There’s a new king in town: The “king of culinary curriculum,” that is.
Renaissance man and former monk Stephen Velie ascended to the fictitious crown in late January at The Culinary Center of Kansas City in Overland Park. In the multi-faceted role as director of culinary curriculum, Velie will manage the center’s public classes offerings, develop fresh class concepts, and recruit new instructors.
Born and raised in New England, Velie was drawn early to a life of faith. In 1984, he took vows as a monk, joining the Community of Jesus, a Benedictine monastery outside of Cape Cod.
The Protestant/Catholic community of 25 monks and 65 nuns along with multi-generational families serves the community and surrounding area through a number of ways, including the arts, music, and cooking.
During more than 30 years as a monk, Velie took part in all of it. He performed as an actor in the community’s repertory theater and played percussion in a community-wide marching band that toured internationally. He also remodeled a villa in Tuscany for a retreat center and marketed books for the community’s international publishing company.
It was also during his time in the monastery that Velie discovered his passion for food and cooking.
“Hospitality was a big part of the monastery,” he said. “Meals were served for retreats, concerts, and many other events. When the friary opened in 1990, we decided it was important to have the smell of food there to create a more home-like atmosphere. All members of the community took turns in the kitchen. It became apparent pretty quickly that some people were better suited there than others.”
Velie happened to be one of those who was better suited. As he immersed himself in cooking for his community, this self-taught chef discovered some essential insights about his new-found passion.
“It’s not cooking that I love; it’s people I love.,” Velie said. “Cooking and sharing meals builds community. It forces you to communicate. More than food, I like people. Food is a great equalizer and a great meeting moment. The Last Supper is one of the Bible’s most important events. Food has a disarming effect on people. They put their guard down and take off armor that might otherwise be there.”
In 2017, after more than 30 years as a monk, including 20 years cooking for his community, Velie reached a crossroads. He requested and was released from his vows after a deep personal search of his soul.
Believing a geographical separation was a vital component to his decision, Velie relocated to Kansas City. The seed of the move actually was planted a year earlier, when Velie visited the city and worked at the Culinary Center as a volunteer for a short time.
“I loved the vibe,” he said. “I was attracted to the energy at the Culinary Center. There’s so much magic that happens here.”
After moving to Kansas City virtually sight unseen last year, Velie joined the Culinary Center team and assumed his new role as curriculum coordinator shortly thereafter.
“Stephen’s challenge is to identity and bring in more chef instructors who not only have great cooking abilities, but the ability to share those with students,” Director of Marketing Marti Palmer said. “They need to have the spirit of teaching. We’re open to instructors from those who are great bakers to those who grew up in a big Italian family; and from those who run a large restaurant to instructors from other culinary programs. It falls to Stephen to always be on the lookout and bring them in.”
When it comes to selecting new instructors, Velie has clear ideas about qualities and attributes he’d like to see.
“First, cooking, by all means, is an art form,” Velie said. “But our teachers also need to be outgoing and comfortable in their own skin. I’m also looking for something that no one else does, and how the instructor can translate that into something teachable.
“The teachers also need to be accessible, so the student says, ‘I can do that.’ It’s as great a reward for the chef who teaches, as for the person who learns. It’s a gift to equip students to create. You open a new world for people when you teach them. I love when I see students have that ‘aha’ moment.”
Velie also recognizes the community-building that occurs in the classes, where people from all walks of life, careers, and life experience participate. Students cooking for the first time learn side by side with those who have braised, sautéed, steamed, grilled, or barbequed for years.
“What I love about the culinary center is I see that total magic happening,” Velie said. “Strangers come to class and leave as friends. They make that connection through food.”
Velie clearly loves the Culinary Center — and he also loves Kansas City.
“Kansas City is a jewel,” he said. “It is the best-kept secret in the country.”
Although they’re happy for him, Velie says a number of his friends think he’s relocated to an agrarian vacuum. Nevertheless, many seem to have a fascination with Kansas City’s weather.
“My friends always ask if we have all four seasons here,” Velie said. “I answer ‘Yes, sometimes all four in one day!’”