Dennis Bagneris, CEO of Liberty’s Kitchen, and Toure Folkes, bartender and front-of-the-house training consultant.

Liberty’s Kitchen provides restaurant and hospitality training to New Orleanians ages 16 to 24, who gain skills and experience at its cafe at the ReFresh Project in Mid-City and its cafeteria in the CBD. The Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, which held its annual New Orleans conference in July, recently announced a grant to support Liberty Kitchen’s new bar and spirits training program.

Bartender and consultant Toure Folkes has been a volunteer and mentor at Liberty’s Kitchen for two years and has organized the 12-week course, which is expected to begin in late August or September.

Gambit: How will the program work?

Folkes: It’s a 12-week program that’s going to have front-of-the-house training, spirits training and a mentorship component, as well as opportunities for them to network with industry professionals and increase their visibility within the industry. We’ll look at a different spirit every week. They’ll be training in real bars when those bars are not open. The products are generally donated, and some brand reps will be involved in teaching. The students will go to distilleries, breweries and other field trips.

Two to three times a week they’ll be placed in a restaurant bar and work alongside a mentor. Ideally in the last four weeks, they’ll be making drinks behind that bar. In addition, there will be events such as Come Grow with Us, a gala dinner with (chef) Martha Wiggins. She’s making a five-course dinner, and with three courses, we’ll be making a cocktail.

It's not just about being a bartender. You can be a brand ambassador. You can enter management. The most logical move from bartender is to management because you have to know all the spirits as well as food. It is one of the more high-end positions in terms of required knowledge.

Gambit: How did the idea for this program develop?

F: I have been volunteering at Liberty’s Kitchen with front-of-the-house components. We talked about doing a more intensive program with bartender training. There are a few places around the country that have similar programs. There’s Causing a Stir in Chicago and Ideal Bartender School in Louisville (Kentucky). The idea here is that New Orleans is unique because we can pull from tourism events and this is a tourism-based city.

Craft cocktails is a part of it, but the major things are visibility and mentorship. That’s what makes it different than a bartending school. It’s like when people ask if Liberty’s Kitchen is a cooking school? It’s more than that. The social aspect is a big part of it. Visibility and equity are important.

Bagneris: For the last 10 years, the organization has been about the challenge of racial equity in the workplace, particularly in the hospitality industry and making sure we advocate for making more diverse opportunities available to our young people. The restaurant and hospitality industry is booming — it’s the lifeblood of this city. There’s something to be said for a city that’s predominantly populated by people of color to (have people of color) held to positions that are on the lower-end of the spectrum throughout the industry. We challenge it with our employer partners. We don’t always think it’s about racism, but there are some things embedded in hiring practices that are inappropriate.

We advocate with our employer partners. What does it mean to develop career paths for the populations we serve? What does it look like to have an environment that’s diverse and inclusive to all types of people, and how do you feel about that?

A lot of our (Liberty’s Kitchen participants) have extremely charismatic personalities and would excel in these opportunities, and bartenders make a good deal of money. There aren’t a lot of young people of color in these positions. We want to shine a light on that and give our young people training to move into these positions.

G: How can the program improve diversity in bars and restaurants?

F: It’s about increasing visibility in certain spaces. There are (businesses) that hire from other places in the country and don’t hire locally. The main focus of this program is to increase the visibility of local people of color within the service industry. I have often heard people come here and say, “Where are all the black people” — in restaurants?

Part of the challenge is being comfortable in all-white spaces. That’s something you have to speak about. If you have a mentor and an environment that’s been cultivated, that is going to change the nature of the environment. A majority of the mentors are people of color. We’ve seen the hurdles and barriers to succeeding, including just being yourself. What if you’re the only black person in an all-white space? Someone might get a job out of this program, but who’s going to support them if a customer comes at them in a racist sort of way?

Throughout Tales of the Cocktail, I saw where the visibility of people of color is a national and international issue, and people are trying to address it through different initiatives. There is a huge opportunity to change the face of the restaurant industry in New Orleans and make young people more visible and able to tell their own story and be active in the community.

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