Updated 6:06 AM; Posted 6:00 AM
NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
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Construction crews are in the process of turning the old Louisiana ArtWorks building at the corner of Howard Avenue and Carondelet Street into the new $32 million New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute. The institute is set to open in 2019.
Carol Markowitz, president of the institute, which goes by the acronym NOCHI, wove through the five-story building during a recent tour, pointing out where new cooking and pastry classrooms would go, as well as a ground-floor cafe and an event space with a dedicated kitchen and rooftop terrace. Large vent systems for the industrial kitchens sat waiting to be installed. A welder working on the first floor sent an arc of sparks into the air.
Markowitz said the first priority for NOCHI, pronounced like the Italian dumpling gnocchi, is to provide opportunities for education and advancement for workers in the restaurant industry. Over the long-term, she and founders Ti Adelaide Martin, Dickie Brennan and George Brower want to see the building become a must-see stop for foodies all over, from the acclaimed pastry chef to the local trying their hand at baking for the first time to tourists who want to spend an evening tasting wines.
"It's a huge opportunity to provide enrichment for all the food and beverage enthusiasts around the world and, of course, in our local community," Markowitz said.
To that end, NOCHI is partnering with several organizations to pull the project together. That includes the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers, or NAFEM, which has agreed to donate roughly $5 million worth of equipment, from ovens to silverware, and Tulane University, which will occupy the third and fourth floor of the building with office space, classrooms and lecture halls. Tulane plans to launch a new program in hospitality entrepreneurship there.
In addition, NOCHI signed a cooperative endeavor agreement with the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority to get the facility up and running and oversee its operations.
The 93,000-square-foot space is large and open, with large windows on every floor that overlook either the streets on the exterior or an interior courtyard. Exposed brick in the courtyard gives a glimpse at century-old bones of the building, which is actually two historic buildings connected by new construction back when developers intended to turn the space into Louisiana ArtWorks, a world-class art studio that failed to fully get off the ground.
Under the new design, the first floor will be a partially public space with a cafe and bar area fronting Howard Avenue where visiting chefs and bartenders will be able to test their menus. The corners facing Carondelet and St. Joseph streets will house classroom kitchens and storage space.
The second floor will be where the facility's baking and pastry labs will be, with eight tables each and enough room to fit up to 18 students as well as a traditional-style lecture hall.
"This is for the full-time students, the ongoing professionals, but it's also for the enthusiasts," local restaurateur Dickie Brennan said while standing in one of the planned pastry labs during the recent tour. "So, we should always have this room busy."
Ti Martin, co-proprietor of Commander's Palace, called the fifth floor her "favorite," highlighting a spacious room with warehouse windows and an arched ceiling with exposed wood beams. That space will be the facility's beverage lab, where cocktail professionals will hone their craft and enthusiasts will learn how to mix drinks and sample the results, Martin said.
On the fifth floor overlooking St. Joseph Street is a large event space and rooftop terrace with a dedicated kitchen and storage area for catering equipment like tables and chairs. Markowitz said the space will be equipped to host all kinds of events, including weddings and corporate functions. Eventually, she said the plan is to use the space to support programming and conferences created and led by NOCHI.
Markowitz said the project is going smoothly, but probably won't be hiccup free. She noted working with historic structures always poses challenges.
For example, contractors are working on re-leveling the floor of the room that will be turned into the kitchen for the fifth-floor event space. The old wood boards were too warped to accommodate industrial kitchen equipment. That said, the building has a lot of new features, including fully updated and up-to-code bathrooms and stairways thanks to its recent history as an arts development.
Brennan noted many of the city's leading culinary figures dreamed of bringing a world-class culinary institution to New Orleans. But few could have envisioned a space quite like the one taking shape on Howard Avenue, he said.
"For this to fall into our lap, this is a world-class building and you look at this neighborhood," Brennan said. "What a gift."