Melvin Cheeks starts most days in the kitchen making breakfast for his mom. “I make everything from eggs and hash browns to biscuits and gravy,” he said.

Cheeks is no stranger to cooking. “Mom was a single parent, and as the oldest, I made sure we were fed when she was at work,” he said. “It was the one chore I didn’t mind.”

He’s had his share of cooking jobs, but he wanted something more. On Friday, Cheeks will graduate from Tidewater Community College with an Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts.

It was while working for Golden Corral as a trainer that he realized it was time to get his education. “I would spend weeks training new managers, and soon after, they’d be my supervisors, simply because I had no college degree,” he said.

“I chose TCC because I wanted more than a culinary degree. I wanted an education that would make me a good writer and communicator and a well-rounded person.”

A Portsmouth native, Cheeks graduated from Norcom High School in 1976 and started at Norfolk State University. “At the time, school was not a good fit,” he said. “I wanted to be working and making money, so I got on staff with the sheriff’s department in Portsmouth.”  

Soon after, Cheeks joined the Army and spent the next decade overseas serving his country. “When you join the Army, you take a test to determine where you will fit. I didn’t need that test to know that I wanted to get back in the kitchen, even if that meant a tent in the desert in the Middle East,” he said. “I learned to cook in any condition for large numbers. But after 10 years, I wanted to come home.”

His TCC path wasn’t easy, he said.

“English was my worst subject, as I’m not a big reader. But my teachers pushed me and understood that this was something I wanted to master,” he said. “Same goes for my information technology professor, who seemed to be speaking a foreign language to start. But I never felt alone on the journey. My teachers went the extra mile to be sure that I was learning, and I got help from tutors in the Learning Assistance Center.

Cheeks says working and studying in the TCC kitchens refined his skills. “I was a safe cook, but my time here changed all that,” he said. “Now there’s nothing I won’t try.” He credits chefs Don Averso, Deanna Freridge and Emi Ostrander for his cooking and baking successes.

The camaraderie with other culinary students was another highlight. “We were always competing with each other, but it was a friendly competition meant to help each other,” he said. “In one class I was paired with Mike Dennis, who was 21 at the time. We had nothing to talk about! But amazingly we made a great team. He was wild, and I was sensible, and together we even earned a bronze medal in a local cooking competition.

“I can honestly say that I’ve made friends here that I will know the rest of my life,” Cheeks added.

After two years at the college, including a stint as a teaching assistant in a TCC baking class, Cheeks is ready to return to the workforce. He hopes to start in a family-style restaurant, but would ultimately like to work in an upscale restaurant or serve as a chef-in-residence, whipping up meals and delicacies for parties in the home.

“My time here I will never forget and I will push others to come here,” Cheeks said. “My nephew and granddaughter are planning culinary careers, and it’s my goal to have them start here.”

He always thought the TCC promise, “from here go anywhere,” couldn’t be true. “But now I know that it is,” Cheeks said. “Today, I can stand in front of a group and speak, or write a proposal and I’m confident in my skills. That’s what I got from TCC.”
 

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