CANTON — Octavia Stokes had dreams of becoming a world-famous chef from the time she was 5 years old.
Much of her youth has been spent pursuing the dream. The 2015 GlenOak High School graduate was captain of Jackson High School’s culinary arts team, with plans to attend the Culinary Arts Academy of Switzerland after graduation.
After her father, Ronald Jr., unexpectedly died in Fall 2011, Stokes herself was stricken with narcolepsy with cataplexy in December. Doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to handle a knife.
Though dreams of studying Switzerland were dashed, an undaunted Stokes found the right combination of medications and continued cooking.
“The summer I graduated high school I did an internship at Table 6 and got a job at Gervasi,” she said. “Both were giving me real-world experience in the kitchen. In a commercial kitchen, you have to be ‘Speedy Gonzales.’ I always call myself a kitchen sloth. I just figured out that working in a commercial kitchen was not the best idea for me.”
Stokes said most people don’t realize the physical and mental demands of working as a commercial chef.
“Personally, I didn’t think about it,” she said. “Having a job in a kitchen, you don’t get breaks; you work on holidays; it’s stressful. This is a passion of mine. I didn’t want cooking to become something I’m not passionate about. I didn’t want it to become a dream with the light out.”
Stokes pivoted, cooking for large family events, fundraisers, and as a personal chef.
“I just don’t think working in a commercial kitchen is my thing,” she said. “It wasn’t obtainable for me as a person. Chefs, like NFL players, get burned out by 35.”
She admits there was guilt.
“I had this dream that so many people were excited about,” she said, “I had this dream from the time I was 5. Whenever your dream shifts, ‘Well actually, this is not the race I’m running; I’m going to go on a different track,’ I felt bad personally because I had all these people (rooting) for me.”
Her mother, Lori, said that while she was surprised at her daughter’s decision, she’s proud.
“I was a little surprised, but I supported her decision, especially when she promised me that she would always be my personal chef, and indeed she has been,” Lori Stokes said.
Lori Stokes said parents should try to support their children’s decision-making.
“My advice would be to remember it’s their life and they have to live it, but support them as they try to figure out what they want to do,” she said. “Be open-minded, because it may be something that you wouldn’t want them pursuing.”
She added that parents have to stay positive, despite doubts.
“Remain positive when conversing with them because one ounce of negativity will build a wall that you don’t want to have to knock down,” Lori Stokes said. “Offering them support gives a multitude of happiness to them that they can use as they navigate through the process of planning their future. They will love you for your support, even if they don’t appreciate it at the moment.”
Her dream deferred, Stokes graduated from Stark State College in 2018 with a degree in applied sociology, then moved on to the University of Akron, where she’s on the verge of earning bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and sociology with a minor in Spanish, and certificates in teaching English as Second Language, linguistics and women’s studies.
“Ultimately, I want to get my master’s in cultural anthropology and theology,” she said. “I would love to do community outreach, working with human trafficking, or tackling economic and social disparities.”
Stokes also has an internship at the Summit County Executive Office and works as a youth education specialist at the Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Ohio.
“We put too much pressure on kids,” she said. “Wanting you to figure out what you want to do in third grade is not attainable. We have to let kids be kids. Let them figure out who they are, and in the midst of figuring out who they are, they’ll figure out what they want to do.”
Called to people
In 2019, Stokes received the Woman of Courage Award from She Elevates, DeLores Pressley’s enrichment outreach for girls and young women.
“I would like people to know that Octavia is a very committed young lady,” Pressley said. “Once she lends herself to something, you can be assured that she will be committed and follow-through.”
“Being complacent is a death sentence,” she said. “I’m always growing and learning, but I’m still cooking; I still have that passion. I just think what I was dreaming, in reality, it shifted a little bit.”
Stokes credits her deep-rooted faith for sustaining her during the changes. It’s led to mission work in the Dominican Republic.
“I like to say that at the end of the day, if I have nothing else, at least I have God,” she said. “I have so much stuff to be thankful for. If I never accomplish anything else, I have a family that loves me. My faith is a very big part of everything I do. I always want to leave something better than I found it. When my dad died when I was 14, the reason I didn’t do things I could have, is because of God.”
Stokes said her experience has taught her that there can be a difference between a passion and a calling.
“Sometimes we get that confused,” she said. “You have to be the one to discern that. If faith is part of your journey, ask God about it. God always calls us to people, not a place.”
Stokes added that while no one should give up on a dream, pay attention to other signs.
“In high school, I was in the Spanish Club, Key Club, I took part in the Model United Nations, all activities about culture,” she said. “Even though I didn’t know wasn’t going to be a chef, the things outside of that are what I’m studying now. That blows my mind.”
Stokes said everyone should have a big dream, a medium-sized dream, and a little dream.
“I’m still cooking for my family, and that’s OK,” she said. “Just don’t throw your dream in the trash — reframe it. You might not be able to conquer the world, but you might be able to conquer a very small town. Sometimes, you just have to adjust, but keep being you. Don’t let anybody stop you.”
Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or [email protected]
On Twitter: @cgoshayREP