Chef d’honneur

Alumnus leaves a banking career to invest himself in cooking.

By Rebecca Kaden
Student chefs at work

Student chefs at work
Photo courtesy of the French Culinary Institute

Copyright Current magazine, Fall 2007 issue, used with permission.

Harrison Keevil (Foreign Affairs ’05) was supposed to be an investment banker. He studied foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, and after graduation set off for London to intern for Parliament. A year later he returned to New York City for the banking job he had lined up senior year, only to realize that his heart was somewhere else.

The story could end there, with a disgruntled banker living out his years wondering what could have been. But Keevil is one of the lucky few who could decide on a dream that’s slightly off the beaten track and actually try to follow it. “I had one of those ‘what are you going to do with your life’ conversations with my parents,” he says, “and I decided to do cooking.”

A few decades ago, Keevil’s career change might have seemed like a tumble down the professional ladder. But the enormous popularity of shows like Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen, the household celebrity Emeril and a summer spate of food films have all but stamped chefing as the new “it” profession alongside standbys like acting and pro sports.

Reality, of course, is never as glamorous as prime-time television. Top-notch culinary jobs are hard to come by, and once secured, they rarely offer fame or fortune. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, head chefs in full-service restaurants made an average salary of $13.57 per hour in 2006, nearly $6 per hour less than the overall average for amusement and recreation industries. But while the wages might suggest otherwise, chefing is hardly a fallback for high school dropouts. In fact, many would-be chefs are college grads — students like Keevil, who trade in suits and ties for the tall, white chef’s hat.

“The role of the chef is changing,” says Christopher Koetke, dean of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago. “It used to be that you just sort of cooked, but now you have to cook and understand the business.” An undergraduate degree is no substitute for smooth knife work and a sophisticated understanding of spices, of course, but highly educated cooks are finding their coursework to be an asset in the kitchen.

Drusilla Blackman, vice president of Enrollment Management at the Culinary Institute of America, says about 20 percent of students enrolling in each class have B.A.s. “Whereas being a chef used to be seen as a trade,” she says, “it’s now seen as a profession.” She adds that she wouldn’t be surprised by the advent of culinary master’s degrees in the near future.

Keevil is pleased with his decision to sidestep the Street to enroll in a yearlong program at New York’s French Culinary Institute, where he is working toward a degree in Classic Culinary Arts. He quickly found a passion in the kitchen that he was never quite able to muster in the classroom. “At U.Va., I did the work and did ok, but didn’t find it interesting,” Keevil says on the walk between the two restaurant jobs he now holds in Manhattan. “Now I’m enjoying absolutely every minute of learning about cooking.”

But Keevil is happy he didn’t spend his undergrad years behind a stove. He credits U.Va. economics and business classes with giving him insight into “all the behind-the-scenes stuff that doesn’t involve the actual food.” That knowledge could help him achieve his next big goal: opening his own restaurant within five years. “I’ve talked to people who say it’s ballsy,” Keevil says, “but it’s something I want to do.”

Keevil says he has no regrets about passing up on the more plentiful (and immediate) earnings of banking. “I cook because it is what I love to do,” he says. “I get to follow my passions and live a dream every time that I step into a kitchen. Not many bankers can say that [about their jobs].”

Hollywood might have helped pave food’s way to fame, but determined students are making cooking more respectable than ever. “The stigma associated with being a chef back in the day wasn’t glorified. Your parents wouldn’t be as proud as if you were a lawyer or a doctor,” Keevil says. “But the title of chef denotes much more honor now.” Not to mention good taste.