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From Dishwashers To Head Chefs


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll hear the latest installment in our tweet poetry series, Muses and Metaphor, but first, we'd like to talk about an effort to add some flavor to the top ranks of restaurant kitchens in America's spiciest city.

We're talking about New Orleans. Just about every flavor that makes up the American food story can be found there from neighborhood joints to the fanciest white tablecloth destinations in the French quarter, but while New Orleans cuisine is diverse, often the chefs who prepare it are not.

Celebrity chef John Besh is out to change that. The Louisiana native has started Chefs Move!,. That's a program that awards promising minority kitchen workers scholarships to help them upgrade their culinary skills to world class level. They study in New York City first and then return to New Orleans and Chef John Besh joins us now from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Also with us is Chris Okorie, last year's scholarship winner. He is at our bureau in New York.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

CHRIS OKORIE: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

JOHN BESH: Yeah. Thanks so much for having us, Michel.

MARTIN: Chef Besh, I think it would surprise a lot of Americans to hear that New Orleans doesn't already have a lot of diversity in restaurant leadership. What is it that you've seen and why is that?

BESH: Well, I think one thing that's bugged me over the years is our food culture has become a lot more progressive than ever before. You know, a lot more people are talking food today than ever before in history as far as the world of celebrity chefdom, I guess you could say.

And it would pain me as I would walk through my kitchens and I'd look through our applications. We had very few minority applicants in New Orleans, in particular, and I think what really bugged me even more is that - you know, how can we, Michel, continue to evolve this culture and see this beautiful culture that we have that, you know, one could say is one of the only indigenous urban cultures left in America? How would that progress and how would it survive if all of us within this culture aren't partaking in it and aren't enjoying its benefits? And I just saw very few people rise into management levels. In particular, African-Americans from New Orleans, I think, have never really - you know, the past generation, we haven't seen that - you know, the great chefs rising up out of New Orleans like we should have and...

MARTIN: But why is that? Why do you think that is? And I think I can say I'm sure a lot of people are surprised by that because they understand that you don't have to know very much to know that there are, you know, African-Americans and food and the history of food in this country are very closely intertwined and there are some high profile celebrity chefs, like Marcus Samuelsson - certainly not from New Orleans...

BESH: Sure.

MARTIN: But why do you think that is? Is it a matter of training?

BESH: Yeah. And we do come from the city of Leah Chase and, you know, just a gem of a person and a wonderful chef and great personality. But I think it has often been seen as just a dead end job without the opportunity attached and also one closely related to that domestic worker that, you know, many grandmothers had been in the past and kind of lumped into that pile. And I think what I wanted to do is reach out and say, look, you know, there are some great opportunities here and I want everybody in our community to really enjoy the prosperity that exists within this industry today. This isn't the same industry as it was 20, 30, 40 years ago in that this is changing.

MARTIN: Let me ask Chris to pick up the thread here. Chris, why - did you grow up wanting to be a chef? And I just want to ask you to reflect on the question I asked, which is, why do you think there are not more people of color, particularly African-Americans, leading restaurants sort of in your city?

OKORIE: To answer your question, no. I did not want to - I did not grow up with dreams of becoming a chef at all. What happened was I moved to New Orleans after Katrina and, like chef said, some people look at it as a dead end job. I just needed a job at the time and so a friend of mine recommended me to Cafe Reconcile. That helped get young people like myself, who was - well, I wasn't at the time, but on the streets and wasn't doing great at the time. Jobs in the hospitality industry.

So I looked at it as I needed a job. I needed to get money, so basically, I graduated that program and they helped me receive a - get a job at a really nice restaurant in New Orleans, Cafe Aurelie(ph), and I worked up my way from a food runner to becoming a line cook.

To reflect on the question, though, I just think the word hasn't really been out yet to the youth of New Orleans that you can become a chef. I mean, it kind of start at the home, for one. Some people just - some kids just never got that chance to, you know, watch their grandmothers or watch their mothers cook in the kitchen. And while, you know, I mean they just grew up trying to, you know, eating what they can, you know, not really eating, you know, like top quality foods and stuff like that. So it kind of, the thread kind of runs real deep into why we young black people, young minorities haven't really gotten into the kitchen yet. So...

MARTIN: Or don't want to get, or don't want to stay in the kitchen.

OKORIE: Right. I mean the word just hasn't really been brought. I think programs like this, the Chefs Move, I think they really, really try to blend young minority Martin said and what they can do to get out of the situations they're in.

MARTIN: Chef, tell me how you came up with the idea of Chefs Move? What, first of all, I'm interested in how it came to you. Did it come to you like your idea for a fabulous dessert - it just came to you one day or?


BESH: You know, for years I have been working with Cafe Reconcile Cafe Hope. There's even another, you know, outreach program here in New Orleans, Liberty's Kitchen, where what they do are - they target at risk inner-city youths and offer them life skills training and, you know, the rudimentary hospitality training.

BESH: Now what happens - you know, that's great for an entry level position - but what happens to those with the smarts, the drive and the tenacity to move on into management levels? And ultimately, what I would like to see done is that they, you know, allow that entrepreneurial spirit to take over and start opening their restaurants, their businesses, really putting their indelible mark or imprint on the culture of New Orleans. I think that would really change things and I think offer so much potential to young inner-city people across the country. So we created the Chefs Move Scholarship to basically take somebody with so much promise and so much hope, and then out of New Orleans and take them to New York, where they are able to mentor - create some mentorship process with great chefs of New York, at the same time completing all their required classes at what was the French Culinary Institute, which is now the International Culinary Center.

MARTIN: So the program what? It offers what - tuition and living expenses for...

BESH: Tuition, everything from cameras, to computers, to knives, to clogs to your chefs uniforms. The tools of the trade, and it's funny how the tools have changed because now blogging is a requisite for us. We want Chris to go to New York, work for great people like Michael White over at "Ai Fiori" or "Maera," learn from them, go to class and then blog about it and share the news with everybody. And share, you know, his, so we can trace, you know, Chris' growing day by day. Just every meal that he has, he's growing as a chef and as a human being. I think for him to articulate that to the world via the blog and via Instagram for that matter, is just a wonderful thing.

MARTIN: And, so nine months in New York and then they have to come back to New Orleans.

BESH: I'll need the recipients to come back, work for me for a few months to make sure that, you know, we hone those skills that they've learned in school and then send them off to go work for another great chef. It's counterintuitive in a sense because we're putting a lot of, but...

MARTIN: That is counterintuitive, what you talking about? You're putting your competition out on the street, man.

BESH: Absolutely. And one day I hope they become competition and because that's, you know, that's the American dream.

MARTIN: Well, Chris, how has this experience been for you? What's been the most interesting thing about your training up in New York? I'm just curious about what strikes - I'm from New York, I'm just letting you know.

OKORIE: The most interesting thing?

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. And so step light, I'm from New York.


MARTIN: I want to know like, what have you noticed, particularly in contrast to New Orleans? Like what do you notice about the food? What have you noticed?

OKORIE: I think the chefs here are like, you know, a lot more into how they plate their food and stuff here. But as far as I mean I'm enjoying it a lot, though.

MARTIN: What are you thinking about Chris, in terms of what you think you might like to be known for a chef?

OKORIE: I want all my food to taste good. I want people if I had to open a restaurant - when I open a restaurant later in life - I want people to just have a great experience, a great dining experience. And I ultimately, like the chefs in New York, I just - I want everyone to see my food and know what I'm trying to tell them, you know? And that's why I just want everyone to enjoy and have a great experience.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted, Chris.

OKORIE: I will.

MARTIN: Yeah. Good luck to you.

OKORIE: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Chef, what about you? What are you most excited about now that you've gotten this up and running? I mean I'm getting this isn't probably what you thought you'd be doing when you first thought about being the chef yourself. I don't know that you thought you'd be running a scholarship program too, but...

BESH: Well, you know, I think that we're all called. Every human being needs to be a steward of where it is that they come from, and using the tools that we each one of us possess to make the world a better place. And I think that it probably took Hurricane Katrina to really wake me up that, you know, I've won all the awards that I can win, basically, and I create this great food. But why do I really cook? And who am I, and how am I going to use this to make the world a better place? And so if I can help change some lives and if I can help bring dignity to people, then I've done a great thing and then all of a sudden this snowballs and, you know, people that have graduated that are now moving on and working with our mayor, Mitch Landrieu, on anti-violence outreaches and everything else. And so it's great to see this thing snowball and it's beautiful to watch that just a good deed from you and I can go a long way, we never know what its potential might possibly be.

MARTIN: That was celebrity chef John Besh. He's the co-founder of Chefs Move. It's a scholarship program which hopes to increase diversity in restaurant leadership in New Orleans. Also with us, future chef, Chris Okorie. He won a 2012 Chefs Move program scholarship, and he's finishing his studies up in New York.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

OKORIE: Thank you for having us.

BESH: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.