While working as the director of operations at Tulane University’s Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine, Leah Sarris taught students and doctors about the importance of healthy eating. In April, Sarris was tapped to helm the culinary program at the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute (NOCHI). The new director of culinary education and training spoke to Gambit about her role.
Gambit: What will you do at NOCHI?
Sarrs: My job is to build and manage the curriculum for students that come here for the certification program, both culinary and baking and pastry. There’s also continuing education that we will be building for front and back of the house — so, education for people in the industry, which could be anything from (food) service to bar to culinary. I also work with our enthusiasts’ classes. The enthusiasts’ classes are a fun way for the public to come and learn from a lot of New Orleans’ best chefs. It might be good for someone who doesn’t necessarily want to get a certificate but just wants to learn more about cooking. We’ve already started offering those, and in June and July we have nine classes. Right now, they’re taught by guest chefs. We have Frank Brigtsen, Justin Devillier, Jason Goodenough, Tory McPhail and some others coming over within the next month.
"Right now my biggest plan is to finish my book, which is publishing in fall 2020. Once I get that done, I can start digging into how to expand the Willa Jean brand."
G: How is NOCHI’s certificate program different from other types of culinary degrees?
S: I’m really excited that NOCHI has a unique perspective on culinary education. What makes it unique is that it’s a short program. It’s 100 days, or five months, and it’s affordable, unlike a degree at your typical culinary school that can run a student in debt well over $30,000 or $60,000. This is a way for us to get people on the ground running without having to spend years in training. It’s getting a lot of the technical education and teaching them all the skills that they need to get in the workforce quickly. I want to make it a world-class education that isn’t going to cost a fortune.
G: Your background includes restaurant work, food service, farming, culinary medicine and community outreach. How will that influence NOCHI’s curriculum?
S: My belief is that chefs have a moral responsibility to care about the food they’re serving to patrons. I get excited about teaching people in the culinary industry what it means to eat nutritious food, because it’s changed so much over the past 20 years, including people’s perceptions versus the reality. The trends all point toward teaching people to be more plantcentric, more local, more sustainable — to eat healthier products. People are asking for it, so it’s a great time to be in this role where I can make sure students get this information. I’m also looking forward to building that into more of our continuing education opportunities and enthusiast classes.
My goal is to teach people that eating healthy food and eating great-tasting and great-looking food shouldn’t be exclusive from one another. It should be great food that happens to be good for you.
(At the Goldring Center) I saw there was need for education across different platforms and I learned that a lot of chefs were ready for more education, because they were asking me for it. I realized there is a lack of education across the board, from the medical community to the culinary community, and that we need to bring it up to date and stop selling out-of-touch views of what it means to eat well.
There’s always something new to try in New Orleans.
Mid-City butcher Piece of Meat (3301 Bienville St.) was named one of Food & Wine magazine's ten Best New Restaurants of 2019.