Chef Hampton Isom leads a full life, jetting around the country as a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines and delighting Des Moines, Washington, with his wonderful Creole cooking. But he still laments the time NBA legend Larry Johnson posterized him. In the late ’80s, after graduating from Troy State in Alabama, the 7-foot-tall Isom spent some time as a professional basketball player in leagues across Italy, Turkey, and Australia. He was even supposed to try out for the Atlanta Hawks at one point, but a hairline ankle fracture set back his NBA plans. Later, at a three-on-three Pro-Am league in Dallas, Isom went up against some famous names, including Hornets great Johnson — and he was humbled. “I was trying to do some weak side help, and he dunked on me,” Isom recalls, laughing. “Got a little excited, met him at the rim, and just got jammed.”
Isom has had a winding journey from the courts to the kitchen, spending time working as a bouncer and co-owning a nightclub in Dallas. He landed in the Seattle area seven years ago to work for Alaska Airlines and eventually started up a food truck called Dat Creole Soul, focused on cuisine from his hometown of New Orleans. But his dream has always been to open a restaurant — and it has finally come to fruition. In late March, Isom debuted the first fixed location of Dat Creole Soul in Des Moines, an offshoot of the three-year-old mobile operation, and is serving up generous helpings of fried catfish, gumbo, and jalapeño hush puppies, while bringing warmth to the community.
Many of the dishes Isom serves were hard to come by when he first moved to the region, taking work as a cargo handler for Alaska Airlines. “I didn’t care for the food at all,” he admits. “I was just so used to that flavor.” But he soon set about re-creating dishes influenced by his grandmother and mother, cooking elaborate potlucks for the entire warehouse every Sunday. He launched the food truck in 2018, making the rounds at local wineries and breweries as well as the parking lot of the Des Moines Lowe’s.
Even with a food business starting to take off, Isom never quit his day job — he just upgraded. Tired of parking big cargo freighters in the rain, he became a customer service agent; later, with the help of a colleague, he applied to be a flight attendant and got the job on his first try, something that surprised him. “I’ve met people, they try like 12 and 13 times before getting to be a flight attendant,” he says. “I know if it was me sitting behind the desk and I walked in at 7 feet tall to talk about being a flight attendant, I would have been like, ‘You got to get out on that ramp and throw some bags.’”
Traveling around the country — even during a pandemic — does have its benefits when starting a restaurant. The chef says he’s able to get ingredients from Louisiana and fly them up to Seattle as a registered shipper. Thus, diners can find fried alligator on a stick on the menu and know that Isom hand-selected the bread for the po’boys. He says he goes through 15 pounds of catfish each day, and now that he has a full kitchen in addition to the truck, he’s started making beignets, which require time to get right — Isom has some help thanks to fiancée and Dat Creole Soul co-owner Christine Huestis, as well as worker Anjelica Carrasco, but both the restaurant and food truck are small operations.
“A lot of people here love that Creole and Cajun cooking, they just can’t get to it ... the best food in your mouth is from the South,” the chef says. “When people keep tasting what I have in the brick-and-mortar, they’ll figure it out.”
Commercial success and culinary education for the Seattle area aren’t the only things on Isom’s mind. He experienced poverty growing up in the New Orleans projects, living on food stamps, and he wants to help Seattle residents who currently face similar hardship, particularly those experiencing housing insecurity. He remembers a time years ago when he was at a 7-Eleven and encountered two men outside looking for food in a dumpster who asked him for something warm to drink. Ever since then, he says, he regularly opens a $100 tab at a local convenience store, just in case someone comes in and needs sustenance but doesn’t have money.
Charity is a major part of Isom’s life, overall. Around the same time that he launched the food truck in 2018, he started a related nonprofit called Dat Creole Soul Lagniappe (the last word roughly translates to “a little something extra”). The organization is very small, but he registered as an official 501(c)(3) to generate more donations and offer transparency regarding where the donations go. He used to donate meals to local shelters, including one in Kent, but the pandemic made such efforts more challenging. Now he simply puts up fliers around bus stations near Pacific Highway and serves about 25 free meals a week.
Isom is planning a mid-April event with help from one of his Alaska Airlines coworkers to give away bags of essential supplies (such as toiletries) as well as food to those in need. He says his ultimate goal would be to get enough funding to start a larger community kitchen so he can serve hundreds of meals a week and provide more comprehensive services to low-income folks.
Even as the restaurant ramps up, the food truck is still going strong, showing up most recently in the parking lot of a Des Moines cancer center. And a few weeks from now, the skies will be calling: After a leave of absence, Isom will take off once again as a flight attendant in July.
With so much juggling, there’s little time for the chef to reflect on everything he’s accomplished and overcome. But he does take a breath on occasion, watches hoops (the Spurs are his favorite NBA team), laughs easily, and remembers some of those old times dunking on others and getting dunked on himself. In the meantime, he’s always looking to feed people, no matter where they are.
“I got flight attendant training coming up, and they don’t feed anybody,” he says. “So I told the people that will be in my class, ‘You don’t have to worry. I got everybody covered.’ Everybody else was like, ‘I should be in your class.’”
Dat Creole Soul is currently open for takeout and limited dine-in service at 22341 Marine View Drive S, Des Moines, Washington; restaurant hours are Thursday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.