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Will Miller (left) former AVID coordinator at Robert E. Lee High School, takes time to check on his former student Adrian Pantoja. Pantoja graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and is the dining room manager at Charlie Palmer Steak in New York City.
Miller, now an advisor to first-year students at Yale University and a private college admissions consultant, lives in Princeton, NJ.
Adrian Pantoja, a Robert E. Lee High School graduate and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, greets a customer at Charlie Palmer Steak in New York City, where he is now the dining room manager.
A New York State of Mind
By: Susan Passmore
Adrian Pantoja’s head told him to earn a degree leading to a financially profitable career after high school graduation, but his heart told him to take a chance and pursue his dream. Without looking back, he headed off to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. After earning a BBA in culinary management, he is now the dining room manager at Charlie Palmer Steak in the Archer Hotel in New York City, and he’s loving the experience.
A product of Goose Creek CISD schools, Pantoja attended Carver Elementary and Baytown Junior, graduating 16th in the Class of 2014 from Robert E. Lee High School. As an elementary student, Pantoja enjoyed watching his parents and grandparents cook, and he eventually started helping out. In high school, he bused tables at Texas Roadhouse on Garth and was promoted to expediter in the kitchen.
“A friend recommended the Achievement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program to me, thinking the program would help me reach my expectations of leaving home to go across the country to a prestigious school,” Pantoja said.
He was accepted into AVID as a sophomore. Through the program, he kept up with his academics, stayed organized, interacted with others and learned to take effective notes. With the help of AVID tutors, usually former AVID students attending college, he learned to solve problems and to find answers to questions as well as to make sure he understood why those were the answers.
“When I step back from this, I realize that my AVID skills helped me in college. From a management perspective, I use those skills to resolve problems and to help people clearly understand the answers to their questions. As I became a leader in AVID, we went to the junior schools to interview students to decide which candidates had the qualities needed for AVID. Now, I interview people and look for those same qualities,” Pantoja said.
Pantoja exceled as a high school student, serving as president of the Interact Club and as vice president of the National Honor Society and the National Technical Honor Society. He was caught up in the school spirit at Lee, has fond memories of their lip dub, and believes, “Once a Gander, always a Gander.” While he had many post-secondary education opportunities, he disregarded suggestions from others that he go into engineering or the medical field, never losing his passion for culinary arts.
“For me, it’s not only the cooking, it’s the whole aspect of the restaurant and hospitality industry that fascinates me. It starts with the service side and how great the food quality is and goes to the overall experience we offer. That’s why I love what I do,” Pantoja said.
Several obstacles stood in the way of attending CIA. Pantoja had never lived in a big city, and he was scared that he might not be successful at the school. He also knew he would have to supplement his scholarships with hefty loans to realize his dream. Fortunately, the support he received from the faculty at CIA and his cohort group helped him achieve his educational goal. Now he’s living in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York City, working, paying back his loans and riding the train to work like a local.
Will Miller, former AVID coordinator at Lee and now advisor to first-year students at Yale University and private college admissions consultant, encouraged Pantoja as he “went against the grain,” choosing to attend CIA instead of pursuing an academic track at a university. Now residing in Princeton, NJ, he had the opportunity to have dinner with Pantoja recently at Charlie Palmer Steak, and he was pleased to see his former student thriving in his position as dining room manager and handling the rooftop bar and room service.
“Adrian took what many considered a risk to attend CIA instead of UT or TAMU to pursue something that better aligned with the academic profile he built for himself at Lee,” Miller said. “His success story reinforces the fact that everyone gets to decide for themselves what’s best for them. And what was clearly best for Adrian was to follow his passion and allow it to be his compass that provided direction for not only how to make a living, but how to live.”
Pantoja has a few jobs on his resume, including his time at Texas Roadhouse, a few months as a banquet cook at the Marriott Marquis in Downtown Houston shortly after graduating from CIA as well as a short stint at Buc-ee’s, but at age 22, this Baytown native is still garnering experience. He spends his free time exploring the city.
“I hope to stay where I am for a few years, but my goal is to move to other states and to travel around the world to get a feel for other cultures and environments. This restaurant group has other properties, so Vegas might be my next stop,” Pantoja said.
As for settling down, Pantoja thinks there’s time for that later.
“My 20s are for adventure, travel, gaining experience, making connections and working with people. Family planning I’ll leave for my 30s. That’s my goal!”
Consolidated Independent School District
4544 Interstate 10 East | Baytown, Texas 77521 | 281.420.4800
P.O. Box 30 | Baytown, Texas 77522 | 281.420.4800
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