It's become increasingly common for menus to tout a restaurant's array of house-made or homemade ingredients. Such terms crop up a lot at Liberty's Kitchen (422 S. Broad St., 822-4011; www.libertyskitchen.org), but here they constitute more than just a flavorful meal.
This nonprofit cafe 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 the culinary techniques behind cooking from scratch is part of the recipe.
"When the chef shows us how to do something, he breaks it down so we can do it ourselves next time," says Jessica Flanigan, who joined the Liberty's Kitchen program in October.
"A week ago the chef was out, and I had to run the kitchen," says fellow student Jarvin Monette. "At first I was a little skeptical about that, you know, but then when I got into it I knew I could do this myself."
Students typically come to Liberty's Kitchen without a high school diploma and lacking other job prospects. The staff gets them enrolled in GED courses, begins case management for social services, and then puts them to work under a team of chefs now led by Brack May, the chef/owner of the Riverbend restaurant Cowbell.
"We're not necessarily trying to create chefs, we're creating employable young people," says executive director Janet Davas. "The kitchen provides such a great training ground for that. You have to manage stress and deadlines, You have to be reliable and work in teams and depend on each other."
A former administrator at Cafe Reconcile — another local nonprofit cafe with a similar mission — Davas formed Liberty's Kitchen in April 2009. It's expanded rapidly. This year saw the debut of its Healthy School Lunch Program, which beat out three commercial 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 refrigerators that previously held processed foods and in came new ovens, mixers, and other tools for daily, scratch cooking. Meatballs are rolled by hand, deli meats are roasted with a watchful eye on fat and sodium contents and batches of mayonnaise are whipped up fresh as needed.
"If we were just tipping cans and dumping onions in the chopper, our students wouldn't be getting much experience," says David Jourdan, chef manager for the Healthy School Lunch Program. "Here, they're learning their kitchen skills, and they have to use them every day."
While Liberty's Kitchen participants build their skills the old-fashioned way, the upshot at New Orleans College Prep is fresh, flavorful meals for kids in the cafeteria. On a recent Friday, that meant wheat crust pizza baked with garlic, herbs and caramelized onions, a fresh cucumber salad and muffins moistened with handmade applesauce.
Davas says the next step for Liberty's Kitchen is 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 by dropping in for a bite at its Mid-City cafe (open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday).