As the restaurant boom rolls across New Orleans, finding and keeping qualified kitchen staff has become a major concern for chefs and restaurateurs. All around town, they share a lament that competition for trained cooks is high while the opportunities to develop new talent close to home are few.
Now, one of the city’s prominent restaurant groups is embarking on a new approach to addressing the issue, deploying a roster of highly experienced chefs to train younger employees as they move up the ranks.
In the past few weeks, Dickie Brennan & Co. has assembled an all-star team that includes well-known local chefs Rene Bajeux, Gunter Preuss and Greg Sonnier along with chef Robert Gurvich, a New Orleans native who has spent his career around the U.S. and recently moved back home. They’re joining Darin Nesbit and Gus Martin, two veteran chefs who were already on the staff of the restaurant group.
Rather than assuming positions as executive chefs at restaurateur Dickie Brennan’s various properties, the six men essentially serve as chefs-in-residence for the company in dedicated training and development roles. They will work with kitchen staff across the company’s four restaurants: the Palace Café, Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, Bourbon House and Tableau.
“For the longest time, we’ve had the idea to do something like this, but the missing piece was always the people, the chefs who would teach,” said Steve Pettus, managing partner of Dickie Brennan & Co. “Now we have that in place, and it’s a real blessing. Now we can do this.”
The in-house training program will revolve around what Pettus calls “centers of excellence” focused on areas like butchery, stocks and sauces, charcuterie, and purchasing and receiving, among others. Employees may be recruited or apply to the program, which they will undertake one day a week while remaining on staff.
“If you’re a promising young cook here, you might work four days on a station and the fifth day with one of these chefs,” said Martin, who has been a chef in New Orleans for more than 30 years. “That fifth day, maybe you’re working with Rene on charcuterie and learning directly from him.”
Pettus estimated it would take about two years for an employee to complete the program, which he hopes to have up and running by the end of the summer.
It’s a new approach to the age-old idea of apprenticeship, one that keeps the restaurant’s employees on the job but opens the opportunity for in-depth learning from highly accomplished mentors, some of whom are considered senior senators of the New Orleans dining scene.
“It’s a formalization of the process you’d like to have already,” Pettus said. “Our kitchens are busy; our people are working hard and fast. They teach where they can because they have a passion to do that. But now as a company, we’ve made an investment in this and put our money where our mouth is.”
Along the way, the corps of teaching chefs will develop new menu specialties for the restaurant group, too.
The depth of experience on the newly formed roster of chefs is extraordinary.
Bajeux, a native of Lorraine, France, is one of only a handful of chefs in the U.S. to earn the prestigious designation of French Master Chef. He was chef at the Windsor Court Grill Room in the 1990s and opened two iterations of his own Rene Bistrot in New Orleans, along with many other positions through the years. He was most recently chef at the J.W. Marriott Hotel.
Sonnier is best known for Gabrielle, the restaurant he and his wife, Mary Sonnier, ran in Mid-City before Hurricane Katrina, where he earned a James Beard Award nomination. He was most recently chef at Kingfish.
The German-born Preuss was chef and owner of the historic Broussard’s Restaurant for nearly 20 years before selling the property to Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts in 2013.
Gurvich’s name may be less familiar locally, but he is the godson of the late Dick Brennan Sr., father of Dickie Brennan. He built his culinary career across the country, including gigs with acclaimed chefs Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Nesbit, currently executive chef at Bourbon House, has worked with the Brennan restaurant family for decades, as has Martin.
“What we’re trying to do is get stronger as a company,” Martin said. “We have a lot of young chefs, we have different opportunities for them at our different restaurants, and we can make it more exciting for them to grow and develop here with us.”
Pettus acknowledged that adding more chefs and taking some staff off the line for intensive training will require an investment, but he believes the effort will pay dividends quickly.
“How productive is that person going to be the other days of the week? How much better and more committed are they going to be at the end of that program?” he said. “We’ve already moved people over to work for a day or two at a time with some of these guys, and when they move back to the line it’s just incredible. You can already see the difference it makes to learn from these guys.”
Dickie Brennan is on the board of the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute, a nonprofit formed last year to create a culinary teaching facility at the former Louisiana ArtWorks building on Howard Avenue.
His company’s new in-house program is separate from that project, a Brennan spokeswoman said.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.