The Unlikely Leap: How an Injury Transformed a Ballet Dancer into a Culinary Artist

Discover the inspiring story of a culinary tutor who reshaped her career after a devastating injury.

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May 17, 2024 17 min read

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Just three weeks into her freshman year of college, Morgan Banno lay in a hospital bed recuperating from a back injury when doctors delivered devastating news.

Give up dance.

“The doctors told me, ‘You’re done,’” Morgan said. “You will not be able to survive this if you keep pursuing your dance career. So you need to find something else.”

Morgan didn’t have a “something else” at the time, but it eventually became a career in the culinary arts, via a path paved with odd jobs, a move halfway across the country, a serendipitous business opportunity, and a pandemic that unexpectedly provided just the right timing for her to pursue a culinary education.

Discover how Morgan’s dogged resilience, plus creativity, focus, and unwavering determination honed by dance led her to a fulfilling career as an academic tutor at the prestigious Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.

The Life Changing Injury

From childhood until college, Morgan had a single-minded focus: ballet. She trained in classical ballet before switching to modern dance because, as she jokes, “I’m built more like a boxer than a dancer.”

She’d had a setback at 15, a back injury that resulted in herniated discs and stretched connective tissue; surgery revealed a degenerative disc disease, but Morgan forged on. A fastidious planner, she went to college in Philadelphia to study modern dance with an eye toward eventually joining a professional modern dance troupe in New York. The steps were laid out, and she was executing on the plan.

But in the fall of 2005, just four years after the first injury, Morgan hurt her back a second time, herniating the discs above and below the surgical site.

Morgan’s father flew in from Michigan to be with her and was there when, after a series of tests and scans, a doctor bluntly delivered the news.

“(The doctor) looked at me blankly, like dance was just a hobby and all I needed to do was move on,” Morgan said.

She stared back at him in shock, confusion, and disbelief.

“It felt like a part of me died that day,” she said. “I was in denial for a long time, until I came to terms with the horrid extent of my injury. And after years of chronic pain, it slowly started to sink in. I lost a piece of my soul that day.”

“It Might Be Kind of Cool to Be a Chef”

Morgan had never considered anything else.

“I didn’t have a backup plan,” she said. “I didn’t have anything else planned for my life because I was destined to be a dancer.”

Morgan couldn’t even watch a performance of The Nutcracker ballet, one of her favorite Christmas traditions, without sobbing. She tried to broaden her sights, to consider what she might do with her life if she could do anything at all.

“And I thought, it might be kind of cool to be a chef,” Morgan said. “I love food. As a dancer, you have kind of a love-hate relationship with food, but food always spoke to me. It was always back there.”

The thought was a fleeting one. Morgan filed the idea away under “dream job” and pursued what seemed a more practical idea at the time: a degree in kinesiology specializing in Movement Science. If she couldn’t be a dancer, she could do physical therapy for dancers.

A Small Sign Leads to Big Moves

During the last semester of her studies at the University of Michigan, Morgan realized her heart wasn’t in it. She didn’t want to keep going to school and pursue a doctorate in physical therapy.

“I struggled for years after that (injury) trying to find my calling in life—specifically something that I was as passionate about as dance,” she said. “Nothing else excited me, I didn’t feel like I had any other skills, and the idea of working with dancers in the wings as opposed to being the one performing, was too painful of a thought for a possible career.”

Morgan worked a series of odd jobs while searching for her next big idea. That idea showed up in the summer of 2011 during a vacation to Florida when Morgan was visiting a shaved ice place she often frequented. A tiny sign in the window advertised the business for sale, and she was in just the right mood to take a leap.

“I just thought to myself, ‘That could be kind of cool,’ ” she said. “Like, what if I just did something completely random, totally different? I’m not even going to use my degrees. I’m just going to try it; I’m going to see what it’s like.”

Morgan bought the business—called Beach Snoballs—and uprooted herself from Michigan to Florida, trading Great Lakes and snow-by-the-foot for the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and sunburned tourists strolling around Treasure Island in flip-flops. Morgan inherited a couple of high school-aged employees and dove into learning the ins and outs of owning and running a business. She quickly figured out ordering and product development and how to grow.

“It was a fantastic experience,” she said of her two years in the hand-crafted shaved ice business. By 2013, she had grown the business and was ready to sell it and try something new.

A closeup of a dish of blue and green shaved ice with the Beach Snoballs sign in the background.

A shaved ice business wound up being a turning point in Morgan Banno’s journey to find a new passion in life.

The Dream Job Re-Emerges

Like the path of many stories, this one is influenced by love. In Florida, Banno met the woman who would become her wife—and who, as it happens, owned a restaurant. Barbara Banno owns Stella’s, a breakfast and brunch spot in Gulfport, Florida, which Morgan visited regularly.

The restaurant is named for Barbara’s Aunt Stella, who loved to cook and who was a nun in New York City. A few blocks from the water, Stella’s features outdoor seating under bright green umbrellas, an interior with vaulted planked wood ceilings, daily specials featured on a chalkboard, and inventive drink specials like “The Communion,” “The Salty Nun,” and “Holy Water.” Most of all, the food is top-notch.

After selling the shaved ice business, Morgan started working at Stella’s. She started at the bottom, scrubbing dishes, then chopping and dicing for prep, and continuously moved up. The hours were long and hard, but that was a familiar routine to someone who had run her own business and who had once dreamed of being a professional dancer.

Morgan studied every aspect of each job she took on at the restaurant and asked tons of questions of those around her. Every day was a learning experience.

The fuzzy edges of a dream job also resurfaced and came into sharper focus during that time.

“That’s when I really realized that I loved food, and I can still have that artsy, creative side that was fulfilled with dance,” she said. “I can utilize that but in a different direction through culinary arts now. It was really inspiring. And I’ve never looked back.”

Trial by Fire: The Cooking Channel Comes to Town

Stella’s had a couple of seasoned line cooks who taught Morgan how to make some wonderful breakfast dishes. And Morgan kept asking for more information and more responsibility.

“There’s a lot of turnover in the hospitality industry, especially in the back of the house. And so as these people would fall off of the roster, I just asked for more, like, ‘Show me how to order. Show me how to do the inventory. Show me how to do all the prep.’ And before long, I knew how to run everything in the back of the house.”

The hustle came in handy. Early in 2017, the Cooking Channel’s Beach Bites with Katie Lee visited the restaurant for a “Beachside Breakfasts” episode—and the night before the taping, Stella’s chef quit.

Morgan hurried over to the restaurant, grabbed the recipe book, and practiced. Imagine pulling an all-nighter for a final exam, except the final will be performed in front of a national TV audience. For the next two days, she ran everything while cameras rolled and the brunch crowd was served. And she pulled it off.

“At that point, (Barbara) handed it over to me,” Morgan said. “She was like, ‘It’s your deal. Run the back of the house, I’ll do the front of the house, and we’ll make magic.”

They also decided to extend the magic at home. Barbara proposed to Morgan on her birthday in 2017, and the two were married in 2019.

Morgan and Barbara Banno pose in front of Stella’s restaurant.

Morgan and Barbara Banno share a passion for culinary arts and for running their own businesses.

The Nun on the Run and Online Culinary School at Escoffier

When Covid hit and restaurants were scrambling to figure out how to stay in business, Morgan decided it was a great time to start a meal prep business. She started Nun on the Run, cooking out of the restaurant kitchen and filling hundreds of orders. She created special menus for Thanksgiving, Easter, and Mother’s Day, and the delivery business exploded.

“I never could have dreamed that it would have become as big as it did,” she said.

Morgan also decided it was the perfect time to go to school, and found that Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts was a great match for her schedule and the circumstances. While other establishments were scrambling to figure out how to offer remote classes, Escoffier already had an esteemed and proven online program in place.

“Thankfully, Escoffier was one of the few places that offered an online culinary education,” she said. “And I looked at that as an opportunity, I just had to jump. I had to grasp the opportunity and take it by the horns. And the online program worked out perfectly for me because I was working full-time in a kitchen at the time.”

“I distinctly remember crying when I got my chef coat because I just felt like, ‘This is it. This is everything that I’ve been dreaming of. I can finally do something with my life other than dance, like, I think I’m on the right path.'”*
Morgan Banno
Morgan Banno
Escoffier Online Culinary Arts Graduate

Focused and Organized: Balancing Full-Time Work and School

As soon as she made the decision to go to culinary school, Morgan said, she wanted to get started right away. Banno said the admissions process was easy and she found plenty of help navigating.

Then her chef kit arrived in the mail. It had been 15 years since Morgan tucked away the idea of a potential dream job, and suddenly it became real—she was pursuing it.

“I distinctly remember crying when I got my chef coat,” she said, “because I just felt like, ‘This is it. This is everything that I’ve been dreaming of. I can finally do something with my life other than dance, like, I think I’m on the right path.'”

Not that the path would be easy just because it was the right one. Morgan was still working full-time while also attending classes.

“My organizational skills were on point,” she said.

Morgan would map out the week so she could see her live sessions, study halls, and assignments she needed to finish. Even though weekends were busy with the restaurant, she found they were also the best time for her to do her cooking for school.

She had earned a graduate degree in food writing and photography from the University of South Florida a couple of years earlier and used those skills to photograph her food and send her homework assignments to her instructors.

In about a year and a half, Morgan received her culinary diploma from Escoffier, graduating in the fall of 2021.

Meeting Her Chef Mentors In Person

After Morgan was done with classes but before she graduated, Escoffier started offering Farm To Table® field trips, and Banno signed up for one in Charleston, S.C. The Chef Instructor leading the trip wound up being her World Cuisine instructor, Christopher Diehl.

Morgan said it was fun to meet instructors in person whom she had only seen on the screen, to pick their brains and explore Charleston.

“That was a game-changer for me, so much so that I went on another one to San Francisco later and met some more Chef Instructors out there,” she said. “Those Farm To Table® experiences, they are absolutely one-of-a-kind experiences. And I felt like that was just the icing on the cake of my education at Escoffier, being able to go to that and meet some of my Chef Instructors in person.”

But Wait, There’s More—Add Disney to the List

While in culinary school, Morgan set her sights on her next dream job: to work at Disney. She saw an opening for a chef assistant, applied, and was hired on the spot. She spent the next year and a half at the Ale & Compass restaurant in Disney’s Yacht Club Resort.

Once again, focus and planning ruled the day. Orlando, which is inland in Florida, is hours away from Banno’s home on the west coast of the state. She rented an inexpensive apartment in Kissimmee, near Orlando, and would drive home on her days off.

At Disney, Banno found people who were just as focused and motivated as she was in the kitchen.

“These people know their food,” she said. “They understand how to work a line under pressure. I was surrounded by people who treated food the way I did, with respect and curiosity. And I just had the best group of co-workers; I had amazing sous chefs.”

The restaurant was a breakfast and brunch place, “so it was right in my wheelhouse,” Morgan said. “I was always very comfortable. They threw me on the line; my first week in every station was exactly what we had at Stella’s, so I was very comfortable with the menu and preparations and allergies and all of this stuff.”

Ten weeks in, Morgan was promoted to assistant sous chef and ran the kitchen the rest of her time there. Back at Stella’s, the staff used checklists she had created, and Morgan would check in regularly to coordinate daily specials. Morgan admits to “micromanaging a little,” a pace she couldn’t continue while working full-time at Disney. She eventually eased out of her responsibilities at the restaurant back home.

Morgan Banno poses by the Disney culinary logo.

Morgan Banno worked a dream job at the Ale & Compass restaurant in Disney’s Yacht Club Resort.

From Student to Tutor at Escoffier

Always one to plan her next move, Morgan reached out to Escoffier midway through her contract with Disney and asked about tutoring. She briefly envisioned doing both at the same time, but Escoffier told her that tutoring was a full-time job and to get in touch when she was finished with her contract at Disney.

As soon as she was done at Disney, Morgan was hired as an academic tutor for Escoffier.

“It’s been very eye-opening to be on more of the administrative side of Escoffier versus the student side,” she said. “But I feel like I understand first-hand what these students are going through. I understand the stresses about working full-time while also going to school. I’ve gone through many of the same classes that the students are going through, so I have this personal experience where I can relate to them on a more intimate level than just somebody who’s never gone to Escoffier before.”

Morgan said it’s been fun to work alongside instructors as colleagues.

A typical day is filled with appointments for various subjects. She specializes in culinary writing but does appointments for technology and baking, costing, and even upper-level classes.

“It’s been very humbling,” she said of her tutoring. “I can empathize with these students when they’re struggling with their grades. I feel like I’m better equipped to work with these students because I’ve been through it myself and I can share my personal experience. And I feel like it also provides the student with a level of trust, like, ‘I made it through and so can you’ kind of a thing.”

Culinary School Made All the Difference

Morgan considers herself a fitness junkie and said she loves to promote fitness and healthy eating. She is pursuing her Level 1 nutrition coaching license with specializations in hormone health and in mindset, and is also pursuing a personal training certification.

Her next steps will tie together her kinesiology background with her culinary education and experience as she starts a company that combines personal training, nutrition, coaching, online cooking classes, and demos.

She’s starting her own business called Fit+Flavor+Fuel where she’ll offer nutrition coaching, personal training, and online cooking classes focused on plant-based cooking, special diets, and macro-based meal preparation. Morgan said she hopes to combine her love of food and fitness—she’s big into CrossFit—to help people reach their health goals.

She credits her time at Escoffier for boosting her career in ways she couldn’t have done otherwise.

“I had experience in the kitchen, I knew how to cook food, but I didn’t have all the terminology, I didn’t know the techniques and cooking methods,” Morgan said. “I was really drawn to the fact that Escoffier is based in classical French cooking, which is basically the foundation for everything we do in culinary. So the online option to do school and the fact that it was rooted in French culinary cuisine really spoke to me.”

Morgan said she “absorbed every single second and ounce of schooling.”

“It was one of the best decisions that I have ever made for myself,” she said. “It absolutely furthered my career. I was able to dive into everything in detail, learn from these fantastic Chef Instructors, and I reaped all of the benefits of being a student at Escoffier. It just absolutely changed my life.”

Start Your Culinary Journey

Morgan Banno’s journey took her to a number of places she never imagined, but it all happened because of her resilience and focus. She continues to explore opportunities and to keep an open mind about what the future holds, all while helping students who are traveling a path she knows well.

If you’ve also dreamed of a culinary career and wondered how to make it a reality, find out more about how a culinary education might help. Whether you work full-time and might benefit from an online culinary school option or are interested in attending in person, contact our Admissions Department for more information.



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