The future of food in the River Parishes

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 26, 2010

By David Vitrano


METAIRIE – Culinary dreams became reality for a couple of River Parishes teens this summer when they got the chance to participate in the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts annual program for the gastronomically inclined.

Chayil Johnson is a homeschooled student in LaPlace who traces his love for cooking back to his mother.

“My mom started teaching me how to cook at a young age,” said Johnson, who at 13 was one of the youngest students accepted into the program.

He said from those early days when the recipes were simple, his love as well as his skill for cooking have grown considerably.

The boy’s mother, Rhonda Johnson, said she started teaching her children how to cook as a life-skill addition to the homeschool curriculum. Regarding her son’s acceptance into the program, she said, “I was ecstatic,” adding, “He started his own herb garden last year.”

Johnson, whose sisters are also enrolled at NOCCA, said the two-week program was a bit of a wake-up call for him.

“They told me it would be intense, but when I got here I didn’t expect it to be as intense as it was,” he said.

Far from a deterrent, however, the hard work seemed to spark something in Johnson, pushing him further toward a professional career in the restaurant industry.

What really sparked his imagination, though, were the field trips the group took to area restaurants and food preparation sites. One trip in particular, to Chef John Besh’s northshore eatery, La Provence, seemed to open up a treasure trove of ideas in the budding chef.

Besh’s use of locally grown ingredients there — much of La Provence’s menu is grown on site — strengthened Johnson’s interest in sustainable cooking, a trend currently on the upswing in restaurants throughout the nation. He said he plans to incorporate the study of agriculture and animal husbandry with culinary exploration when he pursues his studies beyond the high school level.

“When I’m older I want to do something similar to La Provence, but bigger,” said Johnson.

Exploration seems to lie at the heart of Johnson’s endeavors. Aside from keeping an open mind when it comes to ingredients, he is also interested in exploring food markets beyond the New Orleans area, citing Chicago as a desired location to eventually practice his craft.

Paulina native Dylan Boudreaux came to the program with a slightly different perspective than his younger counterpart.

“My brother owns a restaurant and bar in Paulina,” said Boudreaux.

Accordingly, Boudreaux brought to the program years of experience working as a server and chef there. Despite his experience, the intensity of the program and the visits to local fine-dining establishments taught Boudreaux about the realities of the restaurant industry beyond his brother’s eatery.

“Everyone has a certain job to do,” he said. “You have to be on your toes at all times.”

He explained that at his brother’s establishment, everyone pitches in and does whatever is needed at the time. In bigger and some might say fancier restaurants, however, work is far more compartmentalized, with each employee playing a specific role to deliver a successful plate to the customer.

As for his future plans, Boudreaux, who will be a senior at Lutcher High School in the fall, said he will soon begin the task of applying to culinary schools. Although those studies may take him out of the area for a while, he said he plans to return to area once his studies are complete.

To be admitted to the program, each student had to complete an intensive application process, which included volumes of paperwork along with letters of recommendation and an interview with Chef Michael Makuch, who mentored the students throughout the program.

The two-week session began with work on each student’s skill set before moving into actual food preparation. It culminated with the students generating and preparing their own menu, which was served to the board of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation. The foundation provided the funding for this year’s program.

“We didn’t think we were going to be able to do culinary,” said NOCCA Director of Communications Brian Hammell.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding this year’s program, Hammell said NOCCA has already secured the funding to be able to hold the program on site next summer.

At the conclusion of the program, each student received a certificate from both NOCCA and prestigious culinary school Johnson and Wales.