworth, Brian Hardy and Kyler Merit, executive chef and executive sous chef, respectively. Both worked with Gopalakrishnan extensively in preparation for the competition.

Gopalakrishnan said he’s been amazed by how supportive the St. Louis culinary community has been.

From Hardship to Stability

All of this – stability, a strong and loving 12-year marriage, a growing family, success in a field about which he’s passionate – never entered Gopalakrishnan’s mind growing up. How could it, considering what his life was like until St. Louis.

Born into poverty in India, his family lived in a hut that had banana leaves as a roof and flooded if it rained too much. His mom, Ammini Gopalakrishnan, made clothes for her three sons to wear to school and helped their dad scrape together enough money to purchase essentials, such as broken rice to eat.

The family moved to the New York City area when Gopalakrishnan was about 7 years old. They had hoped for better life, but that didn’t happen. His dad, who was also a chef, suffered from alcohol dependency and would often become violent if he bothered to come home at all. There were bouts of homelessness, sometimes living in a car to avoid the father.

Eventually the father moved away, leaving Ammini Gopalakrishnan to care for her three sons. She struggled to speak English and had no training for a job that pays a livable wage. She had several jobs, including working in a perfume factory that caused her headaches and other physical ailments because of the chemicals. She baked food for neighbors. She’d nanny. She did whatever she could to care for her sons.

They chipped in, including collecting cans they’d take to the recycling center to make money. But it was what they did at home that helped spur Pradeep Gopalakrishnan’s love of culinary.

Pradeep, Casey Shiller and StaceyWith his mom working long hours, cooking often fell to the boys. Gopalakrishnan enjoyed experimenting. He would try different techniques and combinations of flavor – all Indian food – to see what worked.

That led him to taking a job at an Indian restaurant, where he moved his way up from dishwasher, to prep cook to line cook. When he recognized his future wasn’t in New York and his brother needed help at his St. Louis restaurant, Gopalakrishnan relocated and continued to learn about the hospitality business.

About a year later, after the restaurant closed, he bounced around to different Indian restaurants in the St. Louis area until he hit what he felt like was a ceiling.

“I’ve only been in an American kitchen for the past four or so years,” he said. “After a certain point there’s not much else to do at an Indian restaurant. I decided that I wanted to learn more and that’s the process I am in.”

Gopalakrishnan plans to do more competitions and continue to hone his craft at his current job. He hopes to someday open his own restaurant. But, for now, he couldn’t be happier with his life. He’s got everything that anyone could ask for and everything he once thought he’d never have before moving to St. Louis.

“This is where I met my wife,” he said. “I’ve got a great support system here with my extended family on her side. They’ve been more than supportive with what I’m pursuing. I love it here.

“I’ve met wonderful people at St. Louis Community College. I’ve met some of the coolest people in this field in St. Louis. This is definitely home.”

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