After spending over 30 years as a wealth manager, Evelyn Isaia, 63, of Westport, CT, could read the handwriting on the wall. Her business was changing and not for the better, but retirement wasn’t in the cards. “I wanted to keep working but at something that had meaning to me,” she says. “I really wanted to do something to empower women.”
Stylish, sophisticated menus are inspired by the trainees’ own cuisine culture.
Two years ago, after a lot of research and soul-searching, Isaia launched Ratatouille & Co., a for-profit catering company that trains immigrant and refugee women in the culinary arts and the hospitality industry so they can find success in their new homeland. Ratatouille partners with area nonprofits to find women who could benefit from the training. The program develops front- and back-of-the-house skills, cooking, menu development, and much more, including presentation. “Presentation is as important as taste—you eat with your eyes,” says Isaia.
Stylish, sophisticated menus are inspired by the trainees’ own cuisine culture. For example, when the company catered a meal celebrating the premiere of documentary filmmaker Alexandra Shiva’s new film, This Is Home: A Refugee Story, Ratatouille was able to draw on some of the trainees’ knowledge to create an authentic Syrian meal. All trainees are paid for their work. And for the record, Ratatouille will consider any woman facing challenges, immigrant or not.
The Building Blocks
While Isaia loves cooking and entertaining, she is the first to admit she is not a professional. To that end, she collaborates with partner and Chef de Cuisine Cathy Brower, who says, “I truly do believe that food is an amazing tool in bringing people from all over the globe and all walks of life together. Everyone has great memories that involve food. The women I have had the great privilege to work with bring these great memories to us and in turn to our clients.”
Food is an amazing tool in bringing people from all over the globe and all walks of life together.
So, does this model work? Ratatouille became profitable after only one year in business. It has trained 30 women from such places as Syria, Haiti, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan. Isaia helps with resumes and job searches, plus hires the women for Ratatouille’s own events. Two women have been employed by the famed Jean-Georges Group.
“I am seeing that it really builds confidence. A lot of these women couldn’t see that they each had a spark, just waiting to come out and shine,” says Isaia of the program. “Now they know they have something substantial to offer and build on.”
And the two partners get a lot back. Bower says, “As much as we are helping empower these women, they inspire me every day with their incredible stories and their courage and incomparable work ethic.”