In 2016, Evelyn Isaia decided that the time was right to begin winding down her three-decade financial services career. And while the Merrill Lynch senior vice president had several ideas on where to focus the next chapter of her life, she was puzzled on how to get started.
“I wanted to do something that combined cooking with women’s empowerment and my strong belief in helping the underdog, which to me now represents immigrants and refugees,” Isaia said. “For about six months, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. There were ideas out there in front of me, but I wasn’t certain if it should be a for-profit, a nonprofit, a B Corp or a school.”
Isaia enrolled in UConn’s Encore!Connecticut, a four-month workforce development program for corporate professionals looking to segue into the nonprofit sector. She conferred with her friend Hong Thaimee, the Thailand-born chef and owner of Ngam in New York’s East Village, who wanted to collaborate with Isaia on a new project. “Hong said, ‘You have these organizational skills and great ideas and I’m an excellent chef, so why don’t we try something together?’” said Isaia.
In September 2016, the women went to France and produced a black-tie gala fundraiser held to raise $100,000 to build for the disabled at the American Church in Paris. While satisfied with the results, Isaia was still eager to get back to her original goal of empowering immigrant and refugee women through the food trade. After rejecting the idea of starting a nonprofit and toying with the idea of opening a restaurant, Isaia and Hong last May founded Ratatouille and Co. LLC as a catering company with the employee base that Isaia originally envisioned.
Reaching out to the workforce development departments at two Fairfield County nonprofits, Building One Community in Stamford and the Connecticut Institute for Refugees and Immigrants (CIRI) in Bridgeport, Isaia recruited 10 women from Syria and Latin America who expressed interest in culinary careers. Ratataouille & Co. set up shop in Isaia’s Westport kitchen and the new recruits received training in table settings and pointers on communication skills needed for cocktail and dinner parties.
The trainees also brought their favorite recipes from their respective homelands and Hong worked with them to restyle the food to fit the aesthetics of an American social setting.
“With hummus, for example, it’s hard to make hummus really pretty,” said Isaia. “So, we worked intensely with them in several workshops to restyle their food to make it palatable for the U.S. while retaining its integrity, but also to make it work for cocktail parties. Some of the food would dribble on your shirt or crumble and get on the floor.”
Hong withdrew from Ratatouille and Co. to focus on her own restaurant business, and former publishing executive-turned-pastry chef Cathy Brower came in as Isaia’s new business partner. The Brooklyn-based Brower focused on snagging New York events for the company’s catering business while Isaia concentrated on Fairfield County engagements.
One major task for the Ratatouille and Co. crew has been adapting to meet different expectations at the various functions they cater. “We did a cocktail party of CIRI supporters and donors and we realized there was a certain percentage of attendees that were Muslim,” Isaia said. “So, we had a bit more on the vegetarian side. We recently did a very high-end event in New York and it had an Asian component, so we realized that certain Syrian spices were not a big hit with them, so we went more with other flavors. It is something of a learning curve.”
Their employees also encounter problems that the business partners help overcome. “Some women are the head of their own households and child care is an issue for the younger ones,” Isaia said. “We try to help where possible if they don’t have transportation, either by carpooling or paying Uber fees.”
Isaia estimated the start-up costs for Ratatouille and Co. were $10,000, which came from her own funds. The firm is on track to bring in more than $50,000 in its first year of business.
For 2018, new relationships with the Council of Churches in Greater Bridgeport and the International Rescue Committee in New York will bring more immigrant and refugee women to work for the business, Isaia said. She is contemplating expanding her business model into other markets in 2019, and said her catering clients have expressed solidarity with her corporate mission to empower female immigrants and refugees with jobs in the
“We did an A-list dinner in New York and the host asked me to come out and address the guests about how we work,” she said.
Her greatest satisfaction, said Isaia, was seeing the women who work with her come into their own.
“One Syrian chef was very shy in the beginning and lacked self-confidence,” she said. “Now, we have her booked for a private dinner and she said that she now feels so good about herself.”