It's been less than a year since chef Michael Doyle closed his farm-to-table restaurant Maurepas Foods in Bywater. Since then, Doyle has been teaching high school students how to cook at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) and he consults at the NOCCA Institute's cafe and restaurant, Press Street Station. Doyle spoke with Gambit about teaching and the Bywater restaurant scene.
How have your teaching experiences been?
Doyle: The opportunity came up shortly after Maurepas (Foods) closed, and it was really more daunting an experience than running a kitchen. ... I hadn't walked into a high school since I graduated from one.
People tend to learn at their own pace and come in with their own backgrounds and experiences. With the high school students, it's an entirely different thing (than restaurants), where you can't expect the same type of life experience, but at the same time, you're correct to expect a lot more intellectual engagement. You really do find yourself shifting focus.
The differences are not as stark as you'd expect them to be. Working as a chef and a sous chef, you spend a lot of time teaching. The biggest differences were from the planning end: you have (students) for two and a half hours a day. You have to modify what you can tackle in that timeframe. It's very similar to a chef position in that you have to have that restraint to not jump in and do things yourself. A lot of people make mistakes; you have to work with them and show patience and be a positive force with good energy. You're working with kids and so you don't get to brood. That's not part of the job. You're part of their support system, and you're part of their life in and out of school. You develop a much greater concern for their well-being than you would in a work setting.
What surprised you the most about teaching?
D: The thing that surprised me the most was how self-possessed and focused the students are. They are so incredibly engaged in it. They actually really want to be there; they hang out there after school. My own personal high school experience was certainly not one where I was coming in with renewed optimism every day to learn new things and tackle new challenges.
The kids that graduated this year were looking at things from event management to sustainable agriculture. To me, what was so interesting is that they come in with the notion that they're going to be chefs — and many of them do go on to work in the industry — but a lot of them really begin to think about food community, agriculture, personal relationships all the way down to problem-solving in that same way you would find in the hospitality industry. Years ago, you'd work with 21-, 22-year-old kids who wanted to be these killer line cooks who had real sharp knives and would go out and party every night, and that isn't at all what these kids I worked with seemed to take from it. What they seemed to take out of it was the satisfaction they get out of preparing meals and how they can use that to pursue what interests them. They're kids — they want to change the world. The glamour that they took out of the lifestyle was very different than what would have attracted me to cooking when I was their age. It was a much more forgiving and welcoming and natural take on it all.
How do you see the Bywater restaurant landscape changing?
D: It had its first little wave. I think that things are changing and that was the first run. Now, they're figuring out where it is. There seem to be some savvy operators coming in. They've watched everybody do it the first time around, and now they're ready to give it a go. There's still Satsuma (Cafe), The Joint, Mariza, Bacchanal — and everybody is doing great.