On Monday, the Rivers community welcomed back alumna Cara Nicoletti ’04—butcher, baker, and cookbook maker—in order to present her with a Young Alumni Achievement Award. Cara spoke to students and faculty at the all-school assembly about her passion for literature and food, and how she has managed to combine the two into a satisfying and successful career.
Cara began by thanking several faculty members—Ms. Jacoby, Ms. Ligon, Ms. Loomis, Ms. Chase, and Mr. McVey—for encouraging her to study English literature and Latin at New York University. She recounted how, while living and studying in New York, she found herself working in restaurants as a way to make money during her off-hours from school.
“Logistically these jobs made sense, they were the jobs that were most flexible schedule-wise for a student, but the bustle of restaurants also felt comfortable to me,” Cara said. “I grew up around the food industry—my grandfather and great grandfather owned a butcher shop in Newton, and we spent a good amount of time there when I was growing up. These restaurants, their warmth and hustle, felt familiar to me in a way that I badly needed as a homesick 18-year-old.”
“I started at the front of the house, serving coffee, waitressing, bussing tables and washing dishes, and eventually weaseled my way into the kitchen,” she continued. “My first back-of the-house positions were in pastry kitchens—these were usually the easiest jobs for a young girl without any formal experience to get. When I started working in restaurants, I assumed that my two lives—my life studying English and my life making and serving food—would be totally separate. I never expected that so much of my time in the kitchen would be spent talking to my co-workers about literature, and that so much of my time in the classroom would be spent talking about food.”
“When I graduated in 2008, the economy bottomed out, and suddenly people were no longer asking me what I really wanted to do, they were asking me if we had any room in the kitchen,” she admitted. “No one could get a job, not even the people with the most prestigious college internships and connections, and I suddenly felt immensely grateful that I had honed a trade skill, that I was employable in a tangible way.”
She also found herself sharing meals with her English-major friends, and was pleasantly surprised by how well-prepared all of the food was, and how seamlessly the conversation switched from new books to new cast-iron skillets. She eventually started a book club with her friends, for which she’d prepare a meal based on the book they discussed. They urged her to turn this idea into a supper club, and when the supper club became more popular than she could handle, she launched a blog, called Yummy Books.
“The blog also caught on faster than I was expecting it to, and after a few years of writing it, I was approached by publishers to write a book,” she said. “That book, Voracious, came out last August.”
In between stops on her book tour with Voracious, Cara is working five days a week as a butcher in Brooklyn, NY, and developing recipes with another cookbook author. A paperback edition of Voracious is currently in the works.
Cara concluded her talk by acknowledging that, while high school wasn’t exactly an easy time for her, as an adult she is immensely grateful for the feelings and failures of those years, and for this place [Rivers] that was her home for four years.
“The education I was given, both academic and otherwise, made it possible for the dream that I had held secret in my heart since I was a child—the dream of seeing my name in print—to become real,” Cara concluded, urging students to write down what they are feeling now. “When you are 30 and well out of the woods of adolescence, I swear you will want to feel those feelings again.”
Rivers’ chef Michael Clancy continued the literature-food theme by including several recipes from Cara’s book on the lunch menu: clam chowder (inspired by Moby Dick
), turkey breakfast sausage (Little House in the Big Woods
), buckwheat pancakes (“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), red flannel hash (“The Best Girlfriend You Never Had”), and biscuits with molasses butter (To Kill a Mockingbird
Created in 2014, the Young Alumni Achievement Award is given annually to a recent graduate who models the spirit and values of The Rivers School as set forth in our mission statement. Through professional, academic, and/or volunteer roles, the recipient has demonstrated leadership, excellence in his/her chosen career, and an interest in and commitment to serving others. Tim Geary '02 also received the award earlier this year.
to view Cara's talk.