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story.lead_photo.caption Chef Kevin Gee, director of hospitality services at Arkansas State University-Newport, was recently named the American Culinary Federation Central Arkansas Association Chef Educator of the Year. Gee, of Batesville, teaches classes at the ASU-Newport Jonesboro campus. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

When Kevin Gee started his first job as a dishwasher at Hank’s Dog House in the early 1970s, he didn’t know that would be the inspiration for his career.

Gee, who is the director of hospitality services at Arkansas State University-Newport, was recently named the American Culinary Federation Central Arkansas Association Chef Educator of the Year.

“I started out washing pots and pans. … I was probably the best pots and pans washer and dishwasher because I took so much pride in it,” Gee said. “It was the first job I ever had. As a kid growing up in the South in Little Rock, having your first job at 11, making your own money, was probably the biggest opportunity and privilege in my entire life. I wanted to make sure that I did the very best job that I possibly could do.

“With that said, those values have been instilled in me, and I carry those today.”

Gee worked at Hank’s for several years and was inspired by the chef and cooks at the restaurant.

“After I watched the cooking staff and the chef prepare meals, it just inspired me,” Gee said. “My being able at age 11 and 12 to see live lobsters, Alaskan king crabs, oysters on the half shell, whole catfish — those items intrigued and excited me. Watching the chefs prepare these meals from start to finish was great. Hanks had its own recipe for cheesecake. I learned how to bake, grill and saute there. It was such a wonderful experience that I fell in love with cooking at that point.”

Gee, of Batesville, has worked at ASU-Newport’s Jonesboro campus since September 2016. He oversees all operations of the hospitality-services program, including classroom settings, purchasing, portion control, table design and menu development.

“Being able to win the chef educator [title] was one of the biggest honors I’ve had in my entire career,” Gee said. “I just thank my peers for recognizing the hard work I have done. I thank God to allow me to continue to do the work.

“I have a great time teaching the students. I love this industry.”

Holly Smith, vice chancellor for academic affairs at ASU-Newport, said Gee brings great knowledge and skill to the college.

“His background as an executive chef allows us to provide the very best education to our students while also providing innovative opportunities for aspiring chefs of all ages,” Smith said. “Chef Gee has a passion that resonates with everyone he comes into contact with, and we are very proud to have him with us at ASU-Newport. He has led our hospitality-services program to new heights while training our future professionals.”

Rob Burgess, dean for applied science at ASU-Newport, had similar sentiments.

“ASU-Newport is very fortunate to have the talented executive chef Gee working with our students,” he said. “The skills chef Gee possesses and conveys to our students in the kitchen are second to none. Additionally, chef Gee is always eager to assist with community projects and internal catering events. Chef Gee is an asset to ASU-Newport and our students, as highlighted by him receiving this amazing award.”

Gee teaches three six-hour classes a week.

“We’re a two-year program,” Gee said. “I have a senior instructor who teaches the hospitality-management side of our program. We’re incorporating what they learn in the classrooms into the lab.”

Gee has been a member of the association that honored him for more than 20 years. He was also inducted into its hall of fame in 2008.

“Over my entire career, I’ve been dedicating myself to presenting some of the finest cuisine in the state, no matter where I worked,” he said. “I truly believe that cookery is an art. You should make every dish that you possibly can better than the last. That just carried me all the way through my career. So far, that particular philosophy has been very successful for me.”

During his career, Gee has worked in various capacities, including working in two hospitals, country clubs and restaurants. He was also an instructor at Pulaski Technical College in Little Rock. But not long after he started working as a chef at Hank’s, he got a big break for his career.

“I’ve been fortunate in some of the opportunities that I’ve had … the institutions and properties that I have represented,” Gee said. “My resume doesn’t really show everything that I have done.”

Gee worked at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock in the 1980s.

“One of my most memorable opportunities was becoming sous-chef for two years before becoming chef at the Capital Hotel,” he said. “It was totally a blessing. Of all the chefs in central Arkansas, coming into one of the most prestigious hotels in the South with it’s great history, dating back to the Civil War — it was just an honor.”

Gee worked at the Capital Hotel for eight years.

“Every Christmas Eve at that time, I cooked for then Gov. Bill Clinton and his family,” he said. “Even at Ashley’s, I had the great privilege to prepare dishes for famous people.”

Gee said he has prepared meals for former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. Others include Jesse Jackson, Sen. Bob Dole, Col. Oliver North, Henry Kissinger, Sammy Davis Jr., Barry Manilow, Hank Williams Jr., Eddie Sutton and the Arkansas Razorbacks basketball team, as well as Nolan Richardson.

“I can go on and on and on,” Gee said. “The most exciting thing is that I had the opportunity to prepare meals for our former presidents.”

Gee said he tells his students about his experiences.

“I can share those stories with my students just to give them an insight into when I was a young chef,” he said. “In Arkansas, I’ve had opportunities that a lot more famous chefs have had. It’s being in the right place at the right time and having good enough talent for people to recognize what your expertise is and letting you show it.”

Gee said his job at ASU-Newport is to help his students find what food-service industry fits them best.

“That is what my job is today … to take each and every one of my students and see what I think, based on my experiences and knowledge of this industry and see where I think they will have the best fit,” he said. “That’s what I try to do. You can’t believe that this is a chore. It’s something to do. You have to believe that this is an art. You have to believe that you have the passion.

“It’s long hours, but I’ll tell you this — it’s the most benefiting long hours I’ve ever had in my life to just have the opportunity to see people praising a meal that you put so much into, so much of yourself into it. To get that praise, it says a whole lot.”

Gee said his various positions over the years have really helped him in his tenure as a teacher.

“I have seen all [along the spectrum] of the food-service industry,” he said. “I’ve been a corporate chef. I have been a broker. I’ve been executive chef in hotels and private clubs, director of nutrition services for two hospitals. When you look at my career and how people saw a great opportunity in me, I would say they trusted me with their food-service operations.

“It gave me a wide perspective of what I needed to do, to take the opportunity and the talent that I have and spread it around to all different areas. That’s what gives me, right now, such a great advantage in teaching culinary arts.”

Gee said he’s not planning on leaving ASU-Newport anytime soon.

“This is home,” he said. “It’s going to take a heck of a lot to get me away from here.”

Gee, who is a 1978 graduate of Central High School in Little Rock, said his favorite dishes include fish.

“I’m a really big fan of fish — ocean fish, gulf fish, sea bass, snapper,” he said. “I’m also that Southern kid who likes fried cats, hushpuppies and fries, too.”

Gee has also worked with more unusual proteins, such as lamb, buffalo, ostrich and elk.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with some rattlesnake and raccoon,” he said. “I have a wide range of tastes and flavors.”

Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or mbuffalo@arkansasonline.com.

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