Kesha Harris: New Clarity = New Career, after 21 Years!

photo of Kesha Harris, CIA culinary arts student

CIA Student Bio

“To leave my secure, good-paying job to follow my dreams, I knew I had to get the best education possible to prepare me for the food industry. Hence, it had to be at the CIA!”

How did you become interested in food?
My interest in food started when I was just 12 years old. I remember picking fresh fruits and vegetables with my grandmother in her backyard garden. In those days, most people still grew their own food. I miss those times.

I regularly played the role of “sous chef” in the kitchen when my grandmother was preparing dinner. However, one day I asked if I could prepare dinner, and she very proudly obliged.

I decided to make spaghetti and meatballs that day, because we had just picked so many wonderful vegetables from the garden. Not to mention, spaghetti and meatballs was one of my favorite meals! At 12, this was the first meal I had ever cooked myself—and I have to say, my homemade meatballs and sauce were a hit! In that moment, I knew this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

In the same day, the idea of being able to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables planted in the backyard with my own hands, create a meal, and put dinner on the table using all ingredients that I harvested made me proud. Now that’s the original farm-to-table!

Even today, when I think back, I get nostalgic, as I can still smell the aromas and taste the meatballs cooking in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Do you already have a degree from another college or did you previously have a different career?
Yes, I spent 21 years as an Information Technology (IT) professional. I spent the last eight years of that as an events program manager. I have a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and a master’s degree in Software Engineering.

Why the change in careers? And why the CIA?
My path to the CIA is probably more unorthodox than most. I am a 46-year-old woman who worked a full career in an entirely different industry before. I have two engineering degrees and spent 21 years working for a Fortune 100 company, but always had a burning passion for cooking.

A few years back, I was faced with battling a life-threatening illness and lost my dad, both within a period of a couple of years. When you deal with tragedy, I believe it forces you to reflect and really put your life into perspective. Going through this gave me a clarity I had never experienced before. So, I decided it was time to really start living my life to fulfill my dreams!  

I had previously only thought about a career in the food industry and “toyed” with the idea for a number of years. But with this newfound clarity, I knew what I had to do. So I started researching and visiting culinary schools, and eventually applying to some.

My first thought from the start was the CIA. I heard it was the top culinary school in the country and arguably in the world. So it was no surprise this was my first choice.

To leave my secure, good-paying job to follow my dreams, I knew I had to get the best education possible to prepare me for the food industry. Hence, it had to be at the CIA!

I was a little nervous and a bit hesitant at first, because I had never worked in a professional kitchen before my tenure at the CIA. This feeling of discomfort and challenge reconfirmed for me that I made the right decision.

How have scholarships and/or grants helped you reach your goal of getting a CIA education? *
Upon acceptance to the CIA, I received a few scholarships, including an alumni, merit, and academic scholarship—all of which really helped me to pay for my education here.

Going back to college after so many years and being 100% responsible for paying all of my own educational expenses—including tuition, living, etc.—has been a financial challenge for me.

However, as I always say, every little bit helps. I don’t know that I would be able to see my CIA education through without financial assistance. So I am more than grateful for the scholarships I have received and hope to obtain more.

What do you like best about the CIA?
I thoroughly enjoy time spent in the production kitchens. To me, this is the real-world experience we need upon graduation. I believe hands-on experience is key and the best kind you can get—and the CIA gives us that in the production kitchens. We are cooking on the line, responsible for feeding students, faculty, and staff at the school. Doesn’t get much better than that for me! J

Do you belong to any clubs or participate in any activities/sports on campus?
Although I’m not currently a member of any on-campus clubs, I did have the excellent opportunity to attend and support the 2019 CIA Leadership Awards. I served as a volunteer getting things set up and running for the event. Meeting and networking with some of the top chefs in the industry was a truly humbling and remarkable experience that I will never forget. I serve as a mentor to several students on campus, sharing wisdom and guidance about college life and ways to establish good study habits. I also had the pleasure to cook for and manage the “Action Station” during the May 3, 2019 CIA graduation reception. In addition, I’ve had the opportunity to attend multiple seminars during my time here at the college, which have proven to be very fruitful.

Small photo of Kesha Harris, CIA culinary arts student at CIA's NY campus
“The internship program allowed me the opportunity to work in a professional restaurant kitchen for the first time in my life, and it was a life-changing experience that will forever prepare me for the challenges ahead.”—Kesha Harris, CIA culinary arts student

What is your favorite dish to make?
My favorite dish to make is either lamb chops or seared and roasted duck breast. I just can’t choose between the two because I love them both so much. I love how I can pair these proteins with just about anything. I discovered my love for lamb in Napa Valley, CA and my love for duck cooking in my kitchen at home. I wanted to challenge myself to make the perfect duck breast and I was sold on the flavors from then on.

How has your CIA education prepared you for the business side of food?
I started my own catering business a few months before coming to the CIA. Upon graduation, I plan to go back home to Virginia to cultivate the business. I am praying that I will have the opportunity to continue on to obtain my bachelor’s in food business. Eventually, I will expand to open up my own restaurant.

The academic classes that the CIA requires students to take are great preparation for the business side of the industry—especially if you’re planning to run your own business. The Principles of Menus and Managing Profitability class really opened my eyes to the financial side of the business. Knowing your food cost is essential to running a profitable business in the restaurant industry.

What are the best lessons you’ve learned while at the CIA?
The best lesson I’ve learned is to find a balance between school and life. Having transitioned from a long first career, I feel that you have to have a clear head to manage the course load. Allowing your body, as well as your brain, to rest is essential to finding your balance.

I also believe you have to surround yourself by like-minded individuals. This helps me to stay focused and on track. Not everyone has your best interest at heart.

Lastly, I would say to maintain a positive attitude and keep people in your life who are positive and encouraging. It can be very easy to get into a negative headspace and that in turn can negatively affect your choices.

What are your career goals and how will your CIA education help you get there?
I would like to grow my catering business and then expand into opening my own restaurant. The education the CIA provides is real-world.

The internship program allowed me the opportunity to work in a professional restaurant kitchen for the first time in my life, and it was a life-changing experience that will forever prepare me for the challenges ahead.

While interning at The Inn at Little Washington, I came up with a new strawberry-fennel juice flight for the morning breakfast. I presented it to Chef Patrick O’Connell; he loved it and approved it to be added to the recipe book and breakfast menu of juice options!

What advice would you give to a new student or someone who is considering attending the CIA?
I would advise someone just starting at the CIA to take it seriously. I know for many that this will be the first time attending college and there is the “college experience” to account for. However, as I mentioned earlier, if this is the life path you’ve chosen for yourself, you have to give it your all and stay focused on your post-CIA education goals. Don’t let anybody or anything stop you from going after your dreams. Absorb all that is being taught to you, embrace it. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime!

Kesha Harris is a CIA student pursuing her associate degree in culinary arts at the college’s New York campus in Hyde Park, NY. She is from Durham, NC.