Ask any of the chef participants in this year’s Roots Festival in Northwest Arkansas who helped them through the event and they are likely to point to Aria Kagan. She’s a chef/instructor at Brightwater, a Center for the Study of Food, part of Northwest Arkansas Community College, and has only been there a few months—but already proving herself in a variety of ways. Not to mention having already proved herself before joining the school as a finalist on the Next Food Network Star, Season 6.
The Path To A Dream Is Never A Straight Line
Her path to Arkansas has not been exactly straight. Raised in Wisconsin, she says her father was an artist who specialized in Raku pottery. “I grew up at a potter’s wheel,” she says. “Dad would throw a lump of clay on the wheel. At five-years-old I was making things, and he would fire my pieces for me.”
The idea of creating something from a lump of clay eventually transferred itself into food, and her family opened a farm-to-table restaurant, as she says “next door to the place that was doing fried fish!” At age 10, she was washing dishes and says, “I never wanted to run a restaurant because I saw the amount of work it took.”
And then, at age 17, her mother took her to the Dane County Farmers Market, an early example of uniting urban and rural culture. “I saw food in a different way,” says Kagan. “It became three dimensional, not just cooking.”
From there, her story becomes even more passionate as she explains how she got hooked. “There is something really romantic about food. It’s a connection to the farmers, where the food came from,” she says.
“I was enrolled in business and Spanish classes and thought I’d wear lipstick and high heels and write on chalkboards,” she recalls, with a laugh. “But once I fell in love with ingredients, food came before anything else. I have incredible admiration for farmers, and see something very beautiful about where food comes from.”
And So It Begins…
Her mission became to learn more about food and nutrition, instead of simply food and cooking. She attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, where she says, “You learn all the techniques, but I was also learning about what food does to your body.”
She taught at Le Cordon Bleu in Florida, where she first met Dr. Glenn Mack, Executive Director of Brightwater, and it wasn’t long before she was on her way to Arkansas.
She’s now a Certified Health Coach, in addition to her work at Brightwater, and enjoys cooking for people who have been diagnosed with a medical issue and need to develop healthy food habits. “I say, ‘Let’s talk about what you’re eating. Sometimes a small change can make a big difference in your health.’”
The Beauty In The World Of Food
She adds, “When you start with good ingredients, you don’t have to do much to them. There is such beauty in unadulterated food.” That’s why she’s an advocate for students learning about food the way they do at Brightwater. “Chefs today have such an important role in the health and wellness of our society,” she says. “Our job is to be a part of the wellness of our community.”
Kagan continues, saying, “Brightwater has given me this opportunity to work with the community, teach classes about health and wellness, help the culinary world see health and wellness in a new way. We are training students who can go into the world and care for our society
This is part of The Food Channel‘s On Location series at The Fayetteville Roots Festival. For other stories in the series, click here. You’ll find links at the end of that article that go live as new articles and videos are posted.
Photos by Paul K. Logsdon.