The Secchia Institute of Culinary Arts here at Grand Rapids Community College is a nationally accredited program and is ranked amongst the top schools in the nation. Yet among its many success stories, not many graduates can boast of having spent time as the roommate to Minnie Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh. Yet, not only can Mary Hefferan has had this experience, she had the opportunity to live and cook on the most magical place in the world: Disney World.
Hefferan, 61, Grand Rapids, was introduced to a love of cooking through her travels in a far different career. Though she had a bachelor’s degree in Art History, after the recession in Michigan in the 80’s, Hefferan found herself living in San Francisco working in the Financial District. It was in the wandering streets of “Gourmet Alley” in Berkeley that she was exposed to and fell in love with gourmet cooking and foods.
“I was lucky enough to be able to walk around Chinatown and North Beach, the Italian neighborhood on my lunch breaks,” Hefferan said. This exposure led to a fascination in cooking that quickly turned into a passion.
“I took Chinese cooking classes from a wonderful Asian woman at the high school across the street from where I lived,” she said.
After her time in San Francisco finished, Hefferan moved back to Grand Rapids to get a job working for the Grand Rapids Press. This would mark a 17-year career with the newspaper, working in the Features Department on the entertainment calendars.
Yet even though her professional career was mixed with experience with Finance and Journalism, her love a cooking didn’t waver. Even as she continued to work for the Press, Hefferan took cooking classes at the Hospitality Department at GRCC, which would become to the Seccia Institute later on. Hefferan began taking classes in the early 1990s, earning her the distinction of being in the culinary program the longest. Her many years with SICE would be the foundation in her adventure with Disney Culinary Program.
“All of the instructors at SICE are fantastic,” Hefferan said. “I’m not sure if SICE students really appreciate what world class faculty they have.”
While the Press was reconstructing, Hefferan was laid off. But instead of letting this hinder her goals, she continually pursued her culinary degree. Her determination and drive helped her not only to graduate from the SICE program, but also manage to earn a network engineering degree at Davenport University.
The opportunity came up to travel to Disney Resort to be an intern down there, and Hefferan jumped at the chance for the experience. Only six months after graduating from the culinary program, and Hefferan was preparing to live in the most magical place on earth.
It was fast paced work, but Hefferan stuck with it. “Most weeks you work six days a week, often double shifts, prepping the food ‘offstage’ in the kitchen as well as cooking it ‘onstage’ in front of guests.”
She was trained in multiple stations in different restaurants on the resort.
“It was a very high volume, fast-paced workplace serving a broad spectrum of international guests.”
Her experience with Disney also has opened her eyes to the world around her. Crowds from all over the world come to Disney World every year and Hefferan got to experience it firsthand.
“Most days on the bus to or from work, I barely heard English from fellow (interns). You get to meet students from all over the world,” she said.
Even with the experience she has gleaned from working in all different restaurants with Disney, Hefferan still has a special love for the food that inspired her to cook from the very beginning.
“When I’m cooking for myself, I love to make Asian Food; it reminds me of the food I would smell cooking when I walked around Chinatown…I feel right at home in Asian grocery stores.”
Hefferan is an inspiration not only to the students who participate in the SICE culinary program, but all students at GRCC. She never let the roadblocks thrown her way stop her, but always continued to seek out the next adventure. Hefferan’s internship was extended until October of this year, and then she will be moving back to West Michigan.
“My heart and my home are here in Grand Rapids and West Michigan,” said Hefferan.