Timing is everything when it comes to cooking. That’s especially true for Lawrence’s Mercedes Rodriguez — both in the kitchen and in life. The Northern Essex Community College (NECC) culinary arts certificate 2021 graduate was just accepted for transfer to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA), where she will begin classes this fall.
After graduating from Whittier Tech in 2014 in graphic communications, Rodriguez, unsure of what she wanted to do, began working in restaurants. “I came in as a server. I would just watch things happen. I remember thinking this is a great job as 19-year-old,” Rodriguez said. Eventually she realized she preferred being in the kitchen. She had just learned about the new Lupoli Family Institute of Culinary Arts at NECC, when her restaurant suddenly closed due to the pandemic. “Literally, I lost my job in March, and the program started in September.”
Rodriguez took that as a sign, and enrolled in the culinary arts certificate program. She first heard about the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) through NECC culinary program coordinator Chef Denis Boucher, who is an alum of the Hyde Park, N.Y. school. She decided to apply after the CIA sent her a voucher to cover the $100 application fee. For the required essay, she wrote about her grandmother, who emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in the 1960s. She settled in Lawrence and ran a Cuban food truck, which was a novel idea at the time. “It was all Italians, she used to be the only Cuban woman,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez found out she was accepted into the CIA in June, just days before her 25th birthday. She credits her teachers at NECC for helping her achieve this goal. “The teachers are the biggest resource,” Rodriguez said. “All you have to do is ask. I bother them all day with questions.” Rodriguez will join the associate program in baking and pastry this month. The program takes two years to complete, and she is working with counselors at both NECC and the CIA to transfer her credits.
As a vegan and a bread-lover, she thinks that one day she might open a vegan bakery. But for now, she’s focused on getting ready to live away from home for the first time. “This is the best school in the world, I’m going to do it. I’m going to do my own thing. I swear I was never ready — and then it all happened at once.”