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Camp Howard, What’s Your Story?

Posted on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011 — 8:00 AM

Camp Howard (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

When Camp Howard was 8 or 9, he went to the circus and saw performers on unicycles. “I could do that!” he thought. His parents found a unicycle at a bike shop in nearby Roanoke, Va., and soon he was leaping from the hood of their car onto the seat of a 6-foot unicycle. He even delivered newspapers from a shorter one.

At about the same age – and with the same adventurous spirit – Howard discovered another lifelong passion: food. “I would hang out in the kitchen and watch my mother and grandmother cook,” he said. Inspired, Howard began developing his first specialties – cake and beef stroganoff. When he was old enough to get a job, he went to work in a restaurant and loved it. In fact, he loved it so much that he enrolled at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York.

When Howard graduated in 1986 he took a job with ClubCorp in Austin, Texas, and quickly worked his way up to executive chef. After a brief time in Southern California, which Howard found too crowded with people for his taste, he transferred to Club LeConte in Knoxville, Tenn. One Sunday afternoon he happened upon a job posting that would carry his passion in a new direction.

“I was reading the paper and saw an ad for executive chef for the University of Tennessee,” he said. “Although I loved working for ClubCorp creating my own style of cuisine, I was burned out and ready to start a family.”

Howard entered the world of college food service and after a few years moved to Nashville and joined Vanderbilt Dining as executive chef and assistant director. Named director in 2008, he has guided the department through its evolution, including the development of the dining center at The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons.

“What an energizing environment to be in,” he said. “We have 20 on-campus locations, with lots of different food going on. College food service is really cutting-edge when it comes to food and food trends, because we have a very challenging customer: the 18- to 23-year-old student.”

As director of Vanderbilt Dining, Howard’s creativity has shifted from preparing food to developing an entire food experience for the community. But at home on the weekends, he’s back in the kitchen. “We go to the farmer’s market every weekend and just grab a bunch of stuff and use it all week long. And since I’m used to cooking for larger groups, when I cook there’s always leftovers,” he laughed.

“I love food,” he said. “I like to experiment and try new things, to push myself and push the flavors to see if I can get them to work together. I like to take some risks in cooking. But ultimately, it’s about making people happy. That’s what food does – it makes people happy.”

by Donna B. Smith