First-year pastry chef student Vanessa Ruiz, 18, of Mesa currently attends The Culinary Institute of New York at Monroe College in New Rochelle, New York. (Special to the Tribune)

A Mesa native is the recipient of a big scholarship from a program that started with a reality cooking show when she was 4 years old.

Since 2017, the U.S. Foods Scholars program has awarded more than $1.3 million to approximately 70 culinary students. 

Now, Vanessa Ruiz is one of 18 students across the country to win the 2022 U.S. Foods Scholars scholarship.

Ruiz plans to use her $20,000 award for her room and board at the Culinary Institute of New York at Monroe College in New Rochelle, New York.  

For Ruiz, the award is just the beginning of a lifelong dream to open her own bakery in her hometown.

“I would love to open a bakery being familiar with the area and knowing a lot of people,” Ruiz said. 

Ruiz credits much her success and her current good fortune to the East Valley Institute of Technology and its Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). 

Ruiz concurrently enrolled in EVIT during her junior at Desert Ridge High School and through C-CAP earned a spot in March in America’s Best High School Pastry Chef Competition in New York. 

While there, Ruiz won the title of America’s Best High School Pastry Chef at a national competition in New York.

That earned her a full tuition scholarship to Monroe College worth approximately $70,000.

In two years at EVIT, Ruiz said she became a certified pastry cook with the American Culinary Federation. 

Her hard work also earned her the distinction as one of two students to be named EVIT’s 2022 Students of the Year.

Now, Ruiz is on a fast track to complete her associates in pastry arts and a bachelor’s in hospitality management by June 2024.

Currently in her first year at Monroe College, Ruiz keeps busy attending class and spending more than 80 hours per week in the kitchen as a member of the “Core Five” competition team.

Ruiz said she looks to help defend the school’s title in various competitions leading up to the American Culinary Federation Nationals in Las Vegas.

Ruiz said her love of baking started when she was four years old watching the reality show Cake Boss.

“I could literally sit there and tell you how everything was made because I watched it for so long,” Ruiz said.

But it also helps that the culinary arts and entrepreneurship run in Ruiz’s blood. 

Ruiz said her mom, Lorena Proctor, worked at a bakery when she was her age and taught her a lot of what she knows today, including frosting techniques.

Her grandfather, George Ruiz, a former bodyguard for civil rights leader Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, also owned a restaurant in Phoenix called Jorge’s Authentic Mexican Food Restaurant.

“I feel like [entrepreneurship] just runs in our blood because of that,” Ruiz said. “I always want to make sure that I’m making my grandpa proud.”

Ruiz said she also learned real-world experience working for Essence Bakery Café co-founder/owner Eugenia Theodosopoulos. 

Ruiz said Theodosopoulos taught her that the fast-paced kitchen atmosphere can put you at peace if you have a genuine love for the profession.

“She always told me to put my head down and get it done,” Ruiz said. “If you truly feel like this is your passion, you’ll know it and you’ll know that there’s nowhere else you want to be besides the kitchen.”

Ruiz said she enjoys baking because of the creativity that you can build upon it. 

“A cake is like a book: it can literally tell its own story,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said she believes patience and love go into a great pastry dish, and along with the ingredients, the dedication and time you put into your hard work pays off.

“Everyone can get creative with their own things,” Ruiz said. “But someone can tell whether you’ve dedicated your time to something or if you just did it because that was the only thing you could do.”

Ruiz said she doesn’t let her age or her ethnicity stop her and wants to become a role model for others to encourage anyone interested in the culinary arts to “keep pushing to make that happen.”

“Even though I am young, but I know it’s just a matter of me showing and proving who I truly am,” Ruiz said. “So I don’t ever want anyone to feel discouraged because of that.”

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