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Meet our Alumni: William Ayre | Country Day School

William Ayre is a restaurateur and alumnus of Country Day School. His story is part of a series of films celebrating alumni success from across the Nord Anglia Family. Hear William share his journey, from moving to Costa Rica as a child and changing its culinary landscape as an adult.

This film was created from a remotely recorded interview with William where he discussed how his education at Country Day School inspired him to pursue his true passion and realise his entrepreneurial potential. Read the blog below to discover the full story in William’s own words, exploring what motivates him and the experiences that have shaped the person he is today.

An introduction:

My name is William Ayre, and I was originally born in Vancouver, Canada. I graduated from Country Day School (CDS) in 2006.

Growing up:

I grew up moving around all-over Western Canada. I moved to Costa Rica from a small town in Saskatchewan called Marshall, which is a farming community, really in the middle of nowhere.

My interests out there were those of any young boy - mainly ice hockey, American football, baseball or lacrosse, depending on the season. Obviously, we had long winters out there, so that would be playing ice hockey and hibernating in the house. In the summer, baseball, lacrosse, American football, and a lot of working on the farm. When class wasn't in session, we were out on the farm. We had to tag the calves that had recently been born. We had to wake up and feed the animals. We had chickens, as well. I remember pounding a lot of posts, and that is how I earned my allowance as a young kid.

It instilled a lot of values in my life. Being hard work, you have to work for what you get. Saving up my money, buying the things that I enjoyed at the time. It helped me realise the life that I wanted for myself was off the farm, although I do appreciate the experiences that I had there for myself.

Moving to Costa Rica:

I moved to Costa in the Summer in between ninth and tenth grade, so just going into high school. I was 13 years old at the time. I had only left Canada once on a family trip to Mexico. My world was very small at that point in my life and coming to Costa Rica was really an eye-opening experience. Obviously, moving to a country with a tropical climate was different from the long, cold winters I had been accustomed to. There was a different language here too so I had to learn how to speak Spanish. 

It was a very unique experience to not only move schools but to move schools into a different country. It was an experience that really opened up my world and I couldn't be more thankful. I'm still here in Costa Rica. This is where I've set up home and I love it here - I'm very thankful that my education ended up bringing me down here.

Settling in at CDS:

First arriving at Country Day School coming from the public school system in Canada the transition was as normal as it could be. Thankfully, the day-to-day class lessons at Country Day School are conducted in English, so I was still able to not miss a beat with my studies in that regard. Every day we also had an hour’s Spanish lesson. It's important to be learning the language of the country where you're living in. I went from beginner to intermediate level Spanish, to where I am today speaking Spanish fluently.

The adjustment period when I moved involved meeting new friends, getting accustomed to life at the new school and life at my new house. To stay busy, I originally transitioned into the same things that had occupied my time in Canada, which were sports. I joined the soccer and rugby electives at CDS so during elective periods at the end of the day all the students would stay together and play sports. That would be our opportunity to get to know each other more on a personal level, have some fun and develop those friendships, many of which stick with me to this day.

Learning at CDS:

I had arrived at CDS from the public school system back in Canada where 50% was a passing grade. As I quickly found out, CDS’ standards are higher and 65% would now be considered a pass. This took some getting used to, but I think those high standards and pushing us to strive for more, for excellence, and not just be happy or satisfied with the 50% to pass sticks with me to this day. I am always pushing myself to strive for more. I want to get high marks and I want to pass with flying colours. My classmates and I are thankful for Country Day School and the doors that it opened for us to continue with our education process at a collegiate level.

Discovering a passion for food:

We moved to Costa Rica for my mom's work and she was often busy, so oftentimes I would get home from school and have to cook my own meals. I became super fanatic about the Food Network, which at the time was blowing up with the likes of Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray, who were the original Food Network TV stars.

Once I finished my homework, I would watch a couple hours of Food Network and then I would try to replicate recipes that I had watched these professional chefs making. In addition to sports, I also passed the time cooking for myself at home and eventually taking cooking lessons to further develop that interest, which continues to this day.

More than the necessity if cooking for myself, what kept me interested in it was just what's cooler than working on a project or creating something that at the end you actually get to eat and enjoy, or share with somebody else and ask them if they like it and see their reaction? I think there is something very honest about that and you don't always get it right the first time. You might mess up the recipe or learn that you could have maybe left it in the oven a little bit longer or tried a different temperature or changed the measurements. You can keep going through the trial-and-error process until you get it right and make it yours. All of us could receive the same recipe on paper, but probably the end result is going to be different, depending on the person who followed the recipe, and I think that's kind of very interesting about cooking.

Another important aspect of my food discovery was the school cafeteria. I had never attended a school that had a cafeteria before. The cafeteria at Country Day School did a great job of not just serving foreign foods that many of the students would be accustomed to, but also serving the local foods. This was a way to get a taste for the local culinary offerings.

Running down to the cafeteria to see what they were serving was always exciting for me. I remember getting home after school and telling my family about what I had eaten at school that day and being so excited. Looking back, it seems like a lifetime ago, but I remember the simple things like rice and beans, which is normal now. I came from a very ‘meat and potatoes place’ in Saskatchewan, so switching it up for the rice and beans was exciting and eventually you acquire a taste for it. Now my girlfriend, who's Costa Rican, she laughs at me because I always need rice and beans on my plate!

Multicultural life at CDS:

About 30 different countries were represented in my grad class. I was attending school with people from Switzerland, Mexico, Korea, Japan, Europe, Asia, North America, South America. It seemed like everywhere was represented. Sometimes those kids would bring their own lunches, even though we had cafeteria available. I would see what their parents were making for them at home, and oftentimes it would be their traditional foods from back home.

There would be days where we had international culture day. The students from Mexico would get to set up a booth. The students from Switzerland would get to set up a booth. And all these different countries could put out snacks and treats from back home, and that way share them with the rest of the CDS community, which for me was always a very exciting day to get to try those different snacks.

A trip to Punta Mona:

In tenth grade there was annual trip to a place called Punta Mona, which is actually still active today. In the jungle of Punta Mona, on the South Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, there's a group of maybe 20 to 30 people that have set up a community there that is totally off the grid, where they're growing, farming and producing everything that they eat. They live on a vegetarian diet, don't have electricity so it's a very progressive project where people who share this common interest of being self-sufficient live.

We stayed for two or three nights and stayed with this group of people to experience what their life was like out there. I was 14 years old at this time and I had moved just a year previous from Canada so my eyes were still being opened to the world. That was the first time I’d ever seen or participated in a vegetarian diet. We would go and pick the plants out of the ground, wash them, process them, and then help in the process of cooking the meal.

There's nothing more rewarding than sitting down at a table, in this case with 20 strangers and 20 classmates, knowing that you had a hand in preparing the food that was on the table. As you eat, you can look around and see the faces of everybody, hopefully the smiles as they're enjoying the food. That was definitely one of the standout experiences at CDS for me, that reaffirmed my interest in food. Not only in cooking it, but in harvesting it, and sourcing it, and sharing it with people.

Writing for CDS’ newspaper:

After about a year at CDS it became evident that one of my strong points in terms of my grades was writing. I was excelling in literature. I was given the opportunity to use that skill and write for the student newspaper on my interests, so I started writing restaurant reviews for the school newspaper.

Because I had begun to develop such an interest for foods from different cultures around the world, as my eyes were opened by my classmates to what was out there, I selected many different restaurants - Indian, Greek, sushi. These might sound normal today but 16 years ago, in Costa Rica, there was only one sushi restaurant. There was only one Indian restaurant in the whole country. Many people didn't know that they existed, but the food was delicious.

I took it upon myself, the responsibility of letting the CDS community know that these places existed, and that they should go there to eat and maybe what they should eat when they go there. I used myself as a test dummy. I would go to these restaurants, document my experience there, and then write about it and share photos in the newspaper.

Over the course of my last two years at CDS, a newspaper came out once a month and in every single one there was a restaurant review written by me. Oftentimes sharing the restaurants that were kind of off the beaten path. That was something really fun for me a while also participating at school, and advancing in my studies, to also be able to express myself and my own personal interests.

Considering the future:

Moving to Costa Rica from Canada was a huge eye opener. Where I came from your options were limited to getting a job in farming or getting a job in the oil field. Those were really the only two career paths that were available. You never really think about going to university or think about going into business for yourself. Coming to CDS, not only did it open up my eyes to a bigger world outside of Canada, but also to a different way of thinking.

CDS put a big focus on preparing students for university and take pride in sharing their student’s university destinations. From 10th grade there were meetings with the college guidance counsellor. There were college fairs with different schools from all over the world who would set up stalls and meet with us students. The face I had the option not only to go to university, but also to pick what I wanted to study, was new to me.

Suddenly, I realised all the different career paths that one could have in this world. I could be a chef if I wanted to. I could go and study culinary arts, and eventually use that knowledge to open up my own restaurant and go into business for myself. That way of thinking didn't exist for me before arriving at CDS. Meeting with teachers, the college guidance counsellor, the college people, other students, friends, all these people were a huge inspiration for me. Even to this day, one of them is my business partner at my chain of restaurants. The connections and the relationships that I made with people at CDS still to this day, continue to be of a great value for me.

16 years ago, being a chef didn't have the same level of seriousness or intrigue that it would today celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain didn't exist at the time. But at CDS, they never questioned me on it or tried to talk me out of pursuing it. They got me a list of all the universities that had culinary arts programmes - I ended up applying to them and attending one. I made a trip up to Florida to view the campus of Johnson & Wales, which is the number two culinary institute in America. They have a campus in Rhode Island and a campus in Florida. For me living in Costa Rica, the Florida campus was more interesting because it's a quick flight to go back and forth to visit my family here. I went up to Florida and I had a meeting with the admission's office who gave me a tour of the campus. I was very excited about it, so I applied and got accepted. I was sure that that's what I was going to do.

First, I had to satisfy the desires of my family to get a business education, so I ended up going to Florida International University first to study international business - which did come full circle for me now that I have my own business. But ultimately, CDS gave me the confidence to return to my true passion in the culinary arts. Even without cooking classes at school CDS did as much as was in their power to connect the dots for me and I always felt that I had full support.

Life after CDS:

After graduating from CDS in 2006, I went on to study International Business at the Florida International University in Miami. I did just over a year of studies before transferring to the University of Toronto in my native Canada where I finished that programme. I then had the opportunity to enrol at George Brown College, the top culinary school in Canada. So got the business side and could also continue my studies in the culinary arts - my true passion.

After my studies I had the opportunity to come back down to Costa Rica. Shortly after arriving back, one of my best friends from CDS, Daniel Loria, approached me. He wanted to open a restaurant and he knew that I had an education in business and experience in the restaurant world. His initial idea was something very different than what we ultimately ended up doing and we spent about a year going back and forth with different ideas, but ultimately deciding on a chain of restaurants called POKE. We now have three restaurants together. After CDS, Daniel went on to study finance at Babson College. Now we're using what we learned in during and after CDS, putting our passions together to operate a very successful business.

Our success demonstrates what I was saying earlier about the strong and genuine connections made at CDS. To this day, more than a decade later they're still part of my life. To be back here in Costa Rica, in business, doing what I love, partnered with somebody who I love, that is all thanks to my experience that CDS.

The fact that my partner and I both studied CDS plays into our success over the last four years. The way they instil in you to strive for excellence and not settle for mediocrity is reflected in the decisions we make. A lot of people might just open a first location and be happy with that, but that was never the goal for us. We always wanted to open a chain of restaurants all over country. We were thinking bigger from day one. For us to share that vision comes back us both studying in the same location.

Building a successful business:

Our restaurants specialise in Poké bowls– there are restaurants around a similar concept in the States, but we introduced it here in Costa Rica and the reception has been amazing. Restaurants that used to be popular with other concepts are now serving Poké bowls because we’ve introduced this to consumers and it’s what they want. That's been very, very cool for us to have played an important part in that.

We were originally uncertain about choosing Poké bowls because it would mean bringing something so new and unique to Costa Rica. I remember one of the points that I used to try to justify it was, "Well look at the sushi restaurants that I used to talk about in the high school newspaper, they still exist 10 years later. They are still open, and they are still operating. Or the Indian restaurant, too, that I know I wrote an article about. Now they have three locations. They are also still open, and they still exist."

That was a valuable point for us and reassured us that going out on a limb and trying to do something new could work. That pushed us over the barrier to decide, "Okay. Let's give this a shot." It was a risk but thankfully, it didn't fail. We saw what we had seen with the sushi restaurant and the Indian restaurant. We saw that people were hungry for something new.

The CDS family and nostalgia:

During the first months at our first restaurant, Daniel and I were very hands on. We were at the restaurant all hours of the day, talking to customers, getting feedback from them. Something that was very rewarding for us was to see students from Country Day School, in their uniforms, coming in to eat at our restaurant. We got joy seeing kids that for us resembled us just a few years ago coming in and supporting us. I am not sure if they even knew that we had graduated from CDS but to have the support of the school community shows how deep those relationships are and how big the CDS family is.

I credit CDS for where I am at in life today. It was a great experience. I'm very nostalgic – for example, I like to take my son to hotels where my mom took me to when I was a kid. The idea of having my son study at CDS, to see him in the CDS uniform is a dream of mine. It's where I intend to have him educated. I think that would come full circle with me - moving to Costa Rica as a young Canadian kid who'd never been out of the country to many years later, having his own son who was born here in Costa Rica, and studying at the same school.

I go back to CDS once or twice a year for the family day, and I see teachers, alumni, and faculty who I know, and they remember me. I've also kept in contact with the admission's officer at CDS who kind was enough to invite me to the annual family days. They're fully aware of my intention to ultimately send my son Maximo to Country Day School. I have a picture of me and my son on top of the panther mascot at the new campus which they moved over from the old campus where I attended. Talking about nostalgia, just to see that statue over there brought back a lot of good memories for me. It was very cool to get a picture there with my son. I can't wait to drop my son off on this first day at CDS, or attend his graduation. That will be a day of much pride for me.

If I think back on my own experience at CDS and who I graduated with, some people stayed in Costa Rica, or moved back to Canada, the States, to Europe, to Asia and are dedicating themselves to professions across the board. This gives me confidence for my own son because I don't want to say, "Oh, you have to be a chef, because your dad is a chef." That’s what I came out of in Canada, where people always ended up farming or working in oil, because you're born into it. I would like for my son to whatever he wants to be. I know whatever decision he makes, he's going to have the support from the staff at CDS to nurture that and turn it into something concrete and tangible, like they did for me. Whatever he decides, I know CDS will leave the doors open for him that he's going to need to be open for him to have success. That for me as a parent now, is worth gold.


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