While many ORHS students know Kevin Towle from his driver’s ed classes, many don’t realize his true passion outside of driving is cooking.
Aside from owning a driving school that operates out of ORHS, Towle is a competitive cook. He has been participating in culinary competitions across New England since 2012. Aside from winning various cash prizes, dishes, and frying pans, these competitions have given Towle an opportunity to explore what he loves outside of his classroom.
Students end up spending a lot of time with Towle since they have to meet a state requirement of ten hours behind the wheel with a certified driving instructor to get their license. However, what some may not know is that Towle’s passion is cooking. “You’re going to find this very strange, but my hobby is that I’m a competitive cook,” he said.
Similar to beloved TV shows like Chopped or the Great British Baking Show, Towle explained how he started his culinary journey. “It started when my middle child was looking for scholarships. She was trying to get a scholarship through Hood Milk and we were online looking at all the things she had to submit, and my wife saw that they were doing a cooking contest where you could win some cash prizes,” explained Towle. “My wife said, ‘you like to cook, you cook around the house, you should try,’ and I said no way am I doing that, that’s silly. Sure enough, the first one I sent a recipe in to, I got a phone call saying I was the New Hampshire representative for this cooking contest, and asking if I could come to compete in Portland, Maine.”
After that initial phone call, Towle traveled to Portland, and competed with people across New England. He ended up making it to the quarterfinals and taking home $100.
Towle remembers this experience well, and said it remains his favorite competition that he has ever been involved with. “You got to go and compete and be around other people. It was neat to see how it all played out, especially when I was in the finals and they had a TV camera and you’re trying to cook, they’re asking you questions, and you don’t want to make mistakes,” he said.
Kathy Towle, Towle’s wife, always goes to these cooking competitions with Towle, and described how well he keeps his cool while under pressure. “He is extremely patient, which you have to be. He is so patient to be able to teach kids how to drive, but also when it comes to cooking he’s more patient. It was very nerve wracking for me. I never could have done what he did.”
After the success and fun he had during his first competition, Towle figured he’d give it another shot. “[The sponsors of the competition] put you up in a hotel, they pay for your food, it was kind of a neat thing, so I said, you know, I’ll try it again next year.” Even though Towle had only competed in one contest prior, the next year he ended up making it to the finals. “I was on TV and had a chance to win $10,000,” he said. Although he came in fourth place in that competition, Towle still walked away with $500 and an increased appreciation for this lifelong hobby.
One of Towle’s favorite parts of cooking and competing is coming up with his recipes. Towle explained, “Even when I’m driving with students, we’ll be on the highway and there’s nothing for me to say to teach them or whatever, and I’ll be thinking, you know what, I think I’m going to make a maple walnut ice cream. I’ll come up with these strange flavors and then I’ll jot it down and when I get home I’ll tweak it a bit, but that’s how I come up with my recipes.”
Kathy knows about these strange recipes very well, saying, “He comes up with the most, I would say they are bizarre recipes. He would tell me what the ingredients are and I would think, that’s never going to work, and then he makes the dish and it’s absolutely delicious.” Past all these bizarre flavors, Kathy’s favorite dish is a classic. “He makes pasta from scratch and I happen to be a pasta lover,” she said.
For these competitions, Towle explained he typically goes online to see which ones are happening in the area. Through the years, Towle has been involved in different contests sponsored by different companies, including Hood Milk, Sun Maid Raisin, and Go Bold with Butter. Towle then submits his own recipe to the contest and waits for a call or email back with whether or not he had been chosen to compete. “They call you and say you’re in the running. They may ask you about certain brands and things that you use. Then they follow the recipe and will cook it or bake it and if they have a component where you compete, they send you out to do it,” Towle explained.
As to how Towle got involved with cooking in the first place, he credits his inspiration to his mom. “She used to make wedding cakes and birthday cakes for people. My mom was a good cook and baker and she was the one who basically got me into it,” he said.
Before he even got into cooking, Towle has been a part of the Seacoast community his whole life, and was born and raised in Rochester. After graduating high school, he went to the University of Southern Maine. “I studied recreation therapy, and how I got into driver’s ed, oh my goodness, that’s a long story,” he said.
When Towle was 24 years old, he was fresh out of college, working at the Air Force base in Portsmouth, and needed money to pay off his student loans. “It all started when my dad was getting near retirement, and he started a driving school. He was biting off more than he could chew and needed some help, so it started off as a part time thing.”
Upon hearing a rumor that the Air Force base would be closing the area where he worked, Towle decided to work full time at his father’s driving school. Shortly after, there was a time when the fate of Towle’s driving school was up in the air. “I left driver’s ed in the mid 90s. My dad was having some health issues, and I thought the driving school was just going to close,” he said.
Assuming the driving school was going to close, Towle got a job at Prudential Insurance for a year and a half, saying, “I was still doing driver’s ed on the side, just helping my dad out a little bit. At Prudential, they told me that they wanted more of a commitment. They wanted me to give up driver’s ed and I told them I still liked it too much, there’s no way.”
After he passed up that opportunity, Towle’s driving school really became what it is today. Since 2001, Towle has worked out of ORHS, setting up countless students for success on their DMV driving test.
Many ORHS students have had a positive experience through Towle’s driving program and have found that the most enjoyable part is being behind the wheel. Acadia Manning (‘21) explained the positive environment Towle has created while driving. “There was always a fun conversation or a fun energy happening in the car, which was definitely helpful when you’re learning to drive because it makes the experience more pleasant.”
Kathy agreed, saying, “He wants to make it more of a relationship. Ten hours is a long time to drive with somebody, so he wants to be able to have it be more than just teaching instruction.”
Towle is very dedicated to Oyster River, as explained by Kathy, “UNH has reached out to him to teach at UNH and he said no, my first commitment is Oyster River. He’s very dedicated to it.”
She continued to say, “A lot of people don’t know how generous he is and how much he has given to his students. He goes above and beyond. Some of the things that he does for his students, if the student body knew, if the school knows how he goes above and beyond, I think they would be blown away.”
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 and having to catch up after missing months of driving time with students, Towle hasn’t been able to do any cooking competitions in about a year, but has been keeping busy cooking at home, like many others during quarantine. “Driving is taking up so much time now, because everyone’s availability is so difficult, so I’m driving six days a week. It wasn’t until the end of August/start of September that I was able to have anyone caught up,” he said.
While Towle competes primarily for fun, he has had a decent amount of success in these competitions and a few of his recipes have since been posted online for anyone to make at home. So, if you’re feeling in the baking mood this winter, check out Towle’s $1,500 winning, runner-up Gingerbread Almond Latte Shortbread recipe from Go Bold with Butter’s 2015 Holiday Cookie Contest.