As Denisonians around the world united on Jan. 30 for the “After Work with Denison … Everywhere” event, seven came together for the very first time at Harry’s Bar, the oldest American watering hole in Paris, France. For many of us, it was the first time we dropped the names of Slayter, Olin, and Beth Eden since leaving the top of the Hill for the foot of Montmartre.
What draws Denisonians to the City of Light? “The amazing food!” was easily the first response around the table, particularly by Matthew Ketcham ’02. Ketcham came to Paris for an M.B.A. program, was offered a job with a French company, and has since settled right in.
Other responses were more sentimental. “It’s the view of certain things. I don’t want to be the person who visits. I want to live here,” said Karen Decter Malek ’88, who studied in Paris her junior year and found her way back permanently just after graduation. For me, my path to Paris lies between the two. What began as culinary curiosity evolved into my unexpected dream job as an illustrator and a food stylist for magazines and commercial advertisements.
And love provided the backdrop. It is Paris, after all.
Before Denison found me through the Posse Foundation, a group that recruits inner-city student leaders from Chicago and Boston, I was planning to pursue a career in the culinary arts. Although I never neglected my love of food at Denison—throwing fondue parties in Sunset A (now Pratt Hall) and carpooling to Columbus for Greek food—the course of liberal arts redirected my creativity into costume design and studio art. After graduation, language and adventure were on my mind. I could always move to New York, I figured, but my lifelong draw to Paris would not wait.
Not speaking a word of French, I Googled “au pair Paris,” and I was on a one-way flight to Charles de Gaulle a few days later. A year of cutting chicken cordon bleu into bite-sized pieces and blow-drying a petite parisienne’s hair was not as rigorous as being an overbooked theatre major. However, I slowly mastered French and became enamored with the indubitable charm of a French photographer, my now-husband.
Interning in a food photography studio, I found a way to redirect my passion for cuisine, aesthetics, and storytelling through food styling. It requires the same fast-thinking resourcefulness I was first acquainted with through the liberal arts. Building an artfully composed skyscraper sandwich, I am part engineer. Testing recipes, I am a chemist. Arranging an edible composition for the camera, I recount the still-life masters from art history. And although not the most obvious detour from wardrobe, there are just as many pins in food styling as in costume design.
My blog thefrancofly.com, captures my foodie musings along the way. Without a natural knack for photography, I picked up drawing again, adding original illustrations to give my blog a creative edge. And dealing with the bureaucratic wild goose chase of starting a business in Paris, it was the catharsis I needed navigating this curious place called France.
Surrounded by other Denisonians at a snug round table at Harry’s Bar, along with our triumphant tales of Denison, we exchanged our France horror stories. Although love, art, business, and curiosity led us all here, navigating a country where the first answer is “non” takes a continual amount of commitment, courage, and perseverance. Although everyone could commiserate over expiring visas, language mishaps, and cultural clashes, I was surrounded by new friends who all had the same two pinnacle places in their personal histories. And it was an overdue pleasure.
Jessie Kanelos Weiner graduated magna cum laude in 2008. As a senior from Chicago, she was awarded the President’s Medal, the highest student honor conferred by Denison. She earned a B.A. in theatre arts with a minor in studio art. Jessie was a Posse Foundation Scholar and president of the Theta Alpha Phi theatre honorary.