There are restaurants in New Orleans where regulars might take up picket signs if any change as drastic as a different gumbo recipe were proposed. That sort of emotional attachment speaks to the vital role restaurants and the culinary traditions they represent play in the local cultural identity, and the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) believes long-standing employees are a key ingredient in the unique appeal.
To honor them, the industry group created its Louisiana Restaurant Legends Award, which over the past year has been presented to a growing list of well-seasoned employees, from waiters and managers to cooks and back office staffers, who all make the state’s restaurant scene tick.
“We’re giving recognition to restaurant employees who really deserve it but rarely get the attention,” says LRA president Jim Funk. “They make a real contribution to such an important part of our cultural economy.”
The recognition is also intended to show young people the opportunities for long and meaningful careers in the restaurant industry. While the restaurant industry in general has traditionally had a high rate of employee turn-over, Funk says restaurateurs have grown much more savvy in recent years at retaining their best people, offering benefits and other inducements for individuals to build long careers under their roofs.
The Legends Award is open to employees of LRA member restaurants who have worked at the same restaurant for at least 20 years. Member restaurants across the state have been nominating some of their most revered and outstanding veteran employees. So far, the LRA has presented 13 Legends Awards.
Local honorees have included Milton Dalton, top photo, the legendary maitre d’ of the Rib Room at the Omni Royal Orleans hotel who started his career there 46 years ago as a bus boy. Other local awards have gone to Emile “Skip” Hebert, middle photo, general manager of The Court of Two Sisters who began his career in 1980 as a purchaser, and to Karen Terry, bottom photo, assistant comptroller at Arnaud’s Restaurant for the past 27 years.
Statewide, the LRA’s awards have gone to employees with tenures ranging from 21 years all the way to 51 years and the organization believes a steady stream of outstanding nominees will continue as word of the award program spreads. For instance, one restaurant, Soileau’s Dinner Club in Opelousas, has eight employees who each have more than 20 years of service.
“We’ve already given them two awards and we think they’ll be submitting nominees for the next six years,” says LRA communications director Wendy Waren. – I.M.