TYNGSBOROUGH — Abraham Conlon, a Greater Lowell Technical High School alumnus, has traveled the world in pursuit of culinary inspiration. Over the past 15 years, he has studied and worked at restaurants across the country and in the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.
The celebrated chef’s journey came full circle last month when he returned to his alma mater to be honored as the school’s 2014 Distinguished Alumnus. It was the first time since 2004 that the school has honored a graduate.
During his visit May 20, Conlon, a member of the class of 1999, shared his experiences and insights with some 70 students in the school’s culinary arts program.
“The only thing that limits what you can accomplish is your dreams, so don’t limit your dreams,” said Conlon, 32, co-owner and executive chef of Fat Rice, a Chicago restaurant that last year landed at No. 4 on Bon Appetit magazine’s list of the 10 best new restaurants in the United States.
At Fat Rice, Conlon and his partner, Adrienne Lo, serve Macanese food with flair, blending influences from Portugal, China, Malaysia, Angola, and India. Foodies eager to sample exotic dishes such as his signature arroz gordo, or fat rice — a layered rice dish that features jasmine rice topped with fatty prawns, clams, Chinese sausage, salted duck, clams, and tea eggs — line up well before opening time to secure one of the restaurant’s 38 seats.
It is the kind of success Conlon dreamed of as a teenager, when he worked as an intern at Stonehedge Inn in Tyngsborough. Evolving from inexperienced kitchen help to executive chef required more than hard work and a lot of globe-trotting.
It required what the young entrepreneur calls the Push.
“It goes beyond desire; it’s self-motivation,” Conlon said.
Students who have the push, he said, ask “lots and lots of questions to expand their own knowledge and continue to grow.” They are invested in their own education, he noted, advising the students to “read every cookbook” in the school library, the public library, or their local bookstore, and to “get into the best kitchen that you can and work as hard as you can.”
Today, the push motivates Conlon to spend hours translating century-old handwritten recipes from Portuguese to English so he can recreate the dishes or do his own take on them.
Arnold Price, the only instructor in the culinary arts department who worked at the school when Conlon was a student there, said he nominated his former protege because “he is worthy of the award for what he’s accomplished since he left here. It’s cool that a graduate of this school earned national recognition.
“What stood out about him back in the late 1990s was his drive and passion,” Price said. “He was never satisfied with what was in front of him. He always wanted to learn more.”
The message resonated with many of the students, who nodded their heads in agreement as Conlon spoke.
“It’s such a fast business,” said Rachel Silva, 16, a junior in the culinary arts program and one of two students who helped Conlon prepare potstickers, a Lo family recipe, during the cooking demonstration. “You can’t give up. To succeed, you’ve got to work hard.”Brenda J. Buote may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.