When most high school seniors are all anxious about college admissions and junior prom, Marathon High School senior Isabelle Thompson is already in the midst of her freshman year of college.
Thompson is one of a handful of Fast Access students at Johnson & Wales University in North Miami.
“I miss high school, but I know that I’m working to open more doors for kids in Marathon,” said the bubbly, 4-foot-10-inch 18-year-old.
With her sights on the course for a liberal arts degree with an interest in photography, it was with the extra push from Chef Anthony Green, head of the Culinary Arts Program at MHS, that she began her pursuit of a Bachelor in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management degree.
For the past three years, she worked her way through the ranks at Boondocks Grille and Draft House on Ramrod Key as a hostess, food runner and server.
Her previous restaurant experience has already proven beneficial in her post-secondary studies.
On the first day of a dining room etiquette course, Isabelle was the only student who could properly carry a tray full of food.
Green recalled when Isabelle told him her one goal in life was to be a pastry chef.
“I put her in charge of every dessert recipe on our menu,” he explained. “The first time I made her cry was when she added too much baking soda, and we had to throw away 200 chocolate chip cookies.”
As a timid teenager from the sleepy Florida Keys, Isabelle admitted that she was quite intimidated when she began classes last fall.
“Everyone was so much bigger than me!” she laughed, admitting that she couldn’t have made it in the first months without another of Chef Green’s alumnus, JWU junior Paawee Sechua.
Still sporting the bandages on her middle left finger, Isabelle recounted how a distracted comment from one of her classmates sent her straight to the emergency room for stitches.
“The chef actually kicked me out of the class to go to the hospital,” she remembered. “I didn’t want to leave. He pulled me aside and told me later that he thought I would be one of those students that would get weeded out of the class.”
After a quick pep talk from her mother and intense studying for the exam, Isabelle still landed a B in the course.
Isabelle is the daughter of Rev. Deborah and Kirk Maconaughey of Saddlebunch Keys. Though her mother is passionate about her liturgical duties and an active member of the Marathon community, Isabelle admitted it was because of her mother’s lack of skills in the kitchen that she eventually developed her love of all things culinary.
“My mom is good at a lot of things, but cooking is not one of them,” she giggled, adding that she and her sister taught themselves to cook by taking cues from their grandmothers’ kitchens.
Since moving to campus last year and jumping head first into her studies, Isabelle has also served on the Special Functions Team that caters to premier functions and events in the Miami area.
During an event at the Adrienne Arsht Center, Isabelle and her classmates worked hands on with the likes of Chefs Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert and Jacques Pepin.
“None of us could even speak when they came in,” she remembered.
Isabelle will also employ her skills at the upcoming Taste of the NFL, a premier food and wine tasting extravaganza held annually on the eve of the Super Bowl in the host city. Super Bowl XLIV marks the 19th anniversary of this annual benefit to raise awareness and dollars for hunger relief organizations in America. Featuring a top chef from each of the 31 NFL cities paired with an alumnus or current player from each team, Taste of the NFL has raised more than $9 million to help tackle hunger.
Her participation at the events not only affords her the opportunities to work alongside world-renowned chefs, most of the special functions appropriately serve as networking opportunities, which Isabelle admits is one of her least favorite things to do.
Johnson & Wales Culinary program requires their students to be dressed for the workplace at all times. If she’s heading to a class to learn Grilling, Roasting and Frying, she must wear her chef’s jacket, pants, shoes, hat, tie and most importantly, her nametag.
“We even get sock checks!” she laughed. “If you show up to your academic classes in flip flops, they’ll basically tell you to leave the classroom.”
When she’s heading to her management classes, she must always be dressed in professional attire.
“Most of my classes start at 7:30 in the morning, so of course I wish I could just roll out of bed and run to class in my pajamas,” she lamented.
Prospective employers are always on campus, so though she admits the dress requirements are intense, she’s quickly become accustomed to them.
Of her future plans, Isabelle reported that Johnson & Wales is partnered with Disney Cruise Lines, and she hopes to see the world while preparing culinary delights aboard a cruise ship.
“I’d really like to study abroad in Italy,” she said excitedly.
Green said on one of her weekend trips home, Isabelle dropped by his classroom to say hello.
“She stopped by in her Johnson & Wales chef uniform, and it nearly brought a tear to my eye,” he remembered. “In a year and a half, I saw two completely different people. She really found her voice and grew more confident in the kitchen. I miss her because I could really use her now as a role model for some of the other students coming up in the program.”
Isabelle Thompson recently returned to her mother’s congregation at St. Columba Episcopal in Marathon to help prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for Middle Keys residents.
Isabelle Thompson is in the midst of her freshman year studies at Johnson & Wales University, but she still has yet to graduate from Marathon High School in June.