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‘We don’t want them to just get jobs:’ Liberty’s Kitchen provides more than just culinary training

Liberty’s Kitchen’s Guest Chef Nights allow students to learn from experienced culinary artists around New Orleans. Chef Nathan Richard, of Cavan, mentored students as they prepared jerk-rubbed fish for the June 2018 meal.

It’s more than a culinary school.

For many young adults, Liberty’s Kitchen is a mentoring program; a reprieve from violence and poverty; a character-building, skill-based program giving students every opportunity to succeed.

“We don’t want them to just get jobs. We try to prepare them for all opportunities, for leadership and advancement,” Dennis Bagneris, Liberty’s Kitchen’s new chief executive officer, said.

Since 2009, Liberty’s Kitchen has served more than 650 youth, providing workforce and life skills training so students can become employed and self-sufficient. Students are trained in a culinary setting, while the Youth Leadership Program provides an additional eight months of employment support and programming for YDP alumni. Liberty’s Kitchen also operates two retail cafés – one inside the Whole Foods at 300 N. Broad Street and another at 1615 Poydras St. – where students receive more training and business management exposure.

Liberty’s Kitchen instills personal responsibility in its students, which is key to their later success, Bagneris said. Students are coached in entrepreneurship and business methods, with opportunities to start their own brands. Part of the training involves working alongside celebrity chefs once a month during fundraising dinners, known as Guest Chef Night.

June’s guest chef night featured jerk-rubbed fish and a deliciously tart key lime pie from Nathan Richard, executive chef of Cavan on Magazine Street. Each beautifully-prepared dish was cooked and served by Liberty’s Kitchen students.

Connie Traub, left, celebrates an early birthday next to Liberty’s Kitchen’s CEO Dennis Bagneris during Guest Chef Night.

Connie Traub, Liberty’s Kitchen volunteer and dinner guest, said the program serves those most in need of equal opportunities in New Orleans. The monthly dinners provide the community with a chance to support the program without asking for a direct donation.

“When you help young people like this, you’re helping more than just one person,” Traub said. “It’s a domino effect.”

Bagneris has been with Liberty’s Kitchen for seven years, mostly as the Chief Program Officer. In his new role, Bagneris is looking for ways to create more equity for the youth of New Orleans, whether through technical training or tackling food access. He’s hoping to start a service providing boxes of fresh vegetables for those living in food desserts, especially during summer months when children don’t have access to school lunches.

Food access impacts entire families, Bagneris said, so programs must address the whole community rather than just one student.

“We live in a city that lacks equity. It’s wrong, and we need to challenge it,” Bagneris said. “What we’re doing is more than just training chefs, we’re providing equity.”

Each Guest Chef Night allows the public to see how their donations impact each Liberty’s Kitchen student. The meals are BYOB, but luckily Whole Foods is just across the hall.

The monthly dinners provide the public with an opportunity to see how Liberty’s Kitchen functions while holding up the accomplishments of its students. Two program participants are honored at each dinner, sharing their stories of hardship – and later success – with program supporters. Christa Schwartz, who’s husband serves as the program’s board chair, said Liberty’s Kitchen supports New Orleans youth in a way that other academies do not.

“These kids don’t have the confidence or the tools to succeed,” she said. “They are New Orleans’ best and most important resource, but they have no support.”

Bagneris, and the entire Liberty’s Kitchen legacy, is out to change that.

“We’re not going to save the youth of New Orleans,” Bagneris said. “The youth of New Orleans are going to save themselves.”

The next Chef Guest Night features Syrena Johnson, a Liberty’s Kitchen graduate and recent “Chopped” champion. The event kicks off at 6 p.m.on July 19 inside Liberty’s Kitchen, 300 North Broad St. For tickets or more information, click here.

The crowd mingles as Liberty’s Kitchen students put finishing touches on Guest Chef Night meals.

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