Alumni Spotlight: Riza (Parsons) Brown

June 14, 2012

I AM UAA Riza Parsons BrownA.A. Culinary Arts ’10
B.A. Journalism and Public Communications ’12
Hometown: Anchorage, Alaska
Fun Fact: Has a penchant for forming clubs

We’ve all heard of students who change majors midway through their college careers. The two ends of that spectrum, we could argue then, are students who never finish (zero degree) and those who double major (two degrees simultaneously). Riza Parsons took a slightly different approach. After about two years of pursuing a degree in journalism part time, she simply took a hiatus to follow a different passion that still led to two degrees but also to a more meaningful career as a writer.

Culinary arts, Riza’s impulse at a time she was feeling burnt out in journalism, effectively led to her current multi-faceted livelihood as a caterer, a business owner and a food writer.

“I knew I liked to write,” she says, “but I didn’t really have a focus in my writing. Once I completed my associate degree in culinary arts, though, I realized I could easily pair it with food writing. I was mostly done with my journalism degree anyway, so I just decided to finish that up, too.”

And if you think pursuing two degrees is ambitious, what about getting married, starting a business and remodeling a house all in the same year? The girl is unstoppable. Though her achievements aren’t too surprising when you consider her advice on how to be successful in pursuing your dreams.

“It’s very important to have a clear goal in mind and to talk about it and to visualize it and let everybody else know around you what you want,” Riza says. “I would get up in every journalism class and say I wanted to be a food writer. And one day I happened to be in a reporting class sitting next to the then-editor of the Anchorage Daily News’s ‘Play’ magazine. He heard me say that and asked if I wanted to write for his Cheap Eats section.”

Riza’s catering company, Riza+Rachel Catering, was formed in partnership with Rachel Hubbard in January 2011. The two met while working at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Anchorage and both women had solid histories in the food and restaurant industry. Riza herself had upwards of 15 years experience running the gamut from hostessing, bussing and waiting tables to cooking and bartending. In 2010, while catering as a gift for a personal friend’s wedding at the Taproot, the owner noticed her talent and suggested she go into business for herself. That seed of an idea took root and it wasn’t much longer until she sprung into action.

“It wasn’t actually very much time between thinking about it and executing it, because I think if I gave myself too much time I would have freaked myself out,” she laughs. “But the more I thought about it the more it just felt right. After that it was actually fairly easy [to get the business going]; it just felt like running errands with a checklist–get a business license, find a kitchen, buy a van–once I broke it up into doable chunks.”

What she says she loves most about being in the catering biz is the people: “That’s what makes me happiest–bringing people together over food.”

Still bartending and food writing for local media (61° North, Anchorage Daily News and F Magazine, to name a few) on the side, Riza also has a penchant for starting clubs. Her Scrabble Club met once a week for over five years; her Supper Club makes for an easy excuse to get together with friends for potlucks; and she recently started a club called SPARK, which is a network of young entrepreneurs like herself.

And although she sticks to as many local and seasonal ingredients as possible in her catering, Riza also has a passion for other cultures and the global food scene. Her bio on her company’s website lists her as having “dashes of France, Sweden, Italy, Thailand, the Philippines, Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Spain.”

“Those are all places I’ve been to just traveling in general,” Riza explains, “but I think it’s one of the main reasons why I started a catering company, because eventually, in the winter, I want to be able to travel and bring back different recipes, different ingredients and different cultures. That’s my goal.” And the write-off is certainly an incentive, she adds.

Riza is originally from the Philippines and she came to the States after being adopted by her Filipino aunt and American uncle who wanted to help provide her with more life opportunities than is usually afforded a child in the Philippines. They moved with the Air Force from the Philippines to Alaska when Riza was 4 years old, then to Baltimore, Maryland, for a few years, and back to Alaska when Riza was 8. Every two years while she was growing up she’d travel back to the Philippines to visit her biological mother (who has since moved to Anchorage herself) and at 19, after graduating from Bartlett High School, Riza moved to San Diego, California, where she tried to focus on journalism at a local community college.

“One of the reasons I came back is that I just could not do any school in San Diego,” she says. “It was impossible, there were beaches and parties, so I wasn’t super focused on getting done with school. When I came back, I really wanted to buckle down and get my degree finished.” (She had also met her now-husband, Jeff, in Alaska during a winter vacation, which ultimately prompted the move home.)

Riza is looking forward to this fall when she gets to come back to UAA’s Culinary Arts Department to be a part of their annual Celebrity Chef Invitational. She will lead a team of students in creating a portion of the menu as the event celebrates its 20th anniversary. She is also excited about the possibility of maybe providing internship opportunities for culinary arts students at her catering company in the future.

“I’ve also realized after starting my business that I need to get a better grip on my financials and bookkeeping, so I’m looking at maybe coming back to UAA to get my business degree–when my husband lets me,” she laughs. Apparently her spouse thinks she needs to take a little break from the full load of going to school and running a business. Understood. But we say: more power to you, Riza! Cheers to your spirit and success.

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