The Youth Development Program at Liberty’s Kitchen provides participants with occupational and employability skills training, and addresses the social issues that have created barriers to employment.
The objective of the Youth Development Program is to graduate students with a sense of purpose, tools and opportunities needed to thrive in gainful employment.
Jason Johnson gives me a tour around the vast kitchen that is home to Liberty’s Kitchen — the café, catering business and youth development program that provides hands-on food service training to vulnerable New Orleans youth.
“Here we have our meat slicer, the blenders that we usually use,” points Johnson. “Here is where we usually have catering prep.”
In a few hours, Johnson will be graduating from the 16-week Youth Development Program at Liberty’s Kitchen. Johnson is totally at home in this kitchen, where about 20 people slice and simmer and fold sausage bites into triangles of puff pastry dough. This is where Johnson started the program, in back-of-the-house training. For those of you who’ve never worked in a restaurant, that essentially means the kitchen.
“It’s where we learn how to handle certain knives so we don’t cut ourselves or hurt somebody in the process,” explains Shawn Neuskaeter, who is six weeks into the program.
After back of the house comes front of the house — where participants learn café skills, like serving food and customer service. After that, says Tasheena Butler, or Chef T, her students work on career readiness.
“It’s where they learn how to fill out résumés, learn how to go on job interviews, do cover letters, and learn how to be professional,” says Butler.
Finally, there’s the externship: where everything learned at Liberty’s Kitchen is put into practice at another restaurant. Chondra Allen had her externship at Bittersweet Confections.
“I never thought I would actually enjoy being in the front of house so much, interacting with people,” says Allen. “I never knew it.”
Allen is 21, and a few hours away from graduation. For her, the program at Liberty’s Kitchen was a tremendous help in much more than kitchen skills.
“I was a self-isolater,” Allen explains. “So I wasn’t very talkative and I enjoyed being by myself. But when I got here I started relying on coworkers and fellow students. It helped me progress with my externship because I’m able to ask for help more often, which I wasn’t able to do. And just interact more.”
After graduating from high school, Allen went to college for a year but then quit because she couldn’t afford it. This program, she says, is helping her prepare for what she wants to do in life: cook.
“They give us a support system that actually helps build us up,” she says. “They give your your critiques. They don’t beat around the bush, but they don’t give it to you where you take it badly. They give it just right to where you understand and able to make the changes you need.”
“Bring those eggs up to the front,” Butler directs Allen. “Get the rolls out of the freezer. Hopefully then it’ll be time to put noodles into boil.”
Tasheena Butler hustles her students around the kitchen as they prepare the graduation meal they’ve chosen: Cajun Cobb salad, macaroni and cheese, and fruit salad. Chef T says her students work hard to get to this point. Many don’t make it to graduation. So for those that do, this is a proud day.
“There needs to be a dozen more programs like this,” says Butler. “And even then I’m not sure it would fill the need. So anything that’s positive, anything that’s going to put them on a path to self-sufficiency and enlightenment, is a good thing.”