By Sarah Fowler/The Columbus Commercial Dispatch
COLUMBUS — For chef and restaurateur Sarah Labensky, the culinary world isn’t just a profession: It is a lifestyle.
Labensky is known to many throughout Columbus for her role as the founding director at the Mississippi University for Women Culinary Institute and, most recently, as the owner of the Front Door Back Door restaurant, which she sold in September.
Her newest adventure will marry her two passions — teaching young culinary students and running a restaurant. Labensky will be the new director of hospitality and food service at Lion Hills, a division of East Mississippi Community College. The position emerged with EMCC’s purchase of the bankrupt Columbus County Club in October.
Labensky’s immersion into the culinary world might seem an obvious choice now. But as a young woman, her focus was on a far different career.
The Kentucky native graduated from Murray State University with a degree in political science, then went to law school at Vanderbilt University. Upon finishing law school, she joined a law firm in Phoenix, Ariz., and had settled in practicing law when the news that a culinary school was opening in Scottsdale caught her attention. At the encouragement of her then husband, Labensky took a year sabbatical from the law firm and enrolled in the cooking school.
“He said, ‘Go ahead and get it out of your system and take a year off,'” Labensky said with a laugh. “I never looked back. I’ve been in the kitchen ever since.”
Labensky went to the culinary school in the 1980s, a time when she said cooking wasn’t as much of a trend as it is now.
“There were very few culinary schools,” she said. “There wasn’t a Food Network.”
Years later, Labensky said her career switch was an obvious choice. As a little girl, she would spend hours in the kitchen with her mother, playing and experimenting with food.
Labensky recalled with fondness the memories of those countless hours her parents’ kitchen.
“They were very good about letting me play with pots and pans,” she said. “I would make things and then put them in the oven even though it would never be anything edible. I’m sure that’s where my love for food started.”
Once she graduated and donned her apron and chef hat, Labensky’s career took off.
While she wasn’t using her law degree, Labensky said she never regretted her decision to follow her dream.
“It’s important to find a calling in life, not just a job,” she said. “If it’s your passion, it’s going to come out.”
Upon arriving at the MUW Culinary Institute in 1996, Labensky said she gave her young students the same pep talk she had given herself when it came time to make a career choice.
“If this is what you truly love, pursue it,” she said. “Go for it.”
As the director of hospitality and food service at Lion Hills, Labensky said she is looking forward to being around eager young students again.
The position at EMCC came as an unexpected move for Labensky who sold the Front Door Back Door Restaurant to travel and write her cookbook. However, when EMCC came calling, Labensky said her love of restaurants and passion for teaching took over and she accepted the job.
While Labensky does not have plans to teach right now, she said she is looking forward to being around the atmosphere that students create.
“I love being around students,” she said. “I love the college-age people trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives. I really enjoy that. I’m looking forward to being around them again.”
Lion Hills is undergoing a major remodel. While the building will be the same structure, a new demonstration kitchen is being added to the facility.
Labensky excitedly talks about the renovations and said she is anxious to start cooking and put her own personal touch on the menu.
“We will be maintaining a warm, inviting facility that anyone in Columbus can come enjoy a round of golf and a hamburger or plan an elegant wedding,” she said.
Labensky starts her new position this month and said the restaurant will be open to the public as a lunch buffet and, hopefully, offer dinner a couple of nights a week. As the students become more knowledgeable, Labensky hopes they can offer a full- service dinner menu on a regular basis. She also hopes to offer a Sunday brunch.
Labensky said the move is a perfect fit for her and she is grateful for the unexpected opportunity.
“It’s been a good move all the way around for me,” she said. “It’s pulling together all these things I’ve done over my culinary career and rolling it all together.
“It’s interesting how things work out when you least expect it.”
Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com