Chef Chrissy Sanderson found out she was named to USA Today’s “50 States: 50 Female Chefs” list not long after her wife, Leigh Helm, left her position at Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services to work with Sanderson full time.
At first, they didn’t believe Sanderson was named to the list, but she is happy to represent Arkansas. It’s the first time she’s received recognition nationally. Sanderson and Helm established Mockingbird Kitchen at 1466 N. College Ave. in Fayetteville on March 1, 2016. It was named after Helm’s favorite bird, which is also the state bird, and mockingbirds often nest near the restaurant in the southeast corner of Evelyn Hills Shopping Center. The 2,700-square-foot restaurant seats up to 60 people and has 22 employees.
USA Today found Sanderson through social media, and the list was published March 5. In the article, it cited U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data that only 19.7% of restaurant kitchens are run by women, but 47% of the U.S. workforce is female. And, 51% of students enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America are women.
When Sanderson attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., she said the percentage of chefs who were women was between 12% and 15%.
“It’s pretty much a male-driven industry,” Helm said. “Guys are in the kitchen.”
Sanderson completed culinary school in 2002, and she’s been a chef for 14 years. Before establishing Mockingbird Kitchen, she was general manager at Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie in Bentonville for more than two years and chef at Bordinos Restaurant & Wine Bar in Fayetteville for eight years. She also was co-owner of Bordinos for five years.
Sanderson and Helm met more than two decades ago, about the time Sanderson said she started working in the restaurant industry. Sanderson was attending the University of Arkansas while working at restaurants.
She originally pursued a degree in engineering and math, but after taking political science classes, she switched her major and graduated with a political science degree in 1998. But at Bordinos, she discovered her career path during two years spent as a pastry chef, prep cook and bartender before attending culinary school.
Helm also worked at Bordinos in the back office for five years. At J.B. Hunt, she worked in customer service and load planning, and as a dispatcher.
The couple established Mockingbird Kitchen as a means for Sanderson to be creative and as a project they could work on together. The restaurant offers comfort food “with a twist” and purchases most of its ingredients directly from farmers and businesses across the region, such as Crystal Lake Farms, My Brother’s Salsa, Pozza’s Pasta and War Eagle Mill. The restaurant works to make everything in-house, bakes breads from scratch and produces items such as pickles and ketchup.
Sanderson created all the recipes on the menu, including the meatballs, which are a twist on her mother’s recipe. She said her favorite is Ropa Vieja, which is braised beef cooked in tomato, olive, caper and red wine sauce and served over grits with preserved lemons as garnish.