The food scene in Northwest Arkansas has exploded beyond belief over the past five years. There was a time not that long ago where a good meal from a local restaurant was hard to find.
Thankfully before all the huge restaurant investments or the award winning chefs that settled in from the coasts there was a core group of chefs that laid the groundwork for the modern food movement in the area. You do not have to ask too many times before you hear the name Chrissy Sanderson of Mockingbird Kitchen come up in those conversations.
Sanderson grew up mostly in Fort Smith made her way to the Fayetteville food scene in the late 90’s while working on her undergraduate degree at the University of Arkansas working at Bordinos and Jose’s under Joe Fennel. Her early time there working as front of house and a bartender sparked a quick interest in culinary.
After she graduated she decided to take that interest to the Culinary Institute of America where she graduated in 2002. She knew immediately that she wanted to return to Northwest Arkansas, and contacted Fennel about a job. Thankfully there was an opening for an executive chef position at Bordinos.
“After coming back Joe decided he wanted to build a new Bordinos and asked me if I wanted to be a part of that,” Sanderson says. “I jumped at the chance, it was a place I respected a lot. We got to build a new Bordinos and I ended up being there for eight years including five as part owner.”
Sanderson eventually decided to part ways with Bordinos after the economic downturn. “It just didn’t make sense in that economic climate for a restaurant to have two owners, so I decided to let him buy me out for the best interest of the restaurant.” Sanderson continues. “I think of myself as a teacher and a coach before I think of myself as a chef. People come to work for me and I try to inspire them to continue to grow in their craft. Sometimes it ultimately means leaving, because there is only so much you can learn in one specific environment. When they are willing to do that I consider it a huge success.”
Her time at Bordinos would ultimately set the tone for the rest of her career, one that involved teaching as much as cooking.
“I have to give credit to Joe Fennel, he had a desire to teach people how to do different things in the restaurant as long as they wanted to learn,” Sanderson says.
Her inspiration for teaching and encouraging people to hone their craft has a dramatic impact on many of the chefs we know who have worked with her. Phillip Schaaf worked under her at Bordinos before moving on to become a sous chef at South on Main in Little Rock, and now is a sous chef at Pressroom in Bentonville.
“Chef Chrissy had a huge influence on my career as well as the food scene here in NWA. I started working for Chrissy at a time where I had decided to get serious about cooking, and her temperament and kitchen culture had a profound affect on me,” Schaaf says. “She had the patience to teach me fundamental skills and gave me the chance to be creative and offered guidance through the process.”
After leaving Bordinos Sanderson worked in a number of corporate positions and taught at Northwest Arkansas Community College (NWACC), and eventually accepted a general manager position at Tusk and Trotter in Bentonville.
“At Tusk and Trotter I knew immediately that was environment I wanted to be in, a small independent restaurant,” Sanderson says. “It just automatically clicked. Every since then we have been looking for a spot to open up our own place.”
Eventually a spot would open up in the Evelyn Hills Shopping Center at 1466 N. College in Fayetteville, and in March last year she was able to open Mockingbird Kitchen.
It was a space previously occupied by Cardamom and Curry, which allowed them to move in with relatively minor changes needed. The general layout and kitchen space was already good for their initial needs.
That freedom to focus less on building a space and more on the food gave Sanderson a level of creativity that has made Mockingbird Kitchen an instant success.
“Having my own space me the opportunity to be as creative as I want. Never in my career have I had a chance at a place that was all mine,” Sanderson says. “If I want to put something on the menu, I put it on the menu. If customers don’t like it I have the ability to quickly pull it back off. It is the fun in running a place like this. If it is the right season and we get a ton of apples, I can quickly come up with a few dishes that utilize the produce available, and I don’t have to do anything other than make a great dish.”
Sanderson has succeeded where many chefs turned owners have failed thanks to her diverse background and her time under Joe Fennel. She quickly credits the system Fennel has in place and his willingness to teach. Her time working all positions within the restaurant has been a major part of her success as well.
In her nearly 20 years as a part of the food scene, Sanderson has earned her place among some of the pioneers of the modern restaurant movement. She is still quicker to give credit to the others who are part of this group than to take it for herself.
“In the last 15 years there are a lot of people who have been intricate to the emerging food scene. Bill Lye, Joe Fennel, Rob Nelson, and Miles James. It has just grown around this very stable group of chefs,” Sanderson says.
One thing is for certain, Sanderson and the others who have worked their careers to build the Northwest food scene have made it into one of the best in the country. Thanks to the dedication to teaching and growing the community, that will not change for a long time.