Classrooms in the Kitchen

New Orleans’ booming food scene now extends to higher education
Illustration by Tony Healey

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.


 

If a stovetop appeals more to you than a desktop, a culinary career might be the way to turn your passion into profit. With the opening and expansion of educational programs designed for budding chefs, food scientists and culinary entrepreneurs, New Orleans has become a great place to move into the culinary arts.

Founded in 1921 as a trade school for young boys, Delgado Community College offered culinary training from its earliest days. Today, it ranks in the top 20 of nationally accredited schools, offering certificates of technical studies in culinary arts, pastry arts and culinary management attainable in nine months, as well as two-year associate degrees. With a low student-teacher ratio in hands-on cooking classes, last year Delgado graduated 30 students into the local workforce.

Nationally, vocational cooking schools are closing their doors, with Le Cordon Bleu shuttering 16 campuses across the country in 2015. A number of lawsuits ensued as students found themselves with a huge debt burden due to student loans without the ability to complete the education.

The entire value of culinary education has been called into question as entry-level industry jobs continue to pay low wages while tuition costs are high. Delgado has always been an affordable option for in-state students, with a year’s tuition averaging just over $4,000. But, according to Delgado’s statistics, over 60 percent of students require three years of attendance to reach graduation.

In June 2019, the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute (NOCHI) graduated its first class of 19 students. With curricula designed by the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, NOCHI aims to be an affordable fast track into the industry. In merely 100 days, students receive certification in either culinary or pastry with tuition averaging about $14,750.

The new nonprofit institute was founded by Brennan family cousins Ti Martin, Dickie Brennan and George Brower (also Dickie’s brother-in-law), owners of multiple fine-dining establishments in the city, with the intention of creating a skilled, local workforce.

“My entire career, I have watched good-hearted people who get a first job as a dishwasher,” says Dickie Brennan. “If they’re fortunate, someone takes them under their wing, and 15 years later they’re working as a line cook with no opportunity for further advancement. NOCHI will always have a place for locals seeking better opportunities.”

Scholarship opportunities from the James Beard Louisiana Restaurant Association and American Culinary foundations, among others, help make that possible. Forty-seven percent of NOCHI’s graduating class applied for and received financial aid, with all receiving the full amount of their calculated need.

Students in NOCHI’s first graduating class ranged in age from 18 to 50 and hailed from as far away as Washington, D.C., Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. Their backgrounds were astoundingly diverse. One was a recent graduate from the high school culinary program at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, while another left behind two decades in the wine industry to pursue a future in hotel food and management.

The results? Graduates received job offers from as far away as New York’s Restaurant Daniel, as well as acclaimed local establishments like Donald Link’s Peche and Gianna. Both the Hilton Corporation and Ritz-Carlton have pursued members of the inaugural class as well.

Just across the river from NOCHI, the University of Holy Cross offers higher educational training for a different type of food career. Four years ago, Holy Cross created their food science program, offering a bachelor’s of science in food science, food business and culinology. Culinologists blend culinary arts with food science, a career that doesn’t include the long hours and low pay of typical restaurant work. On average, the starting salary for food scientists is $55,000.

Darryl Holliday, UHC program director, reports job placement is a major focus. “New Orleans has many major food manufacturing businesses like Zatarain’s and Smoothie King eager to work with our graduates. Food science is a growing field and we’re preparing students here for the future.”

 

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.