Turn a Passion Into a Career
March 14, 2022
Meet Kate Barney, who turns the stereotype of the humanities major working in the service industry on its head. Kate’s American Studies major enabled her to nurture her passion for fine food while developing highly valued transferable skills that propelled her forward to increasingly exciting opportunities in the food industry. Her story represents a broader path to success for humanities majors in whatever industry interests them.
Kate Barney, Scott Muir
If you think about the field that I'm in, which is, at large, the food business, there are so many different things that you can do, just more niche jobs in the space. Those are all things that you kind of have to learn after school. Someone who can self-educate and cultivate your own curiosity and look for other people who will help cultivate that in you as well–which are all skills that you gain by studying humanities–will absolutely prepare you for that world, really, I think any world that you join.
This is What Are You Going to Do with That?, a podcast where we explore everyday folks’ decisions to study the humanities as undergraduates and their pathways to fulfilling careers. I'm Scott Muir of the National Humanities Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting the value of the humanities on campuses and in communities. The stories presented through this podcast debunk misleading myths about humanities career prospects. Over the past decade, the image of the underemployed humanities major working in the service industry has become a familiar stereotype, despite the fact that humanities majors are employed at comparable levels to their peers, earn competitive salaries, and do increasingly well over the course of their careers, frequently emerging as leaders across a wide variety of industries.
In this episode, we meet Kate Barney, who turns this familiar stereotype on its head. Like many recent graduates from all fields of study, Kate sought work as a waiter while contemplating her future, only to discover a passion for the role of food in individual and community life that had been deepened by her experiences with the humanities in college. We'll explore how that passion, and the capacities cultivated through her humanities education, propelled Kate forward onto increasingly exciting opportunities in the food industry. Today, Kate connects farmers, chefs, eaters, and seed breeders as vice president at Row 7 Seed Company. Kate's story represents a broader path of success for humanities majors in whatever industry interests them. As Kate shares her story of how she got there, we'll explore the role the humanities played in her professional trajectory.
When I finished school, I thought I was gonna go to law school, because I didn't know what else to do. It was just, I had to do something. And I was smart. And I like to read. So I guess I should be a lawyer. And at that time, when I thought about the food world, I thought you could only really be a farmer or only be a chef. Those were the only two paths that I saw. And I didn't want to do either of those things, as much as I respect and adore and admire farmers and chefs. That was not what was calling to me. So I started studying for the LSAT. And as I did that, I started working in a restaurant, and immediately fell in love with restaurants as this place where farmers and chefs and eaters and all of these different players in the food system were coming together. And realized that I was sort of this lucky steward of the story of the farmer and the chef. So I was able to engage with folks who are just out to eat, but there are so many people who are curious about where their food comes from, or the story of the chef, or the story of the ingredients, that to be able to be the person in the restaurant who was articulating those stories to eaters, to me was so exciting. Because if eaters are interested in those things, and you can help them learn about them, then they're going to go back to their own homes, and to their own workplaces and start to think about those things. And hopefully it'll kind of trickle down into their purchasing patterns. Also, maybe purchasing patterns of an office. And things like that can long term have such a large impact on the food system.
I will also say, just speaking about restaurants and thinking about the humanities and liberal arts college, restaurants are so educational, if you want them to be. There are so many things to learn about. And one of my first very influential, most important jobs waiting tables was in the neighborhood I grew up in. So there were a lot of people coming through that restaurant who I knew. And I remember so vividly this one woman asked me, “What do you really do?” Thinking that my job at the restaurant was not my actual job or not my actual livelihood or lifestyle. And I was like, “No, ma'am. Like, this is what I really do. And I'm really passionate about it. And, you know, maybe one day I want to own my own restaurant. And right now, I’m learning from the best in this region.” I feel so lucky that I was able to go to liberal arts college and had that luxury of choice. I loved being in school so much. So I really wanted to replicate that experience in my career and feel so lucky that I've been able to find something that has been continually educational, and that there's always more to be learning about while I’m doing it.
I took a year off before I went to college. I was lucky enough and you know, also sort of like hustled and worked some part time jobs and saved some money, and was able to travel to Mexico for most of the year. And that experience and that perspective that I gained, on the fact that going to college was such a privilege and not everyone in the world got to go to college, really changed my college experience in terms of how I applied myself. In terms of finding American Studies, it was really through a personal relationship with two professors in the department and meeting them outside of class and signing up for a class that they taught, which was just the Intro to American Studies class. And it was through that class that I decided that it would be my major, just because I was totally smitten with the experience of the interdisciplinary nature of that area of study. Props to those two professors for crafting such a brilliant syllabus and curriculum. We read a book and then we listened to the music that was featured in the book and talked about that music as if it was a text. And then we talked about the art of that timeframe and that era as well. And it was just that layered and richness of education and just really enveloping yourself in the texts and just thinking about it as a full spectrum experience.
And I had been interested in cooking and food growing up and always read my parents Gourmet Magazine, and Bon Appetit and things like that. But my knowledge level about food stopped there until I really came to this place in Ohio that was an agricultural center. And Kenyon is, in particular, in this rural, beautiful part of Ohio. And I had never lived in a rural place before. Starting to be in American Studies, and looking at rural Ohio through this lens and how these things I was learning about in class could be applied to the same study of the place where I was, gave me this real sense of place and this desire to dig deeper into that place. You know, there's a lot of monocrop agriculture in that area of Ohio. But there is also a really vibrant, smaller family farm community. And Kenyon has built relationships with those firms over the years. And of that same vein of having a professor, Howard Sacks at Kenyon, he was really influential in me working on this Farm to Cafeteria work that tied a lot of these themes together. It was a time when asking those farmers if they wanted to sell their produce to the cafeteria was in its very infancy of conversation. And I was sort of scooped up in a group of students that were doing that work. I ended up doing an independent study working on a farm. I did a few independent studies that were delving into that sort of rural part of the experience of being at school. Meeting these farmers and being super interested in their lives and their livelihoods and what it meant to be a farmer and work on a farm, and be in rural Ohio in this agribusiness epicenter and to be creating a local food shed and supporting a local food shed on a smaller scale—which, now, if you fast forward 20 years, I'm now working for a seed company, a vegetable seed company, that works with farmers who are at a similar scale of those farms that I was working with in school. So that was definitely when that foundation was laid for the work I’m doing now.
I mean, I just think about the luxury of time that I had to do all these things. And if there are any students who are listening to this, just like soak it up! If anyone is encouraging you to spend your time in any way that is creative and like, giving you the long leash to do that type of work, just soak it up and enjoy it. I mean, I do think I appreciated it. But I appreciate it even more with some perspective. Just that luxury of time to go down that rabbit hole of something that you're interested in and, and figure out a creative and moving way to articulate it and express it to other folks is just so great.
Yeah, maybe we could stay with that for a second. Because you know, the context of this podcast is that there's been a stronger instrumental push, since we were in college, that tells students “you can't really afford to do that, you need to do something that's practically connected to something that's clearly going to be lucrative and stable.” And so the luxury to explore and pursue your own intrinsic interests, a lot of people are kind of challenging that. I'd love to hear any thoughts you have about not only why that's precious, in terms of the experience, which I feel like you articulated very well before, but also like, why it's good for your development into a person who's going to do well, wherever they land in their career.
I'll first preface all of this, which I spoke to about my epiphany when I was in Mexico, that education is such a privilege. I just want to acknowledge that. To cultivate that curiosity to learn more about any field that you're interested in going into. There are so many skills that I gained in school that I still use every day. I think, first and foremost, my ability to write has served me throughout my entire professional development and every step along the way in my career. That was really honed, I mean, began in high school and was really honed in college at Kenyon as well. I have long been turned to in many of my work environments as somebody who could write. And that was never really on my job description or what I was there for, but quickly became apparent to my colleagues. I mean, I love to write so I'm always psyched when people ask me to do that. But I think that those skills are both a hard skill and a soft skill in a way that serves you so, so strongly throughout any workplace you’re in.
So it seems like you left college with this very clear passion and interest in high level food production. Tell me about the kind of steps you took and how you kind of drew on these skills as you found, you know, one niche to the next.
I always worked in the service part of restaurants, the front of the house part of restaurants. It was just the best! I mean, I would go back to that phase in my life immediately. It was so fun. I learned so much all the time, working for a few mentors at the time who taught me so much about beverage and ingredients and what was important about those things. So, I think that there is a culture in the United States that restaurant work is often a side hustle. And sometimes it is—when I first started it was. But then I pivoted pretty quickly to it being something I really wanted to do. And in other countries, especially in European culture, working in hospitality is absolutely a career and absolutely a lifestyle and something that so many people have a lot of reverence for. I was given that perspective by my team at the time, and I'm just so grateful for that. Because that sort of led me through the next era to really pursue just more and more jobs in that field, where I was continually working in places I was proud of, where I was learning something constantly. And that helped me eventually to become a manager myself. Working for people who cultivated that curiosity in me, identifying in me that I wanted to be a student and was really serious about it. And then again after that, I wanted to become a teacher and a manager. And I never ended up opening a restaurant of my own. My goals shifted, but I definitely think that I had the skills to do so had I wanted to. And a lot of that was just from learning on the job.
Tell me more about that.
My boss there, Greg Best, he identified my interest in the farming part of the equation and encouraged me to work part time at the farmers market. We had a beautiful bakery at the time, so selling the bread from the bakery. And that job at that farmers market led me to be a manager of a farmers market in East Atlanta for a season, which was such a great job. And at that same time, Wholesome Wave, which is a national nonprofit that does food stamp doubling at farmer's markets, but it's very much funded by and led by a chef figure named Michel Nischan. They had approached the chef I was working for in Atlanta about starting an Atlanta chapter of Wholesome Wave. So I, along with the owner of that restaurant and another friend in the good food world, helped to start the Wholesome Wave Georgia chapter. And it was at the farmers market that I was managing that was the launch market. Wholesome Wave Georgia just had their 10 year anniversary. And they are in just so many markets all across the state of Georgia. It's such an incredible—well, now it’s its own standalone nonprofit, and I'm just so proud to even have like whispered at that program, and its incredible legacy and success, just to help get it off the ground in its very humble beginnings. Again, at that time, I was working as a waiter, I was managing a farmers market, and I was helping to launch this program that doubled food stamps at farmer's markets in Georgia. And I was doing so many things I was interested in and again learning so much but also had my finger in so many different pots of the food system and was able to see how incredibly interconnected they were. I've remained on the board at large of Wholesome Wave Georgia and have been able to see again, in terms of the interconnectedness here, so much of the funding for Wholesome Wave Georgia comes from the culinary community. So they do these incredible fundraisers every year. And that's chefs and bartenders giving of their time to help raise money to feed Georgians who are food insecure. So you think maybe restaurants are this luxury. They are—it is a luxury to go out to eat. But I also know that the folks who are building that community care so deeply about eaters at large. And I think that the Atlanta restaurant community and the southeastern restaurant community is one I've just been so lucky to have a front row seat to. To see those folks just go to bat so hard for Wholesome Wave and raise so much money over the years to be able to fund that work, it's just so inspiring. And just points to the fact that even if you are working in a for-profit business, that you can still do so much good.
I don't know if you have any more thoughts on that in terms of, you know, what you would share with young people who might be listening, like about how to think about leveraging connections. And maybe how the humanities contribute to that being not a sort of means to an end, but like a really deep experience of community and mentoring relationships. And it both helps you find new opportunities, but it also just is a deeply enriching experience in its own right.
I get this question a lot, because I just am a deeply connected person, but I don't really know how it happened. I think it goes back to the curiosity. I'm so interested in people's stories and just who they are, and how they got to where they are, and what excites them, and all those things. So I think that that genuine interest in people has helped maintain a lot of relationships. But also, just keep reading! And that, of course relates to being in the humanities, because being a consumer of literature, whether it's media, or fiction, or whatever it is; if you're open to learning, you're going to identify players and thought leaders or schools of thought or what have you, that you will want to attach yourself onto. You know, for me, that was a person, that was a chef, but for some people it might be a concept or a policy or something of the like. And once you identify what those things are, you can just figure out who the players in that space are and just try to work for them. I don't know how, but just like, I think it can be figured out. A lot of it is that door knocking and emailing and putting yourself in front of those people. I remember somebody asked me the question like, “If you could work for anyone in the world, who would you work for?” And I said, I would work for Dan Barber who's the chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. I had been following his career for several years as sort of the farm to table thought leader on the East Coast. Somebody recently asked me how I first learned about him. And I remember it so vividly: I read an article that he wrote in Gourmet magazine. And I loved the article so much, because it was about an approach to hospitality and how you treat every guest like they're the food critic, and it just really resonated with me. And I was like, whoever this guy is, I really like his writing, he’s super smart and I'm gonna figure out more about him. And as I developed professionally, I just kept following along with with Dan's career and with Blue Hill and the restaurants.
It turns out that the restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, had just started this program, this internship, where you work on the farm one day a week, and in the front of the house of the restaurant four days a week. So it was seemingly made for me. It was like, so great. It was really through genuine admiration, and one might call it like fandom, that I think I impressed the Blue Hill team when I was applying for the job. I did have a good intersection of both restaurant experience and also other experience in the food system. So you know, the farm internship I did at Kenyon and working at the farmers market in Atlanta, and they were looking for folks who had a genuine, bigger picture of the food system beyond just wanting to work in the restaurant. So I think that was a great fit. I mean, otherwise, I was willing to move to upstate New York to do it. And I did it.
So I worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns for about five years. After I finished the apprenticeship, I worked as a service director and was working in the wine program there and really just loved every minute of it. It was exhilarating, educational, just life changing and forming in so many ways. Restaurant service is incredibly demanding in terms of hours and the sort of physical demand on your body. And I came to a point where I knew I… or, I didn't know. I had a suspicion, I might not want to work in a restaurant forever. When I first came to Blue Hill, I really thought I wanted to open my own restaurant. But those ambitions kind of shifted the longer I was there, more out of just learning more and more about other parts of the food system through the work at Blue Hill that I was, again, so curious about and just so grateful to be in a place that was serving me all these things to learn about all the time. Dan is such a voracious learner. And at the time, when I started there, he was working with a seed breeder at Cornell University, Michael Mazurek. And they were working on a squash, a special squash, developing a squash. And I was like, I didn't know anything about anything about anything about what it meant to develop a squash or what seed breeding was. But through just being mentored by these brilliant folks over the years, I'm now working at a seed company that came out of that work. Dan and Michael Mazurek, and another partner, Matthew Goldfarb, decided to formalize the work that they had been doing over that past decade or so at the restaurant, in terms of chefs and seed breeders working together. They had a brilliant woman who's now the COO of Row 7, who had been director of special projects at the restaurant for several years, take the helm of Row 7. Her name is Charlotte Douglas. And she, out of the blue, called me and said, “What are you doing? We'd love for you to come work on this project with us. Will you come?” And I had two weeks left on a consulting project I was working on and it was perfect timing. And I said, “I'll be right there!” So I came back to that family and that sort of corner of the world (and of thought as well), before the launch of the company. And I’ve been there ever since. I still am humbled and honored to have received that call. But I definitely do think that there were skills that Charlotte, especially, in that moment, saw in me. Because I had helped get a few other businesses off the ground. She was like I really would love for you to come and take those experiences that you had launching a few other businesses and in that consulting phase of my life and help shepherd Row 7 through that. Yeah, that's how I got to where I am now, which is a great place to be. So far, so good.
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