CHICAGO (October 3, 2016) — As a North Park University undergraduate student, Shanna Horner O’Hea had no idea that her major in art and minor in marketing would eventually lead her to competing in TV cooking shows. But while her career has taken an unexpected path, she’s always been driven by a pursuit of creative work.
“My connection with food is very related to art,” O’Hea, a 1994 North Park graduate, said. “Instead of using a paintbrush, I’m using food as my palate.”
Today, O’Hea and her husband, Brian, co-own the Kennebunk Inn and Academe restaurant in Kennebunk, Maine. Academe gained national notoriety when O’Hea’s lobster potpie dish was featured on the Food Network series The Best Thing I Ever Ate and her lobster white pizza made O magazine’s O List. Since then, she has competed on the shows Chopped, Rewrapped, and Beat Bobby Flay.
When she recently returned to campus for the University’s 125th Anniversary Celebration, she spoke at an Alumni Panel session about her experiences as a chef while performing a live cooking demonstration, then distributed toasted s’mores to the audience. “Education is in my bones,” said O’Hea, daughter of former North Park president Dr. David Horner. “My desire to continue to learn is something I absolutely got at North Park.”
We spoke with O’Hea about how staying true to herself led to a career she loved, the ways in which her small seaside town is like North Park, and “the dance” of a kitchen running smoothly.
North Park: How did your time at North Park prepare you for what you do now?
Shanna Horner O’Hea: North Park provided great structure and accountability for me. It’s the first time in your life when you’re really making personal decisions that have consequences. I think that structure reflects my job now because I feel accountable for employees, our reputation, inspiring staff to give it their all.
I also felt a great deal of community in a large city at North Park, which is something rather special about the campus and the people that encompass it. I made lifelong friends at North Park, and I think this feeling of a small community in an interesting area led me to Kennebunk. My job as an innkeeper and chef introduces me to Maine locals, international and domestic tourists, and interns. I love the cultural diversity that this small seaside town can provide, which mirrors my feelings while attending North Park.
NP: Was there a specific moment or experience at North Park that helped kick off the trajectory of your career?
O’Hea: I truly did not understand my direct connection to becoming a chef while at North Park, but I did have an “aha” moment of the importance of pursuing a career in something you love. As a freshman, I started with an art focus because I always loved to create. But I got a little self-conscious with the first classes and wondered if I was good enough to pursue this path. I also fell under some peer pressure of “what kind of job are you going to get after college as an art major?”
I then decided to pursue business and marketing for that post-college job. Although I enjoyed the marketing classes—and the free candy and inspirational videos the instructor had us watch—economics was certainly not my thing. I eventually went back to the arts with encouragement from my mother about truly enjoying my time in college and doing what made me happy. She was right with the advice that keeping true to yourself would lead to a career that I loved.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the dining scene in Chicago. I certainly think going out to eat in such a live culinary city help guide me to becoming a chef.
NP: You mentioned that your connection to food is related to your passion for art. Could you tell us more about that relationship?
O’Hea: Art is about creating and evoking feelings on many levels; this is also true of dining. As a chef, I am constantly creating dishes and recipes by paying attention to colors, textures, temperatures, plating, beverage pairings, and of course, selling it to the customer. Food can make you happy, provide memories, give you comfort—it makes you feel, just like art.
There is also a sense of magic in the kitchen when we are working the line. They call it “the dance.” This happens when a team has worked together for a while, and the timing of courses and expediting is on point. It feels amazing when it happens. It is what keeps me cooking; that adrenaline push when you do a great night of service is wonderful. And finally, some dining experiences can be like going to the theater—and can cost even more. But I love it, on every culinary level.
NP: Do you have a favorite North Park memory?
O’Hea: One of my favorite memories was our art Senior Show. I volunteered to be responsible for the food, which, given my passion for hospitality and culinary arts now, seems rather appropriate. I remember being just as excited about showcasing my art projects as I was about the menu-planning and execution of the show. Another example of the arts and the culinary intersecting.