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Creating culinary leaders with Chef John Besh’s Chefs Move! Scholarship

Written by  IntheNOLA.com
It may be that a conversation between New Orleanians is not complete without mentioning food in some way or another.
 
New Orleans is more than well known for her food…and not only the gumbo and po-boys, but also the fine dining for those particularly well-versed palates. You got your Commander’s Palace and Mr. B’s Bistro as well as your Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s cooking up “truffled creole cream cheese gnocchi” and “speckled trout amandine.” And who can we thank for these dishes? None other than the incredibly talented chefs who enjoy filling our bellies.
But, who exactly are these chefs? How do they get these positions at these fine dining restaurants? And what may be one of the most uncomfortable, but no less relevant questions…why does there seem to be a lack of diversity in the higher up positions in these restaurants?
 
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. For the past five years, the Chefs Move! Scholarship, founded by Chef Besh and Jessica Bride and whose mission is to diversify kitchen leadership by providing minority applicants the opportunity to become leaders in restaurant kitchens and in their communities, has provided several young New Orleanians with the opportunity of a lifetime: yearlong fully-paid scholarships (one in Culinary Arts and one in Pastry Arts) to the International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York City followed by a paid internship with the Besh Restaurant Group (BRG), which includes Domenica, Borgne, Pizza Domenica, and others.
 
“The past five years have seen tremendous growth in the Chefs Move! Scholarship Program,” said Lola Thomas, Programming Director for The John Besh Foundation. “Not only have additional scholarships been added, but mentorships and internships have been strengthened to ensure students have the most broad education. This unique program is so important to New Orleans because it continues to offer life-changing opportunities to underserved populations while keeping the culture of local Louisiana food alive.”

Recipients of the Chefs Move! Scholarship get all they need to ensure success, including: full tuition, supplies (knives, uniforms, books, etc.), housing, laptop computer and lessons, move-in assistance, $200 grocery card, one month MetroCard, paid internship with the BRG upon completion of the program, job placement assistance, and mentorship from a BRG chef.

Lola continued, “The graduates of the program have gone on to lead kitchens, start their own businesses, and help the community. The first scholarship recipient, Syrena Johnson, is now Executive Chef of the new B.B. King’s Jazz Club in New Orleans, and we are very proud of her. In addition, our alumni have created thriving catering businesses, including Kieu Tran with Chasing Wang, Calvin Virgil with Not Too Fancy Bakery, and Ronald Green with Star Quality Catering. Alumnus Chris Okorie is currently working at Emeril’s and is about to leave for an externship in Italy learning about fresh pasta from Chef Alon Shaya’s mentor.
 
Not surprisingly, Chef Besh’s decision to include “minority” as part of the scholarship has been a little controversial. “I caught a lot of flack about the minority component in this,” Chef Besh said. “But plain and simple, New Orleans is a city of all sorts of races and ethnicities, which makes our city special. So if this makes us special, then why is it that very few minorities are enjoying the success at management levels? It really comes down to education. When I look through the ranks of the hundreds of employees, I quickly see that many come from backgrounds just like mine and look a lot like me. This isn’t a bad thing; however, we’re also missing out on an opportunity to include everybody in our community of success. If you want to progress in the ranks of management, you have to have the college education to go with it and it’s a ton of money to acquire one of these educations. So again, why don’t more New Orleanians and in particular, why don’t more minority New Orleanians enjoy success in this? And that’s what I’m here to try to change.”

As a result, the scholarship is open to African Americans, Vietnamese, Hispanic, or another cultural minority applicants.
 
Lola added, “We created this program to extend the option of culinary school to people who are not necessarily afforded the same opportunity to train up and become a leader in the kitchen. We are the last urban indigenous food culture and to keep that alive we need to create opportunities for minority residents who are such a huge part of our special food system.”
 
Chef Besh concluded, “If we continue to get the right people to New York and invest in them, it’s going to pay incredible dividends to the entire community. The Creator didn’t just give me talent so that I could serve fancy food to people. He gave me talent to make a difference in people’s lives for the better. 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.”

For more information about the Chefs Move! Scholarship and to apply, please visit the website. Applications are due by March 31!
Last modified on Thursday, 10 March 2016
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