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Why New Orleans Needs to Protect Its Culinary Culture

Matthew Zuras

Concerned that New Orleans natives aren't getting their fair shake in the city's restaurant industry, chef John Besh has established a scholarship program to help them kick-start their culinary careers and preserve New Orleans' food culture.

Mere minutes after I sit down with him, chef John Besh interrupts our lunch to get up and pose for a selfie with a nearby diner. Standing with him and chef Aarón Sánchez, the star-struck woman is suddenly in tears. Besh beams and drapes a reassuring arm around her as she snaps a photo.

Such is the magnetism and magnanimity of New Orleans' lauded chef and restaurateur.

It's the day before Besh kicks off Fêtes des Chefs, a series of fundraising dinners held in private homes across the city by an all-star lineup of chefs. I've joined him at Johnny Sánchez, his Mexican restaurant in New Orleans' Warehouse District, to talk about the charitable foundation that those dinners will benefit.

Yet between smiles and selfies and sips of margaritas, Besh admits that he's concerned by the state of New Orleans' vibrant and multifarious food culture, which he believes is under threat by a recent influx of what he calls "well-educated suburbanites" who have come to cook New Orleans food in New Orleans. Even more distressing is the fact that born-and-bred New Orleanians are being left out of the equation.

"I think we won't sustain the culture if we don't all participate in it," Besh says. "And we're going to start to whitewash this culture if we're not careful." He tells me that when he looked through the ranks of his own kitchens, he realized that his staff was predominantly white.

That's why in 2011 he and New Orleans native Jessica Bride Mayor established The John Besh Foundation. The organization has two wings: Milk Money, which provides microloans to local farmers and food producers; and Chefs Move!, a scholarship and mentorship program for minority residents of New Orleans who are interested in a culinary career.

"This culture comes from well over 300 years of people coming here, assimilating into the proverbial gumbo pot," he says. "We need that cultural representation of everybody. We need to allow it to continue to evolve."

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Chef John Besh. Photo by Rush Jagoe.

As an outsider in this city, it's hard for me to blame those "well-educated suburbanites" for wanting to come to The Big Easy. After all, the city's already entrenched restaurant industry continues to boom, and as the home of Tales of the Cocktail, it's become a critical locus of the global craft-cocktail movement. Tom Fitzmorris, a New Orleans restaurant expert who hosts a daily radio show about the local food scene, estimates that the city is now home to 70 percent more restaurants than before Hurricane Katrina, even though the city's population has decreased.

But therein lies part of the problem. The demographics of the city also changed drastically after the disastrous storm of 2005, when many of the city's minority residents fled or were forced out of their flooded homes and never came back. In 2000, Orleans parish was home to roughly 323,000 African Americans; in 2006, that figure dropped to just over 125,000, according to US Census Bureau data. That number has steadily increased, but it still hasn't attained pre-Katrina levels.

The white population also dropped after the storm, but not as quite as strikingly. As of 2014, the city had 9,000 fewer whites than it did in 2000.

That imbalance has shifted the city's racial makeup. According to The Data Center, an independent research organization based in southeast Louisiana, the share of whites in New Orleans increased from 26.6 percent in 2000 to 31.2 percent in 2014.

Concurrent with this demographic shift is an undeniable wave of gentrification and a reinvigorated tourism industry that capitalizes on New Orleans' idiosyncratic culture.

"Amid this so-called rebirth of New Orleans, artists and young urban redevelopment professionals have flooded into New Orleans to defend, and partake in, the 'city authentic,'" wrote historian Megan French-Marcelin for Jacobin in August, adding that the city is now glutted with "swanky restaurants, [an] expanding film industry, and yoga studios."

Perhaps there's an argument to be made for people who want to participate in a culture that wasn't theirs to begin with, as opposed to simply dismantling it wholesale and turning the city into a never-ending strip of national chains. And Besh is adamant that Katrina also provided a clean slate of sorts—an opportunity for the city to embrace new cuisines while maintaining its own culinary culture. "It was like the Wild West. We just made our own rules, and if you didn't, you went out of business," Besh says. "You had to act like a pirate just to survive."

But for Besh, the people who were born and raised in New Orleans are the keepers of its heritage, and that heritage becomes threatened when the city's own residents are prevented from getting a leg up in the restaurant industry.

"We have Leah Chase, but why do we not have more and more Leah Chases following behind?" he asks. "Education has historically been the key—$65,000 a year for that education? It's not easy to justify when you come out and you're making damn near minimum wage while you're working your way up."

That kind of money for a culinary school education is even harder to comprehend in a city that was ranked as the second-worst in the US for income equality, according to a 2014 Bloomberg report.

That disparity falls along racial lines, too. A 2015 report by The Urban League of New Orleans found that the median income for African Americans in the city was around $25,000 in 2013, not much higher than it was in 2005. Meanwhile, the median income for whites was just over $60,000 in 2013, compared to $49,000 in 2005.

The bottom line? The city is undoubtedly rebounding from Katrina, but only part of it. How are its low-income residents supposed to claim their place in the restaurant industry when the barrier to entry is so high?

That's why Chefs Move! is critical for Besh. "I think it's a sin if we we don't allow those people—because of money and education, who have the potential—to achieve their own dreams and take this as far as they wish to take it."

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Chefs Move! scholarship recipient Calvin Virgil with his salted caramel king cake. Photo by the author.

Calvin Virgil, a 2012 recipient of the Chefs Move! scholarship, is one of those people in whom Besh saw potential.

Born in nearby Kenner, Virgil participated in a culinary arts program in high school, even competing on a national level. But after graduation, he put cooking on the back burner, taking a job in a call center and remaining there for about five years.

Later, on a trip to New York, Virgil visited the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). "I was like, 'This is the school I want to go to,'" he tells me. "And a year and a half after, I was like, 'I cannot afford this school.'"

Virgil began sending letters to anybody who he thought might help him, from local business owners to celebrities like Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres. After a coworker suggested that he reach out to local chefs, he discovered that the Besh Foundation had just sent Syrena Johnson, the first Chefs Move! scholarship recipient, to school in New York.

Determined to follow in her footsteps, Virgil got a job at Domenica—Besh's lauded pizza restaurant with chef/partner Alon Shaya—in order to demonstrate his talent and his mettle in the kitchen. "Just so they could see my work ethic and that I really wanted this," he says.

About a year later, at the age of 23, Virgil was selected for the scholarship, which provides a full ride to the prestigious International Culinary Center (ICC) in Manhattan, a two-month paid internship in a Besh restaurant kitchen, and job placement assistance in New Orleans. At the ICC, he focused on pastry while working at Magnolia Bakery.

I ask Virgil if he noticed more diversity in restaurant kitchens when he was in New York. "We had me and one other black person to about ten [white people]," he says. "And the other person was a dishwasher."

When he returned to New Orleans, he interned again at Domenica, followed by stints at American Sector, Heritage Grill, and Sucre—all while helping to support his mother, brother, and sister.

"I loved Sucre, but I was looking for more of a leadership role. I was under the impression I was going to learn a lot more than I learned," he says. "After two years, nothing changed. I saw no progression whatsoever."

It was then that Virgil decided to start his own business, Not Too Fancy Bakery—a brazen misnomer, I think, considering the jaw-dropping salted caramel and candied pecan king cake he's brought for me to sample. Although he is currently cooking out of his home kitchen, he tells me that business is good.

Susana Bravo, one of the Chefs Move! program's most recent graduates, has a very different backstory. The youngest of seven children, she was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and moved to New Orleans at the age of four.

"I grew up with nothing but home-cooked Mexican foods," the 22-year-old tells me. "We never went out to eat at fancy restaurants. The fanciest we got was McDonald's. And that would be a really good day."

Bravo admits that she "fell into the wrong crowd" as a teenager and wound up in a trade school. After receiving a certificate in cooking and food safety there, Bravo found herself doing odd jobs around New Orleans, including cleaning bathrooms in a residential highrise and working at Home Depot. Her first cooking job was at Golden Corral. "Pastry, which I totally sucked at," she confides with a sheepish smile. "I suck at decorating cakes."

Bravo's break came at the Hotel Monteleone's Criollo restaurant, where she worked for nearly three years. Impressed by her attitude and drive, the Criollo team encouraged her to apply for the Chefs Move! program. She managed to pull her application together a mere three days before it was due and was selected for the scholarship later that year.

Once she arrived in New York, Bravo took a job at Marta, Danny Meyer's midtown pizza restaurant, in between classes at ICC. "What I loved about that job is that they gave me the opportunity to bounce around every station. I did garde manger, I did prep, I did grill, I did pizza rolling, pizza dressing," she says. "And they gave me a chance to do breadmaking and pastry."

When we meet, Bravo is close to completing her internship at Willa Jean, Besh's new casual bakery with chefs/partners Kelly Fields and Lisa White in the Central Business District. I ask her the standard hiring manager question: Where do you see yourself in five years?

"Honestly, I had a timeline—I was 16 at the time—and I told myself that by the age of 25 I wanted to have my own restaurant," she says.

Having adjusted that plan somewhat, Bravo now hopes to open a restaurant before the age of 30, fusing the flavors of New Orleans with those of her Mexican upbringing.

"That's ultimately what I want to do: I want to just diversify Mexican food, where it's still Mexican, just with a twist. That's my ultimate plan," she says, before bidding me goodbye and heading to work.

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From right: Chefs Move! scholarship recipient Ronald Green, chef John Besh, Chefs Move! scholarship recipient Susana Bravo, and Besh Restaurant Group COO Emery Whalen. Photo courtesy of the John Besh Foundation.

Besh knows that kitchen culture isn't going to change overnight, and that two scholarships a year won't reverse the racial and economic disparity of New Orleans. But he also knows that doing nothing isn't an option.

"We might, maybe a generation down the road, see more diversity in our kitchens—diversity that reflects the cultural breakdown of New Orleans," he says. "If we can create a great structure of mentorship and scholarship, then that will lead to other people making their way in. And what I've been most humbled by is that everybody who's come from the program has brought somebody else to it to apply. That means a lot to me."

He believes that by introducing young chefs to mentors and new approaches to cuisine, the Chefs Move! program will both protect and further expand New Orleans' food culture. Bravo's Mexican-Creole fusion and Virgil's elevated king cake are but two examples.

"I don't think we should ever get rid of the small mom-and-pop, the Domilise's. I love the fact that Frankie and Johnny's is still going. And I love our po'boys, I love our gumbos. I don't want any of that to change," he says. "But [Katrina] also allowed room for new expression and new growth in other areas."

It's critical, however, that New Orleans continues to evolve from the inside out.

"Too many outside influences will turn it into Anytown, USA," Besh says. "If it becomes that, we lose New Orleans. If we lose our food, we lose New Orleans."