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Chef John Besh encourages New Orleans youth with “Chefs Move!” Scholarship

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Chef John Besh encourages New Orleans youth with “Chefs Move!” Scholarship Photo by Mark Hill
Nobody likes to talk about it, but you can’t deny it. Everybody pretends they don’t see it, but it’s right there in your face. And although we try not to focus on it on InthekNOwla, it doesn’t change the fact that we (and tons of others) live it each day.
See, New Orleans is more than well known for its food…and not only the gumbo and po-boys, but also its fine dining for those particularly well-versed palates. You got your Commander’s Palace and Mr. B’s to Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s cooking up “truffled creole cream cheese gnocchi” and “speckled trout amandine.” And who can we thank for these dishes…well, no other than the incredibly talented chefs who enjoy filling our bellies.
But we got a question for you? Who are these chefs? How do they get these positions at restaurants? And maybe one of the most glaring questions that we try to overlook…why does there seem to be a lack of diversity in these higher up positions in these restaurants?
Well, local New Orleanian and famous chef John Besh had the same question…where is the diversity? But he didn’t only have a question; he also had a solution to it. Here enters the Chefs Move! Scholarship, “a yearlong fully-paid scholarship for a minority recipient from the New Orleans area to attend culinary school at The French Culinary Institute in New York City and to return to New Orleans after graduation.” 
Syrena Johnson poses with Chefs Move! founders, Chef John Besh and Jessica Bride
Like all of us, Chef Besh loves him some New Orleans. He said, “If you’re from here and your wife is from here, there’s no leaving. We have four boys that we wanted to raise close to New Orleans and we quickly realized that with me as a chef, there are few places I could ever be that could rival New Orleans. To have the opportunity to pursue my life’s passion, raise my family, be close to my parents and in-laws, and have tremendous support is wonderful. New Orleans is the perfect place, and come hell or high water, we’re not gonna leave. It’s not even an option.”
And Chef Besh is leaving his mark on the city with his myriad of restaurants: Restaurant August, La Provence, The American Sector, Lüke, Besh Steak, and Domenica. Not too bad for a lil’ ole New Orleans boy!  
With all of his success, Chef Besh wants to make sure he gives back to the community that has nurtured and supported him over his career. He explained, “I look around everyday and I enjoy a lot of success as a chef, but in this hospitality industry, I believe that we fail a lot of New Orleanians that don’t feel like they have a shot at being a part of this success and they simply fall through the cracks. Thankfully, local non-profit organizations like Café Hope, Café Reconcile, and Liberty’s Kitchen do a great job of addressing the need to educate the youth in New Orleans by teaching them life skills for them to be able to go out and get a job.”

He added, "At these different programs, I started noticing that some of the students had all the traits one would need to succeed at management levels in the culinary industry. However, they didn’t have the education and there was no way for them to get it. So my idea was to identify people that want more, that want to progress their culinary education. Let’s offer them the chance outside of New Orleans to see that the world is a bigger place. And let’s also provide them with mentorship with great people, particularly great minorities who have done an awesome job in this industry.”

Chef Besh has already teamed up with some great people, including Chefs Marcus Samuelsson, Rachael Ray, and Aaron Sanchez, among others who have served as mentors in an effort to provide an experience that’s both educational and applicable to the working world.

Local chefs Kelly Fields of Restaurant August and Brian Landry of Borgne Restaurant, who were both chosen as Risings Stars on (an online magazine for the culinary community), will be serving as mentors to this year’s scholarship recipients. “Being involved with the program and with last year’s recipient, Syrena, is pretty amazing,” Chef Fields said. “As Chef Besh did with me, I’m setting the example and holding her accountable for being at the same level. I'm also helping to encourage her, inspire her, and seeing where she can really move forward and grow.”
Chef Kelly Fields | Restaurant AugustChef Landry added, “It’s a definite honor to be in this position. We want to expose cooks at a young age as to what the real rewards and pitfalls are when choosing culinary arts as a career. We want them to have that passion that is required to do this for a long time and to have people like Chef Besh, Chef Fields, and myself, who obviously exhibit this passion everyday, is a great opportunity for us to pass that along to someone else.”
But that’s not it…recipients of the Chefs Move! Scholarship get it all! Let’s take a look: full tuition, supplies (knives, uniforms, books, etc.), housing, round-trip airfare, round-trip airfare for one visit home to New Orleans during the 9-month program, laptop computer and lessons, digital camera and lessons, $200 grocery card, $100 MetroCard for subway travel in New York City, 8-week paid internship upon completion of culinary program, job placement assistance while in New York, and a year-long mentorship from a Besh Restaurant Group chef.
Not surprisingly, Chef Besh’s decision to include “minority” as part of the scholarship requirements has been a little controversial. “I caught a lot of flack from people about the minority component,” he said. “But plain and simple, New Orleans is a city of all sorts of races and ethnicities and that makes our city special. So if this makes us special, then why is it that very few minorities, in particular African Americans, are enjoying success at management levels? It really comes down to education.”
He continued, “When I look through the ranks of hundreds of employees, I quickly see that many come from backgrounds just like mine and they look a lot like me. This isn’t a bad thing, however, we’re Chef Brian Landryalso missing out on an opportunity to include everybody in our community of success. We had to struggle for so long with people having the perception that being a cook or chef was something people did generations ago as domestic help, not realizing that now you can actually make a great living at it. And if you want to progress in the ranks of management, you have to have the college education. So again, why don’t more minority New Orleanians enjoy success in this? And that’s what I’m here to try to change. This scholarship has to be one that we continue to provide for and that we’re stewards of. That’s what I want my life’s work to be about, not just fancy recipes, but actually helping my community and her people.”

Last year’s recipient of the Chefs Move! Scholarship Syrena Johnson (check out her blog) is living a dream in New York City as we speak. Chef Besh explained, “There were a lot of people who applied last year and she had the smarts, tenacity, and creativeness that it’s gonna take for her to be successful. About two weeks ago, I was on the Today show and Al Roker comes up to me and says, ‘John, I’ve heard all about this New Orleanian, this girl with dreadlocks who is just cooking up a storm at the New York Culinary Institute. She is at the top of her class and is really excelling. They say that you know her.’ I explained to him how I knew her and I thought that was very telling that a nationally recognized news anchor would ask me about this tenacious young lady from New Orleans.”
He added, “At the same time, Syrena was also interning on the Rachael Ray set just so she could see another facet of the food industry. So imagine having these huge life experiences with all these different people from different walks of life where prior to that, you’ve bounced around from house to house, gone to four different schools during Hurricane Katrina, trying to scrape a living. Basically, living a life without much hope. And then a couple of years later, you’re doing what she’s doing. That’s why I’ve got a team of people that are really scrutinizing these scholarships, making sure that they go out to the right people, not just those that will survive the process, but will excel at it as well. So, we want more Serena’s out there. The greatest thing about Syrena is that I asked her what she planned on doing at the end of the program and she said she wants to come back, work for us in Restaurant August, and she also wants to give some of her time to Liberty’s Kitchen and Café Reconcile where she can help save more young people.”
Two scholarships are being offered this year, one in pastry and one in classic culinary and applications are due by April 30! So please spread the word of this awesome program to your fellow InthekNOwlians. As Chef Besh put it, “If we can invite the recipients back to New Orleans, they can come back and spend time in their old neighborhoods where they can be the people to emulate. They can be the people that attest to the fact that education and arming yourself with the right goals can really be the key to success.”
He concluded, “What we have here in New Orleans is really special, the only indigenous cuisine left in America. That’s the meat of why we’re here and why we stay here. We have to focus on creating a newer, better, more progressive New Orleans than ever before. We’re in a fight right now against violence, murder, and racism and as a city, we need to use the talents that we’ve been given to make a difference. I’m just a cook and I’ve so far surpassed my wildest dreams, but what will I have done with it all if I don’t do something to give back. If we can change and help one person, then we’ve done our job.”
For more information about the Chefs Move! Scholarship, please visit the website.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 25 April 2012
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