CHANGING TASTES | A culinary career brings spice to life
Older culinary students display maturity, confidence and a drive to succeed.
By LISA WATERMAN GRAY Special to The Star
Ever dreamed of quitting your corporate job to start your own culinary school, run a bed-and-breakfast or tend a farm that supplies top restaurant chefs with unusual produce? Three Kansas City area professionals — Laura Laiben, owner of the Culinary Center of Kansas City; Mike Hursey, owner of Casa Somerset in Paola, Kan.; and Linda Hezel of Prairie Birthday Farms in Kearney — have taken the leap, and they aren’t looking back. Since the economic downturn there has been an uptick in the number of culinary students who are 35 or older swapping a 9-to-5 job in a cubicle for the less-predictable rhythms of working in a professional kitchen, according to Michael McGreal, a spokesman for the American Culinary Federation. Many baby boomers have long been fascinated with the culinary industry. These career changers are the first to admit that peeling a pile of potatoes or standing over a hot grill isn’t exactly the glamorous stuff of food TV, yet loving what you do, they say, has a way of feeding the soul. The Main Dish Laura Laiben, aka “the main dish,” enters a staff lunch at the Culinary Center of Kansas City wearing a bright pink chef’s coat and broad smile. She navigates the crowd, shaking hands with familiar guests and introducing herself to others. “We want to take the mystery out of food, wine and entertaining and we try to give (guests) an exceptional experience,” she says. The Culinary Center of Kansas City opened in 1998 and today offers more than 650 cooking classes and 350 team-building events annually. Overseeing the operation is Laiben, a one-time lawyer who eventually followed her lifelong obsession with food. While working in legal firms, Laiben’s hours stretched from early morning to late at night. “There wasn’t a lot of time for anything else but work,” she says. Yet during those years, she man-
aged to plan events and parties for law firms where she worked, taught the occasional cooking class at Penn Valley Community College and frequently entertained at home. As she became more disenchanted with the legal profession, Laiben realized she was happiest when she was cooking and teaching. After her boys were born, she shifted to contract legal work and began creating the Culinary Center. “I made a decision to determine what I knew to be my passion and my strengths,” she says. Employees say Laiben’s passion shows at every turn. Once a student in the school’s professional chef series, Tekia Thompson, the “dean of deliciousness,” has managed class curriculum at the center for three years. “When Laura’s in the kitchen it’s definitely professional meets grandma,” Thompson says. “I think she’s able to blend the best of both worlds. You’re comfortable, and she draws you into the whole process of cooking. “Laura is enthusiastic and thoughtful, personable and heartfelt. She is so adaptable to the times and what’s going on, and I think that comes with experience. She (thinks) enough outside the box to keep it creative and edgy but she has a good grasp of the whole picture.” At Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., dean of culinary education Mark Allison says adults changing careers are particularly focused. “They’re determined to get every piece of advice and instruction they possibly can and they want to make some kind of impact.” Allison points to a former IBM employee who became a chef at the age of 54 and a veteran who became a professional baker. Allison recalls a journalist who is now director of food at a Whole Foods Market, where she does culinary demonstrations, and a professional cyclist who began working at a New York City restaurant after he graduated. “I think (older students) are more confident … and they know what their expectations are; and they know if they make mistakes they’re going to learn from them,” Allison says. “They bring maturity, confidence and drive to the table.” From fast to slow While still working as a store manager for Wal-Mart, Mike Hursey entered the culinary program at Johnson County Community College and loved it. “I went for three years but had to drop out with the (opening of) the new supercenter in Paola,” he says. On vacations, he visited a cooking school owned by the Caponetti family of Tuscania, Italy, and ate at a slow food restaurant where he was struck by how people relished what they ate. After three decades with Wal-Mart, Hursey decided to retire — and reinvent himself. Four years ago he returned to culinary classes at JCCC and opened Casa Somerset, an Italian-inspired Miami County bed-and-breakfast, with his wife, Christine Thomas-Hursey. A big man with a big laugh and an infectious grin, you can usually find Mike Hursey wearing an apron. “I love creating food that people talk about,” he says. “Our real drive now is, ‘How do we educate people about how to eat better?’ ” The Hurseys met at a Slow Food Kansas City event and quickly became inseparable. “Mike had done some catering and we just started doing that occasionally and I have a son who is a chef,” Thomas-Hursey says. “We hosted a lot of different parties, too. We love entertaining using local food.” Ona Ashley, director of hospitality programs at the community college, has become well acquainted with older students like Hursey. The school’s students range in age from 18 to 63, with an average of 28. “(Older students) bring maturity, which helps because we are a people industry and life experience helps,” Ashley says. “It is wonderful how people of all ages mesh in this industry, which makes (it) so fun.” Whether Hursey is busy with the Slow Food Kansas City board of directors or the Miami County Agritourism Council that he founded, his wife says “ Mike’s enthusiasm bubbles over and it washes onto other people and he expects that everyone else is excited as he is.” Since Thomas-Hursey retired from J.C. Penney, the couple has been busy co-hosting a locally produced cooking show (visit MCtvLIVE.com). Mike Hursey writes food-oriented columns in the Paola newspaper. Together they have visited France, Italy and Spain. Nurturing a second career Linda Hezel was ready for a change An advanced practice registered nurse, Hezel left behind a career with Prime Health in 1980, then taught nursing for 10 years. She was also vice president of the Missouri Nurses Association, which meant she was frequently involved in continuing education and professional activities beyond the regular work day. On a typical summer morning, Hezel rises at 5:30 and begins tending her garden. By midday she escapes the heat to research plants on the Internet or build bee hives. Hezel gardens again after supper until darkness falls. Hezel grows and sells herbs and produce grown on the 15 acres at Prairie Birthday Farms in Kearney to restaurant clients that include the Farmhouse, Bluestem, the American Restaurant, Room 39, Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and Red Door Grill. “Linda is very into what she does,” says Howard Hanna, chef/ owner of the Rieger. “She’s a really good teacher about ingredients that I haven’t used before. Linda tries to find different food items that can be kind of a niche. Something I didn’t have a source for was Missouri wild persimmons so I started asking around and another chef recommended her about four years ago and (our business relationship) all started from there.” Her family had a large garden as she grew up and, when she became pregnant, Hezel wanted to feed her children the healthiest food available. “The best way to guarantee that was to grow it myself,” she says. “My husband and I (decided) I would leave full-time employment to be a full-time mom so I had a greater opportunity to do that.” Hezel sold extra produce at the Liberty Farmers Market and started growing herbs for the local Herb Gathering. As the boys became more independent, Hezel grew her business. “I was eating at Blue Bird Bistro,” she says. “I asked if I could talk to the chef and started selling wild persimmons and herbs to her. I started taking a business card around and doing cold calls.” Hezel also frequently interacts with the Kansas City Food Circle, the Kansas City Food Policy Coalition and other food-oriented organizations and devotes plenty of time to social media. To help grow her business, Hezel has also taken business and computer courses, completed the Kauffman FastTrac program and researches older organic production methods. But experiencing nature daily makes all of her hard work worthwhile, from watching the comical behavior of chicks and ducklings to nibbling a fresh fig while visiting the horses. “Farming is not just putting seeds in the ground,” she says. “There’s an inextricable connection between health and unadulterated, nutrient-dense food.” Lisa Waterman Gray is a freelance writer living in Overland Park. Reach her at lwatermangray@ gmail.com.