**Since the posting of this story, Liam Doran is no longer with the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute. (11/17/2022)
Ben’s Friends is a national support group for the F&B professionals who struggle with consumption and addiction. Every Monday at 11 a.m., they hold meetings in New Orleans at the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute (NOCHI).
Steve Palmer and Mickey Bakst founded Ben’s Friends to their friend—Ben Murray took his own life in 2016 due to his addiction. All foodservice professionals who have found sobriety, or are seeking sobriety are encouraged to join the meetings each week.
Chef Liam Doran leads the group each week through a discussion about the challenges they’ve faced during their workweek. He himself was once in recovery, now 11 years sober.
Doran has always loved cooking and being in the kitchen, carrying that love with him throughout his 15-year career. A graduate of the Delgado Culinary & Hospitality Management program, Doran started as an apprentice through the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Apprenticeship program. After graduating, he worked at the former Metro Bistro in the Pelham Hotel, and then at Emeril’s as the pastry supervisor. Then, he embarked on his journey to Europe.
“After Emeril’s, I moved to Ireland and became sous-chef at the famous O’Connell’s in Ballsbridge Dublin, Ireland,” said Doran. “The following year I moved to France and found a job as a chef tournant at Hotel Cap D’Ail on the Riviera.”
Upon returning home to New Orleans, Doran went on at Martin’s Wine Cellar and met Chef Shawn Whalen, the Executive Chef at the time. Chef Whalen passed away in 2019 at the age of 43 due to his struggle with alcohol addiction.
“He was such a great guy,” said Doran. “Deeply funny, creative, and very intelligent. Everyone knew Shawn drank at work, no one ever called him out on it.”
Chef Whalen’s death awoke a feeling in Doran. He knew the New Orleans hospitality community needed a safe space addressing the issue of addiction. A special screening of the Anthony Bourdain documentary “Road Runner” exposed him to some groups already formed across the country, but, it was just last year when he came onto his position at NOCHI that Ben’s Friends fell on his radar.
“I let my administrative team know that I was in recovery and that it was important to me to address the cohort about my experiences,” Doran said. “I gathered several sober chefs and we talked to the class about the pitfalls and coping strategies of our industry. At that meeting, I learned about Ben’s Friends.”
Doran started engaging with the group online through Zoom and social media, and connected with co-founder Mickey Bakst. The two chatted about bringing the Ben’s Friends to New Orleans, and, as luck would have it, Bakst was already on his way to The Big Easy to host meetings during Tales of the Cocktail.
“For two days. I meet with him and a great group of sober liquor professionals/bartenders at Tales and the seeds of our new local meeting were planted,” Doran said.
The first meeting gathered 18 F&B professionals under one roof, and Doran says that is a major accomplishment. Along with Chef Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen's Restaurant, and Chef Alex Harrell, the Executive Chef at The Commons Club inside the Virgin Hotel, Doran welcomes hospitality employees to join the meetings. Throughout his career, he has faced challenges with many of his friends and co-workers. With the support of his family, children and friends, Doran has been sober 11 years. The Ben’s Friends meetings at NOCHI “provide a safe space for hospitality professionals to connect and form better coping strategies while moving away from self-destructive behaviors,” Doran said.
To learn more about Ben’s Friends, visit their website and find them on social media. Contact Chef Alex Harrell (email@example.com) for more information on the meetings.
Beignet Festival returned to the City Park Festival Grounds last weekend after a two-year COVID-19 hiatus for plenty of fun, sun and sugary (and savory) beignets. The year 2022 has become a year of “backs,” with plenty of festivals returning back to the public after significant time away. This means our LRA members are also back enjoying the benefits of serving the masses, and being philanthropic in their community. Festival organizers are grateful for the many restaurants and food vendors who signed up to support Autism Awareness.
“Bringing back Beignet Fest has been a labor of love and dedication to our cause,” said Sherwood Collins, Founder and Executive Director of the Beignet Festival Foundation. “While we never stopped working on our mission to support children on the autism spectrum, we’re thrilled to return our marque event with a fun new look, new major sponsors, and of course, tons of great beignets.”
This year, the festival had an official coffee sponsor by PJ’s Coffee. Leslie Munson, the Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Ballard Brands, says supporting the Beignet Festival Foundation was easy to do.
“We are always looking for great ways to feature and integrate our brand and our products into the communities we serve,” said Munson, “outside the four walls of our cafes.”
Since its inception in 1978, the local New Orleans coffee brand has seen rapid growth throughout the region and is now a franchised company. The partnership fit just right since PJ’s Coffee has started serving beignets at their coffee shops.
“Serving as a sponsor of the Beignet Festival is a wonderful opportunity for PJ’s Coffee to serve our delicious hand-crafted and small batch roasted coffee as well as our new line of beignets,” Munson said.
The deep-fried pastries have become an instant hit with PJ’s Coffee franchisees across the southeast region, many seeing strong profit margins in their café’s, along with increased customer loyalty. In support of the Beignet Festival Foundation, Munson says the cause is close to the brand’s heart and philanthropy is a large part of their brand DNA. PJ’s Coffee has always been a proud supporter of the LRA Education Foundation and culinary education.
“Our beignets have quickly become a customer favorite, and, contributing to meaningful purposes and special causes within our community that bring people together is what PJ’s Coffee is all about,” said Munson. “We love the fact that the Beignet Festival benefits the worthy cause of bringing attention to autism awareness and that they in turn support various programs for children with developmental delays.”
PJ’s Coffee served long lines of hungry customers all day with their hot and ice coffee, and fresh beignets in traditional, pumpkin spice and chocolate Bavarian crème filled. Each year the Beignet Festival Foundation makes grants to programs which serve special needs children, Autism Spectrum Disorder being the most common form of developmental delays in children.
Café Beignet returned to the festival grounds this year to bring back their traditional beignets. The locally owned and operated French Quarter café has served authentic New Orleans beignets and café au lait since 1990. It won People’s Choice Award for Best Traditional Beignet in 2017. Hand rolling the dough on-site makes for an extra special touch says Café Beignet Regional Manager Clinton Peralta.
“People like our traditional beignets because they are always served fresh, hot, and cooked to order with a crispy outside and a soft, sweet center,” said Peralta. “No machinery is used and customers will be able to see the process first hand at the festival.”
Serving the community is more than serving them food says Peralta. Café Beignet has been with the Beignet Festival from the beginning because special needs children should have their own time to shine, and one thing they all love is the sweet and sugary beignet.
“As a family-oriented restaurant, we believe in supporting one another both professionally and personally,” Peralta said. “These kids deserve the same encouragement from their community. We’re honored to help them on their journey to success.”
The Delgado Culinary & Hospitality Management Program returned for the cause by serving King Cake style beignets this year. Students of the hospitality program sold out of their beignets right at lunch time, and made them fresh on their campus just blocks away, shuttling them back to please the hungry crowds. The festival gave the students a hands-on experience of foodservice at festivals and how to act quick on their feet.
Former Educator Turned Food Entrepreneur Opens Commissary Kitchen in Central City
You cannot have food without New Orleans, and you cannot have New Orleans without food. It's a given. People entrenched in the city’s neighborhoods are passionate about not only food, but business too. The entrepreneurial spirit in New Orleans is alive 24/7, 365 days a year. It’s part of what makes New Orleans so unique. However, turning an idea into a full-fledged source of income is no easy feat. Education is the key entrepreneurs need to unlock the door to their success.
Sinnidra Taylor knows that feeling, inspiring her to create Codey’s Nola, the first commissary kitchen and co-op of its kind. Codey’s Nola offers the space for local food entrepreneurs to connect and collaborate. They can learn the nitty gritty details of running a food business, like filing for the proper permits, and learning how to obtain safety and sanitation certifications.
“At Codey’s, we are creating a safe space for passion-fueled entrepreneurs to learn and grow,” said Taylor. “We offer classroom and meeting space, opportunities to collaborate and commercial kitchen space.”
Taylor has always been involved in education. She was once a math teacher, special educator and even an IEP Compliance Specialist. She also provided after school, out-of-school and summer programming through Infinity Educational Advantage (IEANOLA).
“Education is dear to my heart,” Taylor said. It was the driving force for her to start Codey’s Nola, inspired by her late cousin, Codey Taylor, who “fell through the cracks of the mental health and juvenile justice systems,” Taylor said. “It often troubles me that he never was able to reach his potential. He was an amazing, fun-loving person and artist. I wanted to honor him.”
Located on Fourth Street in The Hoffman Triangle, the 1,800 square-foot space is under construction due to roofing issues, but that hasn’t stopped Taylor and her team. They are at 50% capacity in a rental space on Eve Street just five minutes from the original location. Codey’s Nola represents a renaissance of the neighborhood which has seen some much-needed improvement over the past few years.
“We have cold/dry storage, ovens and mixers,” Taylor said. “Because we don’t have a hood system yet, we can [only] accommodate a few, but that’s better than being completely closed. We hope to be completely built out by the new year. The focus now is to bring tenants in and continue fundraising. I’m excited to see businesses and bodies in the building. That makes it real for me.”
Taylor threw herself into the food industry on a passion, turning her love of the Hong Kong egg waffle into her fulltime day job with The Crazy Waffle Bar. Now, Codey’s Nola acts as the exclusive pop-up space for Crazy Waffle Bar. The mobile waffle boutique offers special catering for small groups and birthday parties.
When formulating her business plan for Codey’s Nola, she knew she needed the proper support and education for her fellow entrepreneurs, but also for herself. Signing up for a membership with the LRA gave her that network she had been searching for. Taylor wanted her team to have access to the same support system.
“I joined the LRA for myself as a food entrepreneur,” Taylor said. “[The network] is designed to be connected to a larger ecosystem of support. Plus, I wanted to be a good steward to the food entrepreneurs that seek to establish sustainable businesses in the industry. It’s important to be a valuable connector that meets and exceeds industry standards.”
Taylor’s membership has opened her eyes to so many factors of the foodservice business she didn’t know before. Attending the National Restaurant Association trade show helped her see that her goals are completely achievable.
“I really enjoyed seeing and understanding what others are doing around the world,” said Taylor. “Opportunities that were slated for years down that line felt immediately attainable.”
The restaurant and foodservice industries are pivoting more toward technology for better efficiency. Taylor soaked up all the stimuli of the trade show, impacted most by the chance to learn about equipment to better organize the Codey’s Nola kitchen, and help increase her capacity to house entrepreneurs.
“From sliding shelving to wall-mounted organizers, I found pleasure in finding solutions to small problems with big impact,” said Taylor.
Making a positive impact for her community, and in the lives of New Orleans’ food entrepreneurs is top priority for Taylor. The main goal of Codey’s Nola is to support the advancement of culinary arts through a space that “embodies a culture of community, reciprocity and innovation.”
The commissary kitchen is meant to break down road blocks, and open doors to flourishing opportunities. To learn more about donating to the cause, or leasing kitchen space for your business, visit their website .
What happens when nine bartenders from across Louisiana come together? Jiggers are filled, ice is shaken and Jameson cocktails are poured. Then, one is presented with a big $1,000 check and named the winner of the LRA’s first ever Big Easy Bartender’s Bash.
Sponsored by Republic National Distributing Company and Pernod Ricard, the competition asked bartenders to create their very own cocktail using Jameson Irish Whiskey, Jameson Black Barrel, Jameson Cold Brew or Jameson Orange. The judges were looking for creativity, presentation, taste and recipe composition.
The Big Easy was represented by Greg Dase of Commander’s Palace, Latonya Scott of NOLA Art Bar, Taylor Bonds of Loa Bar and Chris Williams of The Bayou Bar. Riley Barber from Palmyre and VP of Libations Ray Ward from Mercy Kitchen came to show their skills from Lafayette. Lee Konopka of Zea Rotisserie & Bar in Covington came to represent the Northshore with an elegant cold brew cocktail, topped with shaved dark chocolate, and Jessica Theriot of Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux in Houma made a sweet & spicy cocktail, aptly named ‘The Spicy Irishman.’ In the end though, it was Avery Blanchard from The Cajun Saucer in Arnaudville who won first prize with his ‘Irish’ I was on Vacation cocktail.
Blanchard’s recipe used both Jameson Irish Whiskey and Jameson Cold Brew, with a mix of passionfruit honey, pineapple juice, lemon juice, orgeat and Bittermans Tiki Bitters. Cajun Saucer is a wood-fired pizza restaurant with a Tiki bar, part of the Bayou Teche Brewery in Arnaudville. Blanchard is known as the top ‘Tiki Cocktologist,’ and his skills shined during the competition. The judges saw that, and tasted it with every sip.
Sitting on the judging panel was Rhiannon Enlil. She has decades of bartending experience working for Erin Rose, and currently is a part of the French Quarter Caribbean inspired establishment Palm & Pine. The restaurant and bar honors food & drink of the South, with menus revolving around agave & cane spirits, New Orleans wines and regional beers.
During her time at Erin Rose, she had the opportunity to travel to Ireland and enroll in the Jameson Irish Whiskey Academy. It was through the program she broadened her knowledge on all thing’s whiskey.
“It truly made me feel like I was on a sunny beach,” Enlil said. “His drink was surprisingly refreshing, well balanced and beautifully presented. Avery is a bartender to watch, as his creativity shined bright in the competition.”
Blanchard came to partake in a good time, but didn’t expect to bring home the big check. When emcee Greg Reggio (Taste Buds Management/Zea’s Rotisserie) called his name as the winner, he was shocked.
“It was insane hearing my name called,” Blanchard said. “I truly didn’t expect it, but I am so honored.”
Chris Williams from The Bayou Bar came in second with his “Full Circle” cocktail. Located inside the historic Pontchartrain Hotel, The Bayou Bar has become his playground for mixing spirits. He says moving to New Orleans brought back his love of Jameson, and it influenced him to use local ingredients.
Originally from Boston, and living in New Orleans via NYC, Williams drew on the love story of his grandparents who met at Tulane in the 1950s. The drink reflected how he has come ‘full circle’ moving back to where his grandparents met and fell in love. Fig & honey syrup from The Cocktail Experiment was blended with El Guapo Bitters lemon cordial and Paradise Park American lager.
All the mixologists displayed great creativity, and passion for what they do. Though many did not know each other, they all clicked quickly. Latonya Scott of NOLA Art Bar even helped out a fellow competitor by sharing a jigger and glass. She enjoyed the company of so many talented mixologists, as did Theriot from Houma.
Theriot works for Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux as the Corporate New Restaurant Opening Bar Captain. She spends 19 days in each new restaurant setting up the bar, staging liquor and training new recruits on signature drink recipes. She is currently on her 16th opening right now, as Walk-On’s expansion continues across the Southern United States—most recently in Wichita, Kansas. She says seeing how other bartenders put together their recipes was eye-opening.
“It was fun to do something different and be able to get creative and make my own recipe,” said Theriot. “And I really enjoyed being able to see how different everyone’s thought process was on what ingredients paired well.”
The Big Easy Bartender’s Bash was produced by the LRA and held in conjunction with the LRA Showcase. Stay tuned to our social media platforms for news of our next competition.
Starting top left: Riley Barber (Palmyre), Ray Ward (Mercy Kitchen) Greg Dase (Commander's Palace) Chris Williams (Bayou Bar), Taylor Bonds (Loa Bar), Jessica Theriot (Walk-On's Sports Bistreaux), Latonya Scott (NOLA Art Bar) and Avery Blanchard (Cajun Saucer). *Not pictured, Lee Konopka (Zea's Rotisserie)
Lake Charles is home to the rich Cajun culture of Louisiana, and now, home to the Queen of Louisiana Seafood. Executive Chef Amanda Cusey of The Villa Harlequin brought her classic French culinary training, and love of Italian cuisine, to the Louisiana Seafood Cook-off (LASCO). She cooked against chefs with varying backgrounds, but it was her simple plate of seared redfish over tomato polenta that earned her the crown.
“I liked being able to meet the other chefs and have the chance to chat with them,” said Chef Cusey. “It was a diverse group of people. It wasn’t all chefs from fine dining restaurants.”
Chef Cusey will represent Louisiana and compete amongst chefs from across the country in the Great American Seafood Cook-off (GASCO), held in conjunction with the LRA Showcase on August 6. Upon returning home from the LASCO event in Lafayette June 7, Chef Cusey was recognized immediately, which is something a bit new to her. LASCO was held in conjunction with Eat Lafayette inside the Cajun Dome. Local restaurants were on-site sampling their best dishes, and with their audience of almost 2,000, plus social media coverage from dozens of outlets, people all over Louisiana now know her name and face, and The Villa Harlequin.
“It’s was a cool experience, but it was different for me, and definitely been getting noticed, and stopped by random people, it’s kind of strange,” said Chef Cusey. “I can see an influx of business which is good.”
The Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board (LSPMB) produces the cook-off every year to highlight the importance of local restaurants using local seafood. According to the state’s Department of Health, Louisiana is one of the nation’s top producers of oysters, crab, shrimp and crawfish. LSPMB reports between 80 and 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported, half of that being farm-raised. Chef Cusey is from Arizona, but she fully understands the tight-knit relationships Lake Charles has with local fishermen. Her source sends over a catch list at the start of each week, and that’s how she chose the redfish for her LASCO dish.
“It’s so important because we’re supporting our local fish markets, and it all comes back around,” Chef Cusey said. “They support us, we support them. When you support them, they’ll go above and beyond for you. I say ‘I want this, can you source it?’ and they’ll do what they can. Within a couple of weeks, I get the call that they’ve got it for me.”
It was her Sous Chef Collin Nunez who came up with the finishing touch of the dish—the Louisiana crawfish mustard crème sauce was concocted by Chef Nunez himself which they use at The Villa Harlequin.
“He’s very talented and super driven,” said Chef Cusey. “We do a couple of different mustards at the restaurant, and one of the mustards we use is a house made beer mustard. He suggested using this confit fat to cook the green beans in. This really added complexity to the beans.”
The dish packs complex and powerful flavors in one bite, while still being true to Louisiana’s Cajun roots. Chef Cusey achieved her goal of showcasing Louisiana on the plate.
“I wanted it to really feel like Louisiana, but elevated,” said Chef Cusey. “You’ve got your soul food in there, and I threw in my Italian spin on it.”
Chef Cusey traveled across the states with her family growing up. Her love of food sent her to travel Europe, and enroll at Tanté Marie Culinary Academy in England. At the time, it was the oldest independent operating culinary school in the UK, since 1954. She then found her way to Ireland, and worked in brew pubs and Irish American diners before migrating down South.
She moved to Lake Charles to be close to her parents, who chose the lush Bayous of Louisiana as their retirement location. In 2016, The Villa Restaurant was in the process of merging with another local favorite, The Harlequin. She applied for the job, and the rest is history. Her home is Lake Charles now, where so many have welcomed her, and her innovative takes on Cajun & French Creole cuisines.
“I use a little more spice now, and love to make good of the local ingredients,” said Chef Cusey of her transition to living in the South. “People have been pretty accepting to my takes on their dishes. The richness of southern food has blended in really well with my cooking style.”
Now, her preparation for GASCO is ramping up so she can bring the same energy to her plate.
“I like to exceed expectations with people, so it sounds like it’s a good dish on paper, but I want them to take that bite and go ‘Whoa, I was not expecting that,’” said Chef Cusey. “And that dish definitely delivers that.”
The LRAEF and The Emeril Lagasse Foundation have been working together for years to support the culinary education of Louisiana’s youth. This year, the LRAEF was among the twelve beneficiaries who received funding from The Emeril Lagasse Foundation. The sizeable grant will help the LRAEF broaden their reach in Louisiana.
“We are so thankful to the Emeril Lagasse Foundation for their ongoing commitment to Louisiana ProStart,” said LRAEF Executive Director Jonathan Baynham. “Because of this grant we will be able to train more teachers, provide more resources to students and expand our apprenticeship program. The impact will be far reaching across the state.”
Community grants, funded in partnership through the foundation’s Grant Program, were allocated based on a focus of life development skills, and shared values which support Louisiana’s youth through culinary, nutrition and arts education.
“We have been very blessed this year with so much generosity from our donors,” said Chef Emeril Lagasse. “I’m humbled to announce these grants and contributions to organizations that align with our mission. Each one is doing good things for our young people and will leave a legacy for the future.”
The Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation (LRAEF) saw big wins this summer with three of its Louisiana ProStart schools. W.D. & Mary Baker Smith Career Center, Washington Career & Technical Education Center and West St. John High School were among the 38 high schools across the country to receive a $5,000 Grown Grant from the Rachael Ray Foundation.
The National Restaurant Association Education Foundation (NRAEF) works in partnership with the Rachael Ray Foundation, and her non-profit organization Yum-o, to bring much needed funds to ProStart programs. The ProStart Educators can use the funds to strengthen their program, offer new equipment for students, and do anything they need to help grow their curriculum.
The three winning Louisiana ProStart Educators are excited about being chosen. LRAEF Program Manager Mistica Maples-Adams said she’s happy to know Louisiana was well represented in the pool of awarded schools.
Chef Lorenzo J. Edwards is head of the Louisiana ProStart program at West St. John High School. Located in Edgard, La., this 8th through 12th grade school has approximately 20 students enrolled in the Louisiana ProStart program. Chef Edwards is St. John the Baptist Parish School District’s High School Teacher of the Year in 2017 & 2020, and is an NRAEF Certified Secondary Foodservice Educator. One of his goals for the grant is to establish its school-based enterprise, a café on campus, fully run by Louisiana ProStart students.
“Our plans for utilizing the funds are to assist us with updating the culinary lab equipment,” said Chef Edwards. “Also, [we plan] to convert a space into a site for our student-ran café. Our program’s goals are to increase the number of students enrolling in the ProStart courses, as well as the number of students completing their Certificate of Achievements (COA).”
Chef Amanda Wildblood at Washington Career & Technical Education Center (WCTEC) has very similar goals in mind, like to increase student engagement with Louisiana ProStart. Since 2005, WCTEC has been offering the ProStart curriculum, in the small, rural community of Washington, La. Students travel from five different high schools in the parish to take advantage of their technical programs. This past year was Chef Wildblood’s first as a ProStart instructor and first at WCTEC, previously spending over a decade in the casino industry as a chef.
Her plans for the Grow Grant funds are to gain more student interest in ProStart, grow the number of students earning their COA’s, improve kitchen equipment and workflow, and to increase community awareness. She hopes bringing a more “professional feel” to the school’s kitchen will boost the confidence of graduates once they enter a restaurant job.
“It is opportunities like this grant that allows these things to happen,” said Chef Wildblood. “During the 2021-22 school year, our ProStart program graduated one student with his NRAEF Certificate of Achievement. This is something we look forward to increasing in the coming years with the help that this grant provides.”
As Chef Wildblood moves into her second year at WCTEC, she is feeling thankful for the opportunities given to her Louisiana ProStart students through the LRAEF, NRAEF and The Rachael Ray Foundation.
“Without opportunities like the Rachael Ray Grow Grant, our program could not afford to progress so quickly on the updating and changes,” Chef Wildblood said. “I am overwhelmed with excitement moving forward knowing just how blessed our program has been to receive [the grant] which allows for experience and education we never thought possible.”
A seafood platter is known for being piled high with the freshest seafood our Mississippi River has to offer. Once you decide which to eat first—fried oyster, shrimp or catfish—and take that crisp, juicy bite, it’s hard to think of anything else, but, have you ever wondered where your dinner was sourced? Instantly, you may think ‘The Mississippi River, right?’ The answer is yes, but the real answer goes much deeper into the muddy water.
Troy Gilbert, the President & Executive Director of Chef’s Brigade, had an idea spark over a cup of coffee one morning. His Chef’s Brigade organization started out of the COVID-19 shutdown, connecting New Orleans city government and restaurants to feed frontline workers and hungry citizens. Since its inception, 3.7 million meals have been served. The meal program is still in-place for future disaster situations like hurricanes and tornadoes.
The oyster shell recycling program, in partnership with The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, is a continuing success in helping rebuild oyster reefs and coastal shorelines. Gilbert wanted to pivot Chef’s Brigade and bridge the gap between New Orleans chefs and the Louisiana coastline. Also a maritime journalist, Gilbert claims to “always have boats on the mind” and then, it clicked.
“I thought that we don’t need to bring just a few chefs out to the coast, we need to bring all of them,” Gilbert said.
Thus, Chef’s on Boats was born. The new program brings professional chefs, restaurant staff and culinary students face-to-face with the seafood source, giving them a real life view of climate change and our eroding coastline. According to the Louisiana Seafood Board, 75% of U.S. commercial sea catches come from estuaries, and 35% of estuary marshes in the U.S. are in Louisiana. These estuaries are where generational fisherman have been making their living for decades, providing seafood to the legendary restaurant scene that is New Orleans. It’s these fisherman who are Louisiana.
“Here in New Orleans, the water is hidden behind these flood walls and levees,” said Gilbert. “The reality is that these oysters are coming from generational fishers. Those stories need to be told.”
According to Gilbert, the program has been successful from the start. Every Tuesday morning a registered group gathers in Empire, Louisiana and hops on a boat, led by Captain Richie Blink. Empire is at the bottom of the boot, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It is the fifth largest seafood port in the United States.
“We knew this was going to be intriguing to the chefs, to literally climb onto an oyster boat while [the fishermen] are drudging,” Gilbert said. “What we didn’t realize was how intrigued these oystermen were going to be about talking to their customers, because they don’t communicate. There is all this stuff going on in the middle.”
The first half of the tour is spent viewing the bountiful, yet, eroding saltwater marshes. Where the Mississippi exits into the Gulf of Mexico, the river’s salinity declines and the Gulf’s begins to pick up. It is prime territory for oyster fishing, and for creating living shorelines to regrow the marsh. Gilbert says it’s a double edged sword.
“We’re able to cross the River, about a mile on the other side, where there is a natural diversion that has happened,” says Gilbert, “and we’re able to show them how quickly the River can heal these marshes. But, the problem with that is it kills the saltwater fisheries.”
The second half of the trip starts the discussion about the future of seafood in New Orleans’ restaurants based on what may be available 20, 30 years down the line. The loss of wetlands on the Mississippi River disrupts the ecosystems, and what is typically harvested in these areas could possibly change.
“We start to discuss what new bounties are available in this marsh,” Gilbert said. “How is the seafood platter in Louisiana potentially going to change and transition in the next 30 or 40 years with the introduction of more of these diversions? Things like frog legs, alligator, duck potatoes?”
It’s a mutual experience for the chefs and the oystermen Gilbert mentions. His goal for the Chef’s on Boats program is to bring attention to Louisiana’s eroding coastline, and how restaurants must practice sustainability. Culinary students and educators are also taught about the perils our state is facing from climate change. Gilbert and Captain Blink have picked out specific sites to give participants a good visual representation of how much land has been lost.
“To put this real life experience into them, it changes people,” Gilbert said. “For the first time it’s really tangible to them.”
Once the crew makes it back to dry land, Gilbert says that’s where the magic begins to happen. Restaurants like Sala NOLA, Riccobono’s Peppermill, Panola Street Café, Maypop, MoPho, Café Degas, Cochon and Gianna have all sent chefs and staff to partake in this free educational experience.
Gilbert loves hearing them throw ideas back and forth on the way home, because it’s all connected—New Orleans restaurants, the seafood industry, culinary arts and wetland conservation. He hopes they begin to set short-term and long-term goals which can bring their restaurant into alignment with helping to rebuild sustainable fisheries—something as simple as signing up to be part of the oyster recycling program.
“They’re talking back and forth, about different resources, things that could be changed,” said Gilbert. “When that chef hops off the boat, we want them to take back [this experience] to their restaurant and put into practice some immediate things that can help the restaurant treat the coast better. The program is making the climate change real. If you’re running a restaurant, you can have an impact.”
The LRA Education Foundation (LRAEF) kicked off its Summer Educator Training at the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute (NOCHI) on June 12. LRAEF Program Manager Mistica Maples-Adams was pleased with the large turnout, and welcomed a handful of returning ProStart Educators who will be re-entering the program this upcoming school year. Six new educators will begin teaching Louisiana ProStart, and participating schools have jumped from 49 to 58. Day 1 featured special programming designed for the new educators, giving them a base line of knowledge prior to the full cohort joining in on Day 2. The new and seasoned educators had industry interactions and training beyond the traditional presentations, offering hands-on culinary and hospitality knowledge.
NOCHI introduced the ProStart Educators to their campus, plus the culinary education tools available to their students upon graduating. Molly Kimball of EatFit NOLA spoke to the educators about plant based foods, and ways to engage their students with healthier eating habits. Day 2 activities continued with a trip to The Commissary, a market, kitchen and bar from Dickie Brennan & Co. This unique property has an onsite kitchen attached to Wetlands Sake, the first ever sake brewery in the state using Louisiana rice to brew their sake. Chef Jeremy Barlow is a ProStart alumnus from Grace King High School and has been employed by Dickie Brennan & Co. for almost 10 years now. Chef Barlow demonstrated the breakdown of a ribeye cut, explaining to the educators about the importance of portioning to help keep food costs stable.
While attending Grace King High School in early 2005, Chef Barlow enrolled in the ProStart program. He says being a part of Louisiana ProStart helped pave the road for a successful culinary career.
“ProStart opened up a lot of doors,” said Chef Barlow. “My first year was year before Hurricane Katrina. Our mentors were Tommy Cvitanovich from Drago’s and Greg Reggio from Zea’s. When we moved back into the city after Hurricane Katrina, Tommy offered us jobs, so basically, I was at school in the morning and Drago’s at night. So, between both of them, they opened up a lot of doors for me.”
The educators received a tour of the kitchen from Chef Lewis Smith, for a sneak peek into the making of duck & andouille gumbo. Chef Lewis demonstrated the de-boning of a duck, explaining no part of the duck goes to waste. He uses the carcass to make stock for the gumbo, served at Dickie Brennan’s Tableau.
The Commissary acts as a prep kitchen for all the restaurants under the Dickie Brennan & Co. group. Here, meats are smoked and cured, fresh bread and pastries are produced daily and the grab-n-go market offers restaurant quality foods to take home. The Commissary team provided a lunch buffet for the educators which featured an abundance of house cured charcuterie, sandwiches, soups and salads.
Day 2 finished on a high note with a six-course tasting menu and wine paring at Restaurant August, part of BRG Hospitality Group. Designed to illustrate, inspire and showcase elevated cuisine, Chef Corey Thomas and Sommelier Erin White narrated the evening’s decadent experience with LRA President & CEO Stan Harris. Sustainably sourced Louisiana seafood and local ingredients, plating, presentation and knife skills were discussed with the educators as each dish was presented. Starting with a yellowtail tiradito, using Louisiana citrus and mirliton, and ending with a key lime semifreddo, the Louisiana ProStart educators thoroughly enjoyed each course with plans to bring their experience back to their students.
“The summer training is an integral part of our continuing education experience as teachers in this ever-changing industry,” said Amiee Summerlin, teacher at Eunice Career & Technical Education Center. “Being able to network with other teachers and industry members allows us to stay in sync with trends in the restaurant industry. We are also able to make connections for our students interested in staking out a career. My favorite part was meeting teachers from various parts of the state and being able to discuss successful ways that they are reaching their students so that I can adapt and do the same. I look forward to summer training each year and this was by far one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The nutrition portion was very informative and I can’t wait to begin to introduce the EatFit program into my curriculum.”
Stephanie White of Plaquemines Senior High School (above) feels very fortunate to have the LRAEF supporting her Louisiana ProStart program. The LRA member network gave memorable dining experiences and education presentations she will remember for years to come, and she plans on passing all the knowledge along to her students.
"The Ochsner EatFit Nola was so informative and I plan to bring a lot of what I learned about alternative foods back to the students, and introduce them to some really interesting food that can still taste awesome," said White. "The dining experience provided for us served some of the best dishes I've tasted."
There is nothing truer in Louisiana than the idea of connecting over food, and restaurants are the places where we find those connections, old and new. The LRA is excited to kick-off summer and bring back Restaurant Week New Orleans for the 12th year, continuing the celebration of the hospitality industry. The hard work, passion and dedication shown by chefs, and every service industry role in-between, especially through this pandemic, is why people from across the globe come to New Orleans for Southern hospitality and world-class cuisine.
The LRA’s mission is to preserve our restaurants, to give world-renowned chefs a sanctuary where they can create, and share their passion for food with the community. New Orleans is home to the best Chefs in the industry, and their businesses are the backbone of the local economy. They play a large role in the preservation of New Orleans and their menus pay homage to where it all began—the Mississippi River. Meet three Chefs whose passion for New Orleans lie center of plate.
Chef Frank Brigtsen
Chef Frank Brigtsen of Brigtsen’s Restaurant has been a member of the LRA for over 30 years, and was the inducted by the board into the LRA Hall of Fame in 2012. His strong commitment to the New Orleans restaurant industry and food culture comes from his mentor Chef Paul Prudhomme.
Chef Paul Prudhomme, the Opelousas native became the first American chef at Commander’s Palace in 1975, after Ella Brennan hired him to take over the restaurant she and her siblings had just purchased. In 1983, the LRA named Chef Prudhomme Restaurateur of the Year. It was at Commander’s Palace that Chef Prudhomme hired Chef Brigtsen and gave him his first real restaurant job.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Chef Brigtsen said. “To be a Chef in America’s greatest food city, and contribute to its evolving culture, has been a distinct privilege. I am deeply grateful.”
This year, Chef Brigtsen’s Restaurant Week menu goes vegetarian. The 4-course menu has similar flavor profiles of Louisiana’s Creole and Cajun dishes, but takes a different approach by giving diners vegetarian and gluten free options. You’ll find a classic stuffed mirliton, but instead, stuffed with hearty roasted cauliflower and eggplant.
Chef John Folse
You may know him for his cooking show “Taste of Louisiana” that aired on PBS in the 90s, or you know him for his hit restaurant Laffite’s Landing in Donaldsonville. Chef John Folse is internationally known as the keeper of authentic Louisiana Creole & Cajun cuisines and cultures. Chefs in today’s top restaurants most likely studied culinary arts at Chef John Folse’s Culinary Institute in Thibodaux, at Nicholls State University.
The St. James Parish native has a love for Louisiana rooted like a Cypress tree. He has been awarded numerous accolades from publications across the globe. In the late eighties, Chef Folse was responsible for introducing Louisiana’s indigenous cuisine to Japan, Beijing, Hong Kong and Paris. His high-end eatery Restaurant R’evolution quickly became the premier fine dinging establishment in New Orleans since opening in 2012. Collaborating with Chef Rick Tramanto, the pair the chefs have created a place where Creole & Cajun cuisines collide to tell the story of the all nations which influenced our city’s culinary history.
Chef de Cuisine at Restaurant R’evolution, inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel, is Chef Samuel Peery. His Restaurant Week menu offers a broad selection of what makes Restaurant R'evolution unique, giving diners plenty of options to be immersed in modern, imaginative reinterpretations of classic Cajun & Creole cuisines.
“We’ve included some of the refined interpretations of Louisiana classics that we’re known for, such as our Louisiana Turtle Soup and our Wild Boar Tagliatelle and also added some new items we’re really excited about, like our Gulf Shrimp Gazpacho appetizer and our Gulf Fish entrée with Louisiana corn, chicory greens, shishito pepper and Choupique butter.”
The short rib boudin, which is not typically served at Restaurant R'evolution, is a unique appetizer created out of pure spark. Chef Peery and his team reimagined the traditional Cajun sausage stuffed with a mixture of pork and rice when they had a family dine-in who did not eat pork. It is a great starter to any of the entrees being offered for Restaurant Week.
“This inspired us to create a pork-free boudin using beef short rib, chicken, rice and a wonderful blend of spices that honor classic Louisiana boudin flavors while adding a special Restaurant R’evolution flair,” said Chef Peery. “It’s definitely a new favorite dish and one that I encourage everyone to try.”
Find your “cure for the summer heat,” as Chef Peery puts it, with their Gulf Shrimp Gazpacho. “The Sun Gold tomatoes give the Gazpacho a wonderful rich hue and it’s finished with a sherry vinegar that we’ve been barrel aging in the restaurant for two years.”
Finish your dinner with the choice of a Southern Peach Semifreddo or Ice Cream Stuffed Éclair. Chef Peery loves both options, but encourages diners to try the new Southern Peach Semifreddo dessert.
“I equate this to a traditional drunken rum cake but with the added flavors of peach, sweet tea and raspberry,” said Chef Peery. “It’s the perfect summer indulgence.”
Chef Brian Landry
Chef Brian Landry of Jack Rose Restaurant, inside the historic Pontchartrain Hotel, is excited for the week of celebration when restaurants are showcasing everything that is uniquely special to their restaurant. The New Orleans native grew up fishing with his family, and has a passion for seafood and Creole cuisine as deep as the Mississippi River.
“It is such a part of our culture,” said Chef Landry. “Creole cuisine is a phenomenal regional cuisine that pulls from the best of cultures. We have over 1,400 restaurants in our city, who all contribute to that cuisine, so it is ever evolving. We’re always celebrating in New Orleans, always wondering where that next meal is going to be and it's just part of the fabric of the city.”
Jack Rose’s 3-course Restaurant Week dinner starts with roasted tomatoes and pistou, and finishes with a summer pavlova packed with fresh berries, both to compliment a petit fillet entrée topped with fresh Louisiana crabmeat. For six years, that passion served the New Orleans community at the historic Galatoire's Restaurant where he was Executive Chef from 2005-2011. He opened Borgne in 2012, and after making a name for himself there, he started a relationship with QED Hospitality, which houses Jack Rose.
“There is nowhere else but New Orleans to experience the fusion of Cajun and Creole cuisine,” Chef Landry says, “and Restaurant Week is the time to experience it all.”
The Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) was established in 1946 to advocate on behalf of the state’s foodservice and hospitality industries.