Learning Through Lunch at Liberty's Kitchen

New Orleans, La. –

It's become increasingly common for menus to tout a restaurant's array of house-made or homemade ingredients these days. Such terms crop up a lot at Liberty's Kitchen too, though here they promise more than just a flavorful meal.

This nonprofit caf in Mid-City doubles as a training program for teens and young adults who want to change the course of their lives. Liberty's Kitchen gives them marketable job skills and experience, and learning to cook from scratch is part of the recipe. So on this deceptively simple caf menu there's smoked mushrooms for the shrimp and grits, roasted pepper coulis in the vegetarian lasagna and a thin, tart Creole mustard sauce over the turkey meatloaf. More than just creative flourishes, these culinary touches all represent learning experiences for the students at work in the kitchen.

Students typically come to Liberty's Kitchen without a high school diploma and without other job prospects. The staff here get them enrolled in GED courses, begin case management for social services and then put them to work under a team of experienced restaurant, hotel and banquet chefs.

But this program is not necessarily about creating new, rising-star chefs. Rather, it's focused on creating employable young people, and staffers here say the kitchen provides such a uniquely versatile, accessible training ground to do just that. After all, to succeed in a busy kitchen, students have to manage stress and deadlines, they must be reliable and accountable and they have to learn to work in teams.

Liberty's Kitchen got its start in a small, ground-level caf space below a law office near the Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse at Tulane and Broad. That was in April 2009 and it's expanded rapidly since then. Enrollment is on the rise, with prospective students dropping in for applications daily, and the nonprofit has begun branching into the realm of school food.

Last summer saw the debut of its Healthy School Lunch Program, which beat out three firms to win the food service contract at New Orleans College Prep. Now, Liberty's Kitchen participants prepare breakfast, lunch and a snack each school day for the 600 students at the Central City charter school, where nearly all students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

To ensure the Healthy School Lunch Program could live up to its name, the school and Liberty's Kitchen together invested to retool the cafeteria kitchen. Out went many of the fridges that previously held processed foods - long the standard of school food service -- and in came new ovens, mixers, and other tools for daily, scratch cooking. Now, meatballs are rolled by hand, deli meats are roasted with a watchful eye on fat and sodium and batches of mayonnaise are whipped up as needed.

Just like at the caf , this approach lets Liberty's Kitchen participants build skills the old fashioned way with the upshot of fresh, flavorful meals for kids in the New Orleans College Prep cafeteria. On a recent Friday, that meant wheat crust pizza baked with plenty of garlic, herbs and caramelized onions, a cucumber salad and muffins moistened by handmade applesauce.

In the future, Liberty's Kitchen hopes to establish a commissary kitchen and start competing for more food service contracts at other New Orleans schools. In the meantime, anyone can get a taste of this program's hands-on, homemade training in action at its Mid-City caf .

Liberty's Kitchen
422 S. Broad St.
New Orleans