One passionate cultivator of culinary arts turns business into community boost
December 17-23, 2018
By Becca Bona
If you ask Christie Morgan Ison why she went to culinary school she’d give you an honest answer. Namely – she was following her passion. “I’ve come from this completely non-culinary background. I never worked in a restaurant as a kid, I was actually a writer,” she says. Writing for and about food, however, brought the culinary arts front and center in her life.
Developing a culinary passion
Ison studied journalism and afterwards landed a life in PR. She even did a bit of consulting before she took some time to nurture her growing family.
“Around that time the Food Network came out and I was exposed to this whole new world of things,” she remembers. As Ison delved into cooking she discovered she wasn’t so bad at it.
This led her to start food writing under her new venture – the Fancy Pants Foodie blog. Her interest was more than piqued, so in order to learn all that she could about the culinary arts, she decided she would go back to school.
“I wanted to learn more about what I was writing about,” she explains. “I had a partnership with Pulaski Tech where I wrote about what it was like going through the program.”
Ison fell even deeper in love with the industry, and she knew she wanted to be involved beyond writing. Unfortunately, at that point she had developed a few health issues that would keep her from the fast pace of kitchen work – which is a physically demanding gig.
However, she wasn’t able to completely stay away. In fact, her love of the industry and experience in PR and community-building led her to her next step.
Getting Arkansas Food Jobs off the ground
After graduating, Ison joined the advisory board for the U of A - Pulaski Technical College Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute (UA-PTC CAHMI). The board meets to tackle issues regarding the school.
During one meeting there was a large conversation about job placement for graduates.
With encouragement from Montine McNulty, executive director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, Ison dove headfirst into exploring a food-related job board of sorts.
“It was just me at that point trying to build a network, build a community and then also build a database of people that are either in the industry or want to be,” she explains. Those early days paid off, as her database now includes over 6,000 people who are involved in the industry from front of house to line cooks and beyond.
These days she’s truly working out what her job-board-turned-staffing-agency looks like. It’s a service that Central Arkansas – especially with a growing food scene – more than needs. The company is able to place candidates in restaurants, hotels and other food-related jobs, statewide.
“I’ve realized that there is a true market here for staffing services – someone who really understands the business and wants to network as it relates to the food industry,” Ison adds.
Forming Food JOBS Work
While Ison truly enjoys running Arkansas Food Jobs, she wanted to do more. She wanted to give back in a way that would involve training, without competing with her first culinary training love – UA-PTC CAHMI.
Then she got an idea.
“I wanted to do a separate training program with somebody who’s not quite ready to go to culinary school,” she explains. After doing some research into what other cities were offering, she landed on job training programs for at-risk individuals – those who had run into problems with drugs or been recently incarcerated.
Offering someone a second chance via the food industry seemed like a perfect pairing to Ison.
During her research, Ison found herself at a community meeting for a new program starting at the time that awarded those on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) the opportunity to receive education and training.
This process was new three years ago – but at that particular meeting Ison connected with the Community Center from Our House. Our House is an active shelter in Little Rock that works with the homeless and those near homelessness to offer them services to hopefully alter their situation.
That meeting proved fruitful for Ison.
“[Our House] volunteered to pilot our first class,” she recalls. And, nearly a year and a half ago, Ison taught that first course entirely by herself.
“It went really well and it was amazing,” she says. “I fell in love with these students –with these people that are every bit as good, a lot of times better motivated, more talented, than the people that I knew in culinary school.”
Ison discovered that once her students got over their own mental blockades, they could rock it.
“And slowly but surely, we’ve built up to the point where we just graduated our fifth class,” Ison says, proudly.
The class is now a seven week course, with the first week including paperwork and basic information. They get their serve safe certification during that time as well as a basic intro to customer service skills. “If they make it through the first week they get to do the kitchen stuff the next week,” Ison says.
In the following weeks the students utilize the commercial kitchen at Our House, where they learn knife skills and are also able to help serve.
“It’s really amazing that they [Our House] lets us do that because we’re right in the middle of their production kitchen where they’re making lunch,” Ison says. “A lot of the time we help put out lunch – that’s part of the program. It’s so cool within the first week that they’re serving somebody food that they made. That’s a big mental thing to think, ‘I made this and it’s for you.’”
The afternoon is spent in the Career Center in Our House which focuses on soft skills – how to act in the kitchen, how to deal with controversy and so on.
At the end of the course the students undergo a practical and written final. The practical final is a cook-off of sorts, and Ison brings in local well-known chefs to make that experience stand out.
“It’s so fun, so special,” Ison explains. “The chefs come in and they can’t touch things. But they can talk the students through things – because there’s always more advanced techniques that we haven’t covered.”
On graduation day, the students get a full uniform – a white coat with their name on it – and they also get to keep their knife and case they were handed at the beginning of the course.
When getting Food Jobs Work off the ground Ison funded a large portion of the class on her own – through credit cards. But she was also able to partner with Rock City Reentry – a sect through the Department of Labor– to help fund essentials like knives and more. Ison has also recently been able to hire a full time chef to teach the classes – Michael Easley, formerly of Maddie’s, 1620 Savoy, and Cache.
Looking towards the future: becoming a nonprofit
While Ison still runs Arkansas Food Jobs, Food Jobs Work has morphed so much so that she has changed course. She was recently able to secure a 501(c)3 nonprofit designation for the program.
This move was largely made in conjunction through consulting. Ison discovered a similar set of programs housed under an organization called Catalyst Kitchens.
“I went to [Catalyst Kitchen’s] national conference and actually visited two or three of their member organizations,” Ison says. “I got their opinions and learned a lot of things.”
Ison is proud to announce that Food Job Work first big fundraiser will take place on Jan. 8. The ticketed event will give back to the nonprofit, helping support Central Arkansas’s food industry. She will screen “Knife Skills” – the documentary at Ron Robinson Theatre. Afterwards a panel including Mr. Chrostowski from the film will take place. Students from Food Job Work will create the hors d’ourves at the events.
While Ison always plans to keep her partnership with Our House strong, she also hopes to follow in the footsteps of the Catalyst Kitchen concepts and open a space for her graduated students to work. Specifically she’s looked at Park Hill Elementary’s cafeteria.
“It’s perfect for what we want to do. We’ll take students who have graduated for the first phase and be able to pay them,” she says. “We’ll also have that space to do a phase two program with food production where they can be paid. Phase two will consist of making CACFP and SFSP (after school and summer feeding programs for low income students) meals for children in central Arkansas.”
Keep up to date with the latest goings on or get involved in the Jan. 8 event by visiting: https://www.facebook.com/events/292890487996256/.
1. Even though Christie Morgan Ison studied journalism and landed in PR, she fell in love with the food world and decided to go to culinary school. After graduating she built Arkansas Food Jobs – a staffing agency with a niche for the local culinary scene. Her latest project, Food Jobs Work – is changing lives and the industry one class at a time. (Photos by Becca Bona)
2. Christie Ison teaches a student the proper way to handle a knife.
3. Michael Easley, formerly of Maddie’s Place and several other local stays, serves as the full-time chef on staff responsible for teaching Food Jobs Work.