September 2007 Trip

Day 8 – The End…and The Beginning

The day we depart is always one of mixed sentiment. On the one hand, we’re exhausted emotionally and physically. But on the other, we know just how much work is left to be done. This conundrum never fails to highlight the truly courageous in this post-Katrina daze…the citizens of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Their commitment to community is a civic lesson we all have learned but perhaps have not always executed. The thanks we received, the hugs and handshakes we were honored with, all go right back to the people picking themselves up and building back their lives despite all the obstacles.

Thank you to the CulinaryCorps team for their compassion, hard-work and leadership. And thanks to our many generous sponsors and supporters who helped to get them there. The impact of the experience was evident. There is no doubt that these latest CulinaryCorps alum will go home and pay the experience forward – through words, actions and hopefully, good food.

Day 7 – Ready, Set, Eat!

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There are days – after sixteen hours on your feet, a broken robocoup and a late arriving two-top demanding a well-done steak – when food is just not fun. Our day with Edible Schoolyard NOLA was not one of them.

Tasked with throwing the first-ever “Food Field Day” at Charter Middle School, we worked closely with former CulinaryCorps alum and current Edible Schoolyard Chef/Forager, April, to create a day of culinary exploration and excitement.

The Edible Schoolyard program is firmly rooted at Samuel Green Charter School, a few miles away from Charter. There at Green, murals abound, broccoli plants peak up from landscaped mounds and giant Weber grills remind everyone just why growing your own food can be so great. Having just opened in early September, Charter Middle School does not yet have any of the perks its sister school does.

To help launch the concept of eating healthy, colorful and tasty food, CulinaryCorps stepped in as the expert chefs. It is amazing what authority a white coat and some checked trousers can pull. The Field Day was designed around 5 food challenges and each grade that came to participate was divided into 5 teams accordingly. After completing each challenge, the team would get points for their performance, the one with most at the end of the event winning a $5 token to the Crescent City Farmers Market.

Not having been introduced to the Edible concept before, we were unsure of how engaged they would be with our eclectic activities. To our surprise, they couldn’t get enough. Drawing, tasting, matching, memorizing and creating like culinary champs, the laughter was as plentiful as the lessons. When the final whistle blew, the lunch we got to share with them was a reward all of its own. And the number of times we were asked to return again the next day, a reason to make it through our next split shift.

Day 6 – Le Bistrot Reconciler

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Cafe Reconcile is a unique non-profit organization in part because of the work that they do but also because of how long they have been doing it. Reconcile’s kitchen serves affordable meals cooked by at-risk youth with a curiosity about the culinary arts. This beacon of good food and mentorship has successfully operated on the same corner of Orthea Castle Haley for twenty years – an eon for any restaurant, let alone a non-profit organization.

To thank their sponsors for their two-decades of support, Cafe Reconcile solicited our help. CulinaryCorps was asked to design and execute a three-course menu (with five passed appetizers) for one hundred of their most important sponsors and supporters. We decided to go classically French, thus renaming the venue for the evening, Le Bistrot Reconciler.

With the help of the kitchen staff (Chef Jo, Chef Andrew and Chef Curtis), most of the basics were in place before we arrived (plates, food orders, and student manpower). The day of the event, we arrived at 7am to begin our prep. Setting up a mobile kitchen in the upstairs storage area, our team broke into smaller groups and spread both upstairs and down to execute their individual responsibilities on the menu. By 8am, we were gathered around the dining room, hand-in-hand with the students of Reconcile, reciting their morning blessing. A moment of calm before the maelstrom.

Typically, a meal for one hundred necessitates prep the night before. So with only 10-hours until the first appetizers were passed, we worked fast and furiously. Luckily, we had the enthusiasm, hard-work and creativity of the Reconcile students to help us accomplish this mission impossible.

At 6pm, students dressed in their waitstaff finest were passing trays of cherry tomatoes stuffed with herbed goat cheese and mini-croque salmons, topped with creme fraiche and caviar. We rounded out the nibbles with tiny beef tartines with spinach and anchovy butter, gruyere gougeres and fried oysters and catfish with remoulade sauce. Wined flowed, conversation turned to laughter and everyone’s appetites were piqued for the classic Vichysoisse that was up as the first course.

The courses sailed by and the whole day became a happy experiment in group mentorship. When the final diner left, there were hugs exchanged and e-mail addresses swapped.

We packed up what we could for the students to bring home to loved ones…roasted pork loin with swiss chard and apple cider sauce, sweet potato gratin with hazelnuts, glazed summer squash and of course, lots of chocolate-banana bread pudding. We know that at the end of this evening, our hearts were as full as their bellies were about to be.

Thank you Cafe Reconcile students for reminding us why we went into this career in the first place. We wish you all the luck in the world as you find your way in the kitchen.

Day 5 – And We Ate

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…our apologies for the delayed post…we experienced loss of internet connection mid-trip…

The Crescent City Farmers Market was the first stop on our “day off” itinerary. There we were met by Poppy Tooker, the Slow Food Convivum Leader for Louisiana, who gave us her always entertaining background on the market’s history. Darin, the Palace Cafe chef we had the pleasure of working with at Emergency Communities, channeled his inner pastry chef and created a birthday cake for Ms.Tookers “15th” birthday. So we started our day with cake. Not a bad way to begin!

For the next hour, the group enjoyed the offerings of the vibrant Tuesday market. Fresh guava juice, salty boiled peanuts, crabcakes by cooks from Brennan’s, pesto in all shades of green and a lovely queso fresco by Donna Blanca cheeses. After a quick hello to the high school students from Lusher, we broke off our many animated conversations with the engaging market vendors and headed to lunch.

At ease within the muted green dining room of Herbsaint, we enjoyed a relaxing meal that began with tarragon speckled frog’s legs; segued into handmade noodles with guanciale and deep-fried eggs; and wound down with pressed pork sandwiches and fiery fillets of catfish. Plus enough iced tea to rehydrate us from the inferno that was the Camp Hope kitchen.

We gave ourselves the opportunity to gain our appetites back and strolled into the French Quarter where we were greeted by Gerald Patout, curator of the What’s Cookin’ exhibit at the New Orleans Historic Collection. Amid lush red walls and gorgeous antique food graphics, Gerald gave us his unique insight into the cookbook collection housed within the exhibit. It’s safe to say that New Orlean’s culinary roots run deep into French soil.

With a few hours to spend in the Quarter, chicory coffee and beignets were a must try for some while the ubiquitous Hurricane was on others’ agenda. As the sun set and a cool breeze swept up Royal Street, the group headed off to Mid-City where a buffet of not-so-typical bowling alley fare awaited us.

Rock n’ Bowl heralded its triumphant opening earlier this year and has been serving up its patented blend of bowling, beer and bands to those in the know. As the ringers threw spares, the rest of us noshed on crawfish etouffe, boudin and the New Orlean’s classic, red beans n’ rice. Not a stale hot-dog, soggy kernel of popcorn or greasy burger in sight. Only in New Orleans! And a perfect way to unwind and re-energize for the work left to be done.

Day 4 – Camp Hope

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Camp Hope is the volunteer housing for Habitat for Humanity’s building efforts in the New Orleans area. It is a massive elementary school refitted to house 1500 volunteers at a time. Along with the manpower hours, comes the responsibility to feed those volunteers hungry from a hard days hammering.

Chef Frank and his assistant cook, Erin, coordinate AmeriCorps NCCC volunteers to create the meals. Each NCCC team rotates through the kitchen for a six-week stay. CulinaryCorps was charged with the task to teach the two newest teams – their first day in the kitchen was today – the tricks of the trade while tag-teaming dinner for the site.

After an overview of the basics of kitchen hygiene, safety and knife skills, we broke in to groups – AmeriCorps and CulinaryCorps side by side – and set about creating the meal while incorporating some basic cooking lessons.

NCCC volunteers are between the ages of 18-24 so many (if not most) have barely cooked in their home kitchens, let alone a professional one. To their credit, they were incredibly gracious students – stirring, blending, chopping and frying their way through the hours (and the un-air conditioned heat) with the best of us.

When the 5pm meal rolled around, the serving line was groaning with warm lentil salad, chicken in veloute, baked pasta with pink sauce, gazpacho with biscuit croutons, beet and bean salad, peach cake, potato and pea latkes, rice and ham salad and peach tofu pudding (for the vegans in the crowd – 5% of all Camp Hope volunteers).

Everything was made from what Camp Hope typically keeps in stock (and can afford on their limited budget) which means we had to get very creative with canned goods, frozen items and no butter. If the grins around the long canteen tables were any sort of sign, cooking within these confines was a challenge that was met and deliciously exceeded.

Day 3 – The Three B’s of EC

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The day at Emergency Communities started with a brunch. By 9am, there were onions frying, cornbread baking and pancakes flipping. By 11am, there was a line wrapping around the canteen for banana oat flapjacks, potato and bacon hash, fresh fruit salad, cheesy grits with gravy and eggs with sauteed vegetables.

It segued into a BBQ. And by 4pm there were smoked ribs on the grill, red beans and rice in the pot and fresh bean salad on the plate. Not to mention jambalya,grilled/smoked chicken, coleslaw, tomato and cucumber vinagrette, cheescake and fruit, white chocolate bread pudding and a delightful “Emergen-C Palmer” made with ice tea and the vitamin C drink so familiar with those working in the devastated area.

And ended with the The Honey Island Swamp band. Their unique and happy versions of Cajun and blues were the perfect ending to challenging but rewarding day.

Thanks both to our CulinaryCorps team and the extra muscle (and product) brought in by Darin, Amy, Jennifer, Alex and Neil (all Bourbon House/Palace Cafe veterans), we served almost 500 meals to the residents of the Lower 9th Ward and the volunteers of Emergency Communities helping to rebuild it.

After a second helping of everything on offer, one resident told us that at that moment, he didn’t feel like he was in the 9th ward. A compliment, yes but a testament to all the work that is still left to be done. We plan to return.

Day 2 – Farmers Delight

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The spectacular sunrise over East Orleans was our first good omen of the day. The bright sunshine and cooling winds when we arrived in Ocean Springs (a small town in the middle of the Mississippi Gulf Coast) at 7:30am this morning, our second bit of good luck. But the eight brand new Glossman Gas stoves and “Big Larry” grill waiting for us at the Ocean Springs Farmers Market? Well, those were just too good to be true.

Our chefs arrived with one directive, make some great food using the farmer’s ingredients…in other words they were charged with being the culinary entertainment for the day. Setting up a “kitchen stadium” at one end of the market, chefs were encouraged to showcase both the products being used as well as the steps by which they were going to tackle a dish. After a warm welcome from the town’s mayor, Connie Moran, they were off foraging in the market. When the first CulinaryCorps chef stepped behind the demonstration table, people pulled up chairs and made themselves comfortable for the “show.” And what a show it was.

For five hours straight our cooks cranked out dishes of amazing technique and creativity. Ricotta-honey mousse with figs, goat sausage, pepper and onion heros, grilled watermelon, elderberry soup, handmade pasta with eggplant ragu, marinated sirloin topped with grilled mango cheeks, goat stew provencal, fried okra, blueberry tea scones…and many more. Sampled with a smile to the hundreds of Ocean Springs market patrons who came out for the “Fresh Food Festival”, we received more thanks than we could count. And quite a few “yums”, “wows” and “where can I get that recipe?”

In fact, the dishes we created today will be collected and saved for a cookbook highlighting the SlowFood heritage of Ocean Springs and its coastal neighbors. A wonderful resource for the market and a fantastic keepsake for the group.

And if cooking straight from the vending booth was not enough of a rare treat, our chefs also competed in a cake decorating contest. As the bands played on in the background, the two teams of four had 25 minutes to create a cake with the theme “Reconnecting the Coast.”

Ocean Springs is excited to be having the bridge to Biloxi reopened in a few short weeks and the two cakes highlighted its more unique architectural features. In the end, only one team “won” but we all got to eat the cakes made by Diane Claughton – MI Slowfood President – so really, we were all winners.

As we said many times today, it was an honor and a privilege to be part of this first annual event. Ocean Springs is a community of amazing grace and hospitality…and some refreshing culinary curiosity to top it all off.

Thank you Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce for treating us to our over-the-top BBQ experience at The Shed. Many of us will never think about brisket the same way again.

And thank you farmers, market goers, press, organizers and volunteers of today’s “Fresh Food Festival”…may this be the first of many successful food celebrations!

For a brief overview of the day’s event, check out this article in the Mississippi Press.

Day 1 – Heavenly

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After arriving in New Orleans, getting to know our new team and touring the areas of both rebuilding and devastation…we dined like New Orleans aristocracy this evening. Ms. Leah Chase is once again commander of her kitchen and doing her thing like never before. We started off on the right foot, with mint juleps the color of spring grass – sweet and refreshing, a perfect jet-lag antidote.

Then we had crab soup (spot-on seasoning and spice) followed by crab cakes followed by chicken a la dooky followed by veal followed by shrimp and mushrooms followed by cornbread followed by sweet potatoes (so very SWEET) followed by collards followed by lemon meringue pie. Did I mention wine? And garlicky hunks of bread? And coffee?

Not just a meal to remember. A piece of restaurant history never to forget. The Chase’s have spent two long years rebuilding their dream exactly the way they have it etched in their heart. We were honored to be one of their first guests.

CulinaryCorps could not have wished for a better way to kick start the third trip of the year. Ms. Chase, her entire family and her devoted staff epitomize our vision – that those who love and are invested in the community’s food rank among its most prized leaders.

We wish Ms. Chase and everyone involved with bringing Dooky Chase into its current state of splendor a most fortuitous re-opening. We’re excited to predict the sparkle in everyone’s eyes when they see the soulful space and the grins on everyone’s faces when their forks hits their lips.

CulinaryCorps Chronicles – An Introduction

Less than two days before our third group of volunteer culinary professionals joins forces in New Orleans. Once again we have an incredible group coming along. From food editors to yacht chefs, bakers to chef instructors…the diversity will be our greatest asset.

In an effort to keep our readers informed, CulinaryCorps.org has decided to chronicle each day of the trip complete with pictures. So stop by as often as you can to get a behind the scenes glimpse of CulinaryCorps in action!