A Steady Diet of Resilience

A conversation with NOCHI Executive Director Leah Sarris
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When the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute (NOCHI) opened its doors in January 2019, the hospitality industry was booming. The nonprofit culinary school, a passion project of local restaurant titans Ti Adelaide Martin and Dickie Brennan and developer George Brower, seemed ideally positioned to supply the city’s surging number of restaurants, bars and hotels with a pipeline of trained graduates.

Less than two years later, that industry struggles beneath the weight of COVID-19, crippling economic uncertainty and painful conversations around equity and opportunity for hospitality workers.

These developments have led Executive Director Leah Sarris and her team to reimagine the ways in which NOCHI can fulfill its educational mission and broaden the concept of hospitality. To support these efforts, NOCHI’s first fundraiser, “Cooking for a Cause,” will run online from September 30 to October 14, featuring auction items ranging from a private cooking class with Emeril Lagasse to a business coaching session with hospitality legend Danny Meyer.

Sarris speaks with New Orleans Magazine about the challenges – and opportunities – ahead for NOCHI.


Q: How is NOCHI weathering this complex time?

Being a startup nonprofit, I think the challenges have been intensified. We don’t have that base built up. We still have debt from opening, and any startup takes a few years to ramp up. It’s definitely knocked us back a little, but we’ve been pretty fortunate and innovative. We’ve all had to step up in different capacities just to make things happen, but we’ve had a lot of great support. So, it hasn’t all been bad. Challenging, yes, but some interesting opportunity has arisen out of it.

Our plan this year was largely built around growing enthusiast classes, which were public-facing, and continuing education for people in the hospitality industry. Obviously, those areas haven’t been a big focus this year, so we’ve had to shift our business model and be creative and innovative very quickly.

Our curriculum, because it’s so new, has been evolving anyway. We’ve always had a big focus on sanitation and safety but obviously now more so. There’s an increased focus on if you’re not going to work in restaurants, what other opportunities are out there? But the good thing is we are teaching the basics. We are a workforce training school more than anything, although we do teach the business side and things you need to grow within the industry. No matter what, people are going to have to eat, so these skills will translate into a variety of fields.


Q: Are students in the kitchens?

When COVID-19 hit, our students were right about at the halfway point of their 100-day program. We ended up breaking for a few weeks while we regrouped and then took everything we could online, condensed into a three-week period. As soon as we were able, we brought them back into the classroom to finish. We graduated that class recently – a virtual graduation, with Frank Brigtsen as our speaker.

We are actually about to start a new group of students. It’s a little smaller than we originally hoped, but we are happy that we are able to continue programming and continue to grow. So we are still doing in-person classes with the contingency plan of taking classes online if we have to and taking precautions in our lab – masking up, frequent hand washing, socially distancing –  everything to keep people safe. It’s a hands-on program – that’s why people are coming here, so you can’t do everything virtual.


Q: What kinds of employment opportunities exist in the hospitality sector? Are parts of the industry thriving?

Obviously not restaurants. I think the people who have pivoted to be more creative in the way they deliver food to people have been able to survive more. There’s still plenty of opportunity to work, where people need to be fed, even if the restaurants are hurting.

One area is preparing food for disaster relief. We’ve been involved in this massive feeding initiative with the city of New Orleans – people can sign up if they’ve been affected by COVID-19. We, along with over 70 restaurants, are preparing food daily that gets delivered to restaurants.

In the last few years but especially now, there’s been a focus on how chefs can respond to disasters and even use it as opportunity. Preparing food for disaster relief is very different from preparing it for a restaurant. That is something that we are definitely emphasizing more as well – mass production. There will always be opportunities with feeding more institutional settings, everything from oil rigs to cafeterias. Some of our graduates are doing meal kits, the heat-and-serve delivery type.

There are still plenty of opportunities – it takes a little more creativity and flexibility, and our jobs aren’t necessarily going to be exactly what we envisioned, but eventually we’re going to find that new normal.

Fortunately, most of our students have not had a problem finding jobs. People are still looking for trained, passionate workers. We have a lot of people looking for new staff, local restauranteurs coming to us looking for students, so we’ve been fortunate in that way.


Q: Have there been any silver linings?

Our virtual “Cooking in Quarantine” classes [now rebranded as “NOCHI Together”] were really successful for us and a big highlight of quarantine for me. We started them almost immediately, twice a week. People could cook along with us, for free or as a donation. When we first started, we had hundreds of people sign up and ended up getting people from 46 states and nine countries. We expanded it to include different kinds of offerings, guest chefs from different restaurants, even cocktails from throughout New Orleans. We’re planning to roll the classes out again in October.

Our vision has been for NOCHI to really become a hospitality educational hub and a community resource for everyone from community members to aspiring professionals to current professionals. Being so young, there were a lot of people who still hadn’t been introduced to us. What this has allowed us to do, especially being more involved with these community initiatives and having to shift our programming, is help us to become a hub in a different way. It’s helped raise awareness about NOCHI, what we stand for, what we’re doing, building more relationships within the community and having people look to us on a local and national scale.


Q: How did you approach the “Cooking for a Cause” fundraiser?

Originally, we were planning on an in-person fundraiser, but we’ve always planned on auctioning culinary experiences more than things. This model might even be better because it allows us an audience we might not otherwise have had, people outside the New Orleans area, people who learned about us from initiatives we’re doing. We are excited by the fact that it can give people something to look forward to, whether a small, private cooking class or an online experience, once they are able to enjoy it.

People can support us even if they can’t bid thousands of dollars on a private cooking class. There are plenty of ways to donate or buy NOCHI swag from the website or attend our virtual cooking classes for a low cost. There are also going to be some smaller items on our auction, like cookware and fun things like NOCHI-themed Mardi Gras shoes.

Our Board has been great in helping [line up the participants]. I think that really speaks to the fact that the industry is very supportive of NOCHI being here and thinks it’s important to keep us afloat. Those people are donating their services and time to our bottom line, which is desperately needed right now.


Q: This year has seen an increased focus on workplace diversity and equity, and the perceived lack of it in many hospitality settings. Is NOCHI addressing those topics?

Yes, very much so. We are actually integrating diversity and racial equity training for all of our staff at NOCHI. Additionally, we are working on a workforce training program designed to help people within the hospitality industry, specifically people of color, have opportunities for growth within the industry – to see more management roles, more ownership roles, to help people grow. Our students have been a very diverse student body from the beginning – we always made it a point to make sure we are very inclusive in that way. It’s always been a priority to us to have a very diverse staff and to make sure that our students are seeing the things that we expect and want to see out in the industry. Even just speaking about this with students – bringing in guest speakers, a wide variety of different instructors, restaurant owners and business owners that are a very diverse group.

What’s up to us right now as an educational institution is to advocate for ways for people to grow within the industry and get more opportunities. We’ve had a great partnership with Diageo that was bartending workforce training. That was pretty cool because it’s largely for people of color and women. That is something we’re looking at shifting to not just bartending but more hospitality in general. That’s a big part of our conversations, as it should be in any institution right now.


Q: How is NOCHI building for the future?

We hope to continue to build our relationship with the community, become that educational hub for people in hospitality – not just in the industry but for community members as well, growing that idea of what hospitality means. I’d like to start growing more in continuing education for people in the industry. That might mean education specific to the new environment we’re in.

For example, we built programming called HOSP: an online platform for hospitality owners, staff and patrons. It takes the data out there about COVID and how to safely reopen and puts it in one spot as online training modules for hospitality staff. They can take the training and get a window decal to say they completed this training. A lot of our focus is not just keeping staff safe but also keeping customers safe and helping with consumer confidence, helping people feel safe going back into restaurants.

That is one way we are shifting our educational platform to be more relevant to today’s needs. I think we’re going to have to continue to do that – to see what the needs of the industry are and innovate our programming to meet whatever those needs may become. We continue to offer ServSafe classes and integrate COVID into that. We can help people grow their businesses, or regrow them from the ground up, especially if they’ve taken a big hit. What can we do to help them be successful? What business skills can we give them? I see us growing more and more in those arenas and obviously being innovative in our enthusiast programming, to give people fun things to do in a way that’s safe and keeps our staff safe.

Hospitality is about taking care of one another, being kind to each other, giving a helping hand. It’s not just sitting down in a restaurant. That’s a unique thing about New Orleans – we’ve always been pretty good at that.


Sharing the Art of Feel-Good Cooking

Leah Sarris considers herself a chef first and dietitian second: “I like to make food that looks and tastes great and also happens to be good for you.”

Raised in the Midwest on a meat-and-potatoes diet, Sarris discovered a passion for health-conscious cooking early in her career, earning a degree in culinary nutrition from Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. She began her career working in research and development for a consulting firm then shifted to nutrition education, helping improve school food through the Rhode Island Farm to School Project and also working on a farm, which deepened her appreciation for agriculture.

Sarris made her way to New Orleans in 2012 to launch the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University, where she served as Director of Operations and Executive Chef. In April 2019 Sarris moved to NOCHI to become the Director of Education, prior to assuming the Executive Director role in July 2019.