Distinguished Alumni Awards Winners Still Wildcats at Heart

Johnson & Wales alumni may march into the world after commencement to do amazing things, but Wildcat claws run deep; memories, support and connections to their JWU community can remain for years, or even a lifetime.

When JWU’s Providence Campus hosted its 2023 Distinguished Alumni Awards ceremony on April 21, those deep connections were a recurring theme as alumni, friends, family and dignitaries gathered to recognize three recipients who’ve made their mark.

Every year the university carefully selects a Johnson & Wales alumnus for the coveted Distinguished Alumni Awards in three distinct categories. This year’s ceremony celebrated three special alumni:

• Geoffrey Lanez, C.E.C. '12, '14 MBA for the G.O.L.D. (Graduate of the Last Decade) Award for alumni who have graduated within the past 10 years, who have made notable contributions to his or her field and who are active participants in the life of the university

• David Salcfas '88 for the Alumni Service Award for active and engaged alumni who have been an integral and committed part of the JWU Alumni effort

• Michael Rypka '96 for the Outstanding Achievement Award for alumni who have made recognizable impacts in their industry and are an outstanding role model for fellow alumni, students and the JWU community Under sparkling chandeliers at Harborview, while expansive windows revealed the sun beginning to set over Narragansett Bay, all eyes were on the award winners — and all ears on the heartfelt speeches from both presenters and recipients.

Graduate of the Last Decade (G.O.L.D.) Award: Geoffrey Lanez, C.E.C. '12, '14 MBA

After lauding JWU’s college, curriculum, facilities and faculty as the best in the country, College of Food & Innovation Technology (CFIT) Assistant Dean TJ Delle Donne ’04, ’07 M.A.T. turned his praise to dedicated chefs like G.O.L.D. Award recipient “Geo” Lanez.

“What we do isn’t easy, but you make it look like a perfectly choreographed dance,” said Delle Donne. “Keep inspiring us. I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

Delle Donne shared that Lanez is executive chef of The Patterson Club in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he manages and oversees four different kitchen outlets that produce high-quality dining experiences for the club’s membership. Lanez earned his B.S. in Food Service Management from JWU in 2012 and transitioned right into JWU’s MBA program, where he continued his advanced training.

A participant in rigorous culinary competitions, Lanez was on the ACF Culinary Team USA at the World Cup in Villeroy 2017 and Boch 2019 Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg. His team won two silver medals before receiving a silver and bronze in the 2020 IKA/Culinary Olympics in Stuttgart, Germany. Lanez recently placed second in the 2022 Le Best Chef competition and has consulted, coached and advised numerous competitors.

CFIT Master Instructor Ray McCue, WCMC ’01, ’11 M.Ed., who co-presented Lanez’s G.O.L.D. award, praised Lanez’s thought leadership, vision, focus and commitment to all he takes on, as well as lauding Lanez’s engagement of and connection with other chefs, willingness to assist others and his overall commitment to the hospitality industry. “You uplift those around you and help others grow in the culinary field,” McCue told the G.O.L.D. award recipient. “You have become a difference maker and leader because you inspire others and invest in others.”

“[JWU faculty members'] dedication to excellence in education has inspired me, and I’m proud to be a part of the Johnson & Wales University community"
- 2023 JWU G.O.L.D. Award winner Geo Lanez, C.E.C. '12, '14 MBA 

When accepting his award, Lanez in turn named multiple JWU faculty members and administrators, thanking them each for their “knowledge and mentorship in navigating the highs and lows of the culinary industry” and for their unwavering support.

“Their dedication to excellence in education has inspired me, and I’m proud to be a part of the Johnson & Wales University community,” said Lanez of his past mentors.

G.O.L.D. Alumni Award winner Geo Lanez, C.E.C. '12, '14 MBA, center, flanked by Professor Ray McCue, WCMC '01, '11 M.Ed. (left) and CFIT Assistant Dean TJ Delle Donne '04, '07 M.A.T. (right)


He promised to pay the honor forward by being a mentor himself and by continuing to advocate for mental health, fair pay, good working conditions and educational opportunities.

“I look forward to continuing my journey to make a positive impact in the culinary world,” Lanez concluded.

Alumni Service Award: David Salcfas '88

Hospitality Management Professor James Griffin, Ed.D. ’88, ’92 M.S. said it was a pleasure to speak about Salcfas when presenting the Alumni Service Award because it was like speaking about family. They had been close since being fellow teaching assistants and roommates in the summer of 1986.

“There’s something about JWU that creates and curates connectivity,” said Griffin. “We legacy alumni carry the baton of that connectivity that has only gotten stronger.”


Griffin shared that Salcfas went to work at Marriott International after JWU and had a remarkable 34-year career that included managing at the New York Marriott East Side, the LaGuardia Airport Marriott, the New York Marriott Marquis, the Ritz-Carlton in Central Park South and the Sheraton Boston Hotel. Anytime Salcfas had an opportunity to help a JWU student or alumnus secure a room or a job, he’d find a way. Earlier this year Salcfas announced his retirement from Marriott in order to pursue other opportunities and continue to inspire our future hospitality professionals.

He founded his own business, iYou Hospitality Consulting, to provide expertise to professionals seeking a depth of knowledge and genuine support. One of his many areas of extensive knowledge is in collective bargaining agreements for New York City and Boston, and Griffin shared how Salcfas had once inherited an unreceptive union environment that he quickly turned around, gaining the respect and acceptance of everyone. He steered various hotels through troubled times, such as reprogramming after the COVID-19 pandemic, and kept a steady hand at the helm.

Griffin had a surprise for the Alumni Service award winner: he invited his and Salcfas’s other former JWU classmates, Ken Howland ‘88 and Jon E. Ledversis ‘88, to co-present, joking that the award was “on behalf of those who had to live with you.” The four friends embraced to applause and sniffles.

“We have the power to truly change lives" - 2023 JWU Alumni Service Award winner David Salcfas '88

In his acceptance speech, Salcfas shared how Johnson & Wales had changed his life and ignited his passion for being in the kitchen. “During my time at JWU as a student, I fell in love with the culinary program, faculty and student body,” he said while thanking a number of individuals who guided him to the TA program where he met his three closest friends (“my lifelong brothers”) and his wife Cindy, with whom he has four children. “We have the power to truly change lives,” said Salcfas.

Alumni connections cross generations as well. Salcfas recalled meeting then-high school student Katherine “Katie” Larson, who planned on attending JWU, in an elevator at the Marquis. The two exchanged numbers and kept in touch, and when Larson graduated from JWU in 2019, Salcfas proudly hired her at Marriott. After bouncing back from a painful pandemic, she is now an HR manager at the Boston Marriott Cambridge.



“Always take the time to take a balanced approach,” he advised the audience, which included a widely smiling Larson, cheering on his award as he had cheered on her budding career. “Always take the time to listen to and help others.”

“The success I have is not my own but of my family plus the hundreds or thousands of aspiring hospitality professionals that I’ll continue to mentor as long as I stay alive,” Salcfas concluded.

Outstanding Achievement Award: Michael Rypka '96

While presenting this prestigious award, JWU Providence President Marie Bernardo-Sousa, L.P.D. ’92, shared that she had been moved that day by seeing JWU students and employees giving back to their communities during a JWU Serves event, followed by Reunion 2023 conversations with JWU alumni who kept asking how they could help current students.

Those themes of wanting to give back led her to “Mike” Rypka ’96, whose passion for the culinary arts had been evident since his youth, and whose commitment to helping others led to his nomination for this award.

Rypka has been in the food business since he was 13. After receiving his Culinary Arts degree from JWU, Rypka jumped into a life he loved. At Fisher Island and Mark’s Place, Rypka had the privilege of cooking for President Bill Clinton and other exclusive audiences. He went on to become executive chef at prestigious businesses that included the World Bank, MTV Studios and Disney Animations, Enron and Dell Computers.

Sixteen years ago Rypka left the corporate lifestyle for something new, launching the first Torchy’s Tacos food trailer in Austin, Texas and quickly gaining national fans of his experimental tacos. Today, Torchy’s employs over 6,000 people who serve Torchy's "damn good" food at more than 100 locations across 14 states.

Bernardo-Sousa praised Rypka’s success in creating innovative and fun scratch-made food. “Mike continues to make significant contributions to the industry and serves as an exceptional role model for the JWU community,” announced Bernardo-Sousa.

Rypka, when accepting his award, revealed a secret: he’d been “a mess” before coming to JWU. Yet he knew in his heart he should be a chef, even if at the time he feared the long hours and brutality of the restaurant business. “Something in me had this drive that I can do it and figure it out because this is my passion,” Rypka explained. After he entered JWU, his “life completely changed.”

“I got to do all these amazing things through the school, like my first Taste of the Nation event. I fed celebrities and princes at Fisher Island — and that was all JWU.”
- 2023 JWU Outstanding Achievement Award winner Mike Rypka '96

“I learned about tenacity, drive, work ethic, and what it means to be part of and lead a team,” said Rypka of his years at Johnson & Wales. “I got to do all these amazing things through the school, like my first Taste of the Nation event. I fed celebrities and princes at Fisher Island — and that was all JWU.”

photo of JWU Providence Campus President Marie-Bernardo-Sousa posing with Outstanding Achievement Award winner Michael Rypka '96


Rypka advised that it’s always good to network; he hadn’t even know that World Bank had a corporate dining division until a friend got him an interview there, where he was soon designing international menus and overseeing a staff of 75 feeding 3,000-4,000 people a day. From there, Rypka’s career stretched from MTV to Enron, until he realized he wanted to open his own brick-and-mortar eatery and was “laughed at” by banks in 2006. Ignoring the naysayers, Rypka persisted in his dream, launching the world’s first Torchy’s Tacos truck.

“It was hard work, and that’s the work I learned at JWU,” said Rypka when speaking of toiling from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.

Eventually, Rypka’s grueling work created opportunities for others, and his greatest pride has been watching his employees grow along with Torchy’s, from grill cooks becoming managers to bartenders becoming trainers to cashiers becoming managing partners. “I’ve seen my employees get married, buy houses, start families, all because I took that risk and opened up a business” he said of how, after all that hard work, Torchy’s is touching lives.

Today, Rypka gives back as much as possible. Among Torchy’s many causes are funding the MD Anderson Cancer Center and helping people with alcohol and drug addiction get treatment. He’s especially proud that Torchy’s was the second largest donor in the U.S. to Make-a-Wish during the pandemic.

“It took a lot of work to get here, and it’s all because of the support I got in college and the people who surrounded me that I’ve been able to do that,” said Rypka.

JWU 2023 Distinguished Alumni winners Geo Lanez C.E.C. '12, '14 MBA; David Salcfas '88; and Mike Rypka '96


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