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3-Course Interview: Jessie Wightkin 

Megan Braden-Perry talks with a chef/instructor who teaches young people New Orleans culinary traditions

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New Orleans native Jessie Wightkin is becoming a big name in the local culinary scene. She worked at Taceaux Loceaux and Bacchanal, appeared on and been sous chef for Food Network's Family Style with Chef Jeff and scored several exclusive chef gigs at local events. Her passion, however, is teaching culinary arts to kids. She teaches at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and is a former instructor at the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans. Here, Wightkin explains how the city's current culinary scene is influencing the future.

What are the roles of schools' culinary programs?

Wightkin: In New Orleans, we just care so much about food, and our students grow up behind the stove cooking with their families, so our schools are starting to reflect that. Old timey [home economics courses] are transforming into the study of the culture of New Orleans food — how it's brought people together, how you can tell how you fit in with how you eat your gumbo. At so many of these restaurants, we're flying people in from other cities to have them tell us about our culture and how our food's cooked, reinventing it. Well, why wouldn't we foster our youth to funnel right into these restaurants? So that's why I'm so passionate about teaching in culinary programs here at home, because I feel like that's what we're aiming to do.

When I was teaching at Edible Schoolyard, it was kindergarteners and you could see that these kids knew food in a way that other kids in other towns didn't know food. With programs like Edible Schoolyard, where kids are growing their own satsumas and clementines ... or Japanese plums or loquats ... growing it makes them love it. So then we wonder how do we cook it, make healthy decisions for ourselves, treat the environment with respect. Culinary programs like Edible Schoolyard help us develop whole beings.

Are schools still teaching students traditional New Orleans cookery?

W: Real crawfish bisque, like the way my grandmother made it with the stuffed heads, is an endangered species because no one wants to take the time — it hurts! I've made it before and cut my fingers all up. It's intense, so no one does it.

That happens everywhere but we aren't going to let it happen here. We keep teaching our kids to make these things and keep them in town. If you want to be a chef in your hometown, you should be the one cooking in these restaurants. You should be the one trailblazing here. You should give kids the opportunity to do that by setting them up with all the right skills to be the best for those jobs.

Are food trucks helping New Orleanians diversify their dining?

W: New Orleans is a progressive food town. We're a port city, so we should reflect ethnic cuisine and also different flavors. What's a better way to do that than with a food truck? It's not easy to start a restaurant. Maybe you don't know how to run the front of the house or how to do payroll but you just want to cook great food. A food truck allows you to do that with very little overhead. You don't have to be rich or come into good luck. ... You can just rely on your skills and try a truck.

This whole food scene has changed and it's growing so fast. In this city, we don't like change, but we always adapt. Some people weren't down with the food truck thing, but it seems like with time we won them over. They keep popping up, and we are gonna be a food truck town soon like Austin [Texas]. It's not like when it was just Taceaux Loceaux, when we were one of the few. I'd come from cooking at Commander's [Palace], which I loved because I learned so much and became legitimized in this field, but cooking at Bacchanal before they had a kitchen when there was a pop-up tent and a grill, and Taceaux Loceaux was like summer camp for chefs. I found my voice and figured out why I was meant to do this. I think we should help our youth know that there's not just this one kind of chef, not just the famous guy.


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