Just last spring, Brooklynn Duplessis felt she had nothing going on. The Algiers native, then 17, had dropped out of school and had no job, no prospects and little support from her family.
“I wasn’t doing anything, just nothing, and I was used to it but it wasn’t OK,” Duplessis said.
That changed rapidly once she signed on in April with Liberty’s Kitchen, a nonprofit that runs a casual cafe and coffee shop, provides fresh meals for local schools and offers a job and life skills program for young people who are out of work and out of school.
“It changed my whole life,” said Duplessis, who recently graduated from the group’s 12-week Youth Development Program. “They taught me to push on, they showed me there are things I have to do. It was a lot of pressure at first, but now I feel like I’m just blossoming. I feel like I’m stepping into my adult life.”
There are plenty of changes afoot for Liberty’s Kitchen these days, too. Earlier this month, it opened in a new and dramatically larger space as part of the ReFresh Project, a Mid-City development that is also home to a Whole Foods Market, Tulane University’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine and other community groups. Liberty’s Kitchen will celebrate with a grand opening next week and hosts its largest annual fundraiser, Come Grow With Us, next month.
“We only moved five blocks, but this is a really big step for us,” said David Emond, executive director of Liberty’s Kitchen.
“We have a lot more visibility for the program, for our supporters, for what we do here,” he said. “We’ve already seen more young people coming in, wanting to get involved. We’ll never be able to meet all the demand, but we can do a lot more now.”
On the table, and behind the scenes
Liberty’s Kitchen was founded in 2009 by Janet Davas, a former administrator at Café Reconcile, a Central City nonprofit cafe based on a similar education and mentoring program. In August, Café Reconcile was honored by the American Culinary Federation with its 2014 Achievement of Excellence Award.
Davas saw the model’s transformative power for young people firsthand and also the need for more of it around New Orleans. Similarly, Café Reconcile alums led the opening of the nonprofit Café Hope in Marrero in 2010.
Until the move to the ReFresh Project this summer, Liberty’s Kitchen was based in a small, easy-to-miss space below a law office near the Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse. That entire former facility could easily fit into the current 2,500-square-foot kitchen alone, not counting the dedicated classroom, offices and counseling room built into the new design.
More room means Liberty’s Kitchen can more than double the number of students who work through its Youth Development Program each year, from 81 in 2013 to up to 200 as the new facility gets rolling.
On the front end, the new cafe has a modern look finished with subway tiles and bare cypress and a menu running through breakfast pastries and sandwiches, salads, black bean burgers and the MVB burger, a one-time pop-up phenom that’s now a Liberty’s Kitchen fixture. There’s an outdoor seating area, a private room available for lunch meetings, and a more prominent coffee bar serving signature brews from Starbucks, which has been a Liberty’s Kitchen supporter from the start.
While the cafe is in many ways the public face of Liberty’s Kitchen, its School Nutrition Program has become just as important to the overall operation and it, too, is poised for growth.
Liberty’s Kitchen produces roughly 4,000 meals a day (counting breakfast, lunch, snacks and some suppers) for the three campuses of New Orleans College Prep, a charter school program where nearly all students qualify for free or reduced school meals. Emond hopes to start new contracts with more schools to raise that number to 10,000 meals a day within the next three years. The larger kitchen means the group can train more staff and prep more food, though Emond underscored that a key component to the School Nutrition Program remains from-scratch cooking completed at the schools themselves.
“If we’re chopping trinity here, we’re still doing the cooking there (at the schools),” he said. “That’s the difference. We want the students at those schools we serve to understand that food is something you prepare, not just deliver.”
The new ReFresh Project location comes with other perks, including a partnership with Whole Foods Market that has Liberty’s Kitchen students preparing salad dressings, gumbo, jambalaya and red beans for the deli counter at adjacent grocery store.
All of these programs have a dual role, bringing in revenue to support the overall operation and serving as the hands-on curriculum as students work their way through their training.
Duplessis now helps staff the cafe counter at Liberty’s Kitchen, and she’s looking forward to greeting the next class of students as they begin the stages of the program she has recently completed.
“I want to tell them something, even though some of them will probably be older than me,” she said. “I want to let them know this isn’t an opportunity you can afford to waste.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.