When Shanna Horner O’Hea was growing up, her parents frequently told her and her brother Marc to choose life paths that reflected their passions. Following that advice, O’Hea pursued her passions for art, food, and creativity on a fascinating journey that has led to a small Maine inn and restaurant—one that has gained regional and national fame yet maintains the kind of small-town hospitality and charm the locals love.
O’Hea is a 1994 graduate of North Park University, where she majored in art with a minor in marketing. Today she and her husband, Brian, co-own the Kennebunk Inn and Academe, a Maine brasserie and tavern made famous by their lobster potpie, which was featured on the Food Network’s program, “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
“My connection with food is very related to art,” O’Hea said. “Instead of using a paintbrush, I’m using food as my palate.”
O’Hea was born in Providence, R.I. In 1987, her father, David Horner, became president of North Park University, and the family, including Shanna, Marc, and their mother, Sue, moved to Chicago. O’Hea went to North Park beginning in 1990. So did Marc, who graduated in 1992. He joined the Vikings Athletic Hall of Fame in 2006 for achievements in basketball and currently lives in the Chicago area with his wife, Christine, who was noted as 1991 North Park Athlete of the year.
After graduation, O’Hea followed her parents’ advice and searched for her vocational passion. She worked at two Chicago-area museums, held a job in human resources at another company, and moved to Seattle where she worked at the Starbucks roasting plant (before Starbucks was a household name) and a computer company. Eventually O’Hea moved back to Maine where her parents own a summer home in Harpswell. She worked at what she described as “a New England fry shack” and took photography classes at night at the Maine College of Art.
“I was having a lot more fun in the restaurant. That’s what I wanted to do,” she said. After interning at ARAMARK at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, O’Hea soon entered the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where she learned cooking techniques at one of the country’s best schools. Part of this program included an internship at the Four Seasons Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. O’Hea also met fellow chef and her future husband, Brian, at the Culinary Institute.
O’Hea stayed in New York after graduation from the Culinary Institute, working as a chef in private homes. There, she worked two years with Michel Boulard, a celebrated French chef who was once chef to the King of Belgium.
“When she came to work with me, she knew all the basics,” said Boulard. “She learned very, very fast.” Many students have worked with Boulard, and O’Hea was the best, he said, because of her ability to learn. “I could count on her.”
From there, O’Hea became a private chef and estate manager for a well-known New York family, and had to learn the specifics of kosher cooking. Boulard said O’Hea would come back to work with him in the evenings to learn more about making pastry. During this time, she also married Brian at an inn in Maine, not far from her family’s home. That’s where the idea of owning an inn and restaurant was born. With encouragement from David and Sue Horner, the O’Heas eventually became owners of the Kennebunk Inn in 2003.
The inn was built in 1799 and has 26 rooms, as well as a restaurant divided into pub and fine dining areas. The O’Heas eventually decided to change the food concept. “We wanted a brasserie-style restaurant. To us it’s more unpretentious dining, comfortable food,” O’Hea said. They focused on regional items, “the kind of food you want to eat every day,” she said, and they drew on their backgrounds in French cooking. They named their 100-seat restaurant “Academe,” a place for learning.
“We feel we’re always learning more about food and new techniques,” she said.
O’Hea’s parents now live overseas, where David Horner is president of the American College of Greece and Sue Horner is Scholar in Residence. O’Hea was invited to speak in Greece about her experiences as a chef and family business owner. That is where she met Cat Cora, the Food Network’s first and only female “Iron Chef” and an Oprah Winfrey Network celebrity chef, who later invited Shanna and Brian to work with her at a Greek food and wine festival. Through their connection to Cora, the O’Heas became known to viewers of cable TV’s Food Network when Cora nominated their Maine lobster potpie dish for the show, “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
The lobster potpie draws on the skills of both Shanna and Brian. It includes Maine lobster and lobster stock, and highlights Shanna’s French pastry skills and Brian’s craft of stocks and sauces. “That dish on our menu represents Brian and me, and Maine, very well,” O'Hea said.
“Academe at Kennebunk Inn does it right,” Cora said on the show. “You have that crust, a big nice chunk of lobster meat, and all that cream sauce. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
The Food Network piece first aired in January of this year and has been re-aired several times. It’s been very good for business this year, especially sales of the lobster potpie. Each time the segment airs, Academe’s food sales go up.
That dish, plus other specialties, such as lobster pizza and a steak salad, are favorites of a loyal customer of Academe, Michelle Morgan. Michelle and her husband, Brian, had been customers at the restaurant before the O’Heas owned it. What Morgan appreciates is the “homey” feel of Academe, where she and her husband often meet friends. “Kind of like the TV show Cheers,” she said.
"Brian and Shanna have huge hearts and love what they do. It comes through in their cooking and their interactions with customers," she said. It’s not unusual for customers to request dishes that aren’t even on the menu, and the O’Heas work to fulfill those requests. “She wants you to enjoy your dining experience,” Morgan said.
The O’Heas’ current challenge is to continue to extend their business through Internet sales of their food specialties. Brian Morgan is helping them design a website for sales of their food specialties, which they hope will be ready before the end of 2011. This fall, the O’Heas will cook for the second year at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World, and in 2012 they will be guest chefs on a Holland America cruise in the Caribbean.
Like any small business owners, the O’Heas work to constantly maintain and build their business and keep up the historic place where it is located. “We’re always looking to evolve what we’re doing,” O’Hea said, “and owning a building built in 1799 is always interesting.”
While O’Hea’s passion is clearly food, one of the special qualities of the inn is the people she and Brian meet, she said. “People from North Park come and stay with us. I would never see these people if we didn’t own an inn.” She has a number of North Park friends with whom she keeps in touch, and she and Brian also frequently host friends they’ve met when they’ve cooked at food and wine festivals in the United States and overseas.
The couple contributed their culinary talents to the University’s Campaign North Park at a national campaign event in Salem, Mass. in April; they prepared the hors d’oeurves for friends of the University—including mini lobster potpies.