It's a common restaurant predicament: You order an entree, but when you taste someone else's dish, you wish you'd ordered that instead.

For Kyle Mahan, the Grandview Heights City School District's new food-service director, a similar situation occurred regarding his career path -- but unlike a restaurant customer, it wasn't too late to change his course.

"I sort of fell into food service," Mahan said.

While pursuing a communications degree from the University of Toledo, Mahan took a summer job at Kings Island.

"I would help move and set up the picnic tables in their picnic areas," he said. "Then I got moved into their kitchen operations, and it just seemed like a natural fit.

"I always had enjoyed cooking, and I found I liked the fast pace of the restaurant business," he said. "I worked in restaurants for a good amount of time and I did everything from washing dishes to waiting tables to bartending and working in the kitchen. I enjoyed it all."

The work was hectic but lively.

"The stress didn't bother me. I loved the stress. I guess I'm a little weird," Mahan said with a laugh.

"You never knew what each day would bring," he said. "I liked having to figure things out on the fly."

Still, he worked toward his communications degree and graduated unsure about what he really wanted to do in life.

"I was going to join the Peace Corps, but then I met my future wife, Noel, and suddenly my focus changed," he said. "I didn't want to go to the other side of the world."

He moved to Nantucket, Massachusetts, and as he continued to work in restaurants, including his uncle's Nantucket eatery, Mahan realized food service was his calling.

He enrolled as the prestigious Johnson and Wales culinary school, which at that time was located in Charleston, S.C.

"I realized I didn't have the creativity to be a chef," Mahan said.

"I'm a darn good cook. You give me a recipe and I can make it -- but I knew way too many chefs not to realize I would denigrate the position."

Instead, he earned a degree in food-service management from Johnson and Wales and worked for eight months as a coach at J Alexander's Restaurants before being hired by Aramark, a contractor that provides food-service management for school districts.

He spent 13 years with Aramark before coming to Grandview.

For most of his time with Aramark, Mahan was an assistant food service director and would be sent to districts throughout Ohio to work temporarily.

"I'd get assigned to a district where a food-service director was on temporary leave, perhaps for health reasons, or when a district or school was in the process of finding a permanent person for the position," he said.

Mahan worked in Hilliard, Athens, Youngstown and in schools and districts near his hometown of Dayton.

"It was challenging because you're parachuting into a place for a short time and each situation is different," he said. "When I returned to Hilliard, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to become the food service director.

Mahan also worked full time as a director in Xenia schools.

He officially began Aug. 1 in Grandview.

"I was able to get some good input from the previous director (Carol Hamilton) and she and I were able to work together for a few days," he said. "She was already running an outstanding department, so I'm just looking for ways to build upon that. There's always room for improvement."

The rewards of working in education are the same, whether one is serving students in the classroom or the lunchroom, Mahan said.

"It's the opportunity to make a difference in a students' lives," he said. "In a larger district like Xenia, a lot of times the breakfast or lunch we were serving students was the one hot meal they would have that day.

"You're trying to introduce healthier eating habits and inform them of the importance of nutrition," Mahan said. "We're trying to fuel their brain. If they aren't getting the nourishment they need, it's going to impact how they do in the classroom."

In Grandview, Mahan said he relishes "the opportunity to take these students to the next level of food, to give them healthier options."

Observing what students include in the lunches they bring to school, Mahan said, he's noticed Grandview students have "a pretty mature palate. You can tell they're used to eating some interesting dishes at home.

"It gives me an opportunity to step up our menu choices," he said.

"It's exciting to me to be able to offer a little more flavor-forward, healthier and fresh choices and more ethnic dishes these students are used to seeing outside of school."

Superintendent Andy Culp said Mahan brings a lot of relevant experience with him to the district.

"He is open-minded and innovative and willing to try new menu items and food choices for our students," Culp said.

"He has already been a part of our wellness committee and is already thinking about how we might be able to bring healthier food choices for our students. We are fortunate to have Kyle as part of our team and look forward to our future together."

afroman@thisweeknews.com

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