Plans for the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute have begun to simmer

June 10 2014 | Latest News
By Doug MacCash, | The Times-Picayune

Near the end of 2013, Ti Martin, the commander of Commander's Palace restaurant, put a plan in motion to convert the abandoned Louisiana ArtWorks building on Howard Avenue into a state-of-the-art cooking school to rival up-east establishments, such as The Culinary Institute of American and the Johnson and Wales University College of Culinary Arts.

With the help of her cousin and fellow restaurateur, Dickie Brennan, and others, she whipped up an educational consortium that included Delgado Community College, the University of New Orleans and Tulane University. The organization was called the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute (NOCHI) and it offered $6.2 million for the 93,000-square-foot property near Lee Circle.

Louisiana ArtWorks, which cost more than $25 million to build, was supposed to have been a mega arts and crafts complex that would serve the arts and tourism, but there was never enough money to support the cash-gobbling project. After a few false starts, the ArtWorks soufflé fell in 2011, when the board of directors folded.

In April, the sale of the Howard Avenue complex went through, Martin got the keys and the official planning stage of the future institute began.

Carol Markowitz is the executive director of NOCHI and the only employee. She's a Los Angeles native and Harvard Business School graduate who moved to New Orleans in 2011, where she began consulting at the Idea Village, an entrepreneurial incubator. On Tuesday (June 10), Markowitz said that she and the NOCHI founders were in the "throes of analyzing the business plan" for the new institution.

Re-purposing the five-story edifice from an art-making complex into a cooking institute will cost an estimated $10.5 million, Markowitz said. It will cost another $2 million to establish NOCHI and keep it running until the institution's projected opening in 2016.

First orders of business include settling on a logo design, creating a website and requesting tax-exempt status for the enterprise from Uncle Sam, she said. The founders plan to operate NOCHI as a nonprofit institution bent on benefiting the public. To help fuel the future institute with cash, NOCHI is currently in search of a development director, the person who fills his or her days seeking gifts and grants.

Simultaneously, Markowitz said, she and the others have begun the process of consulting with architects in order to redesign the structure's interior. Nailing down the nature of NOCHI's mission is part of the design process. There's more than one way to skin a catfish, after all. Johnson and Wales, for instance, seems to focus on providing future chefs with full four-year educations, Markowitz said. The Culinary Institute of American has found success with shorter classes for more casual students as well.

"They see it as an business opportunity," Markowitz said.

Though all plans are still up in the air, Markowitz predicts a day when future restaurateurs could take for-credit classes, Crescent City home chefs could take cooking 101 classes and tourists could spend a day being immersed in Creole/Cajun techniques. The question for NOCHI is how best to balance those possibilities and design a building flexible enough to accommodate them.

Vance C. Roux, the program director of Delgado's Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management Department, acknowledged that at this time any detailed description of the future institute would be half-baked. But he agreed to hypothesize about what we might expect to find inside the huge Howard Avenue berg in general terms.

The educational kitchens one might find at NOCHI would have to differ from a working restaurant kitchen, because there would be several sauté stations where students will learn side by side, he said. Similarly, there would probably be an instructional baking kitchen with many more individual mixers than one would find in a restaurant kitchen.

Roux does, however, expect that the institute also will include one authentic restaurant-style kitchen adjoining a working café, where the students could get a feel for the coordination and camaraderie necessary to produce and serve a real menu. The public, he said, might be able to dine at the NOCHI café.

Also, NOCHI might be the site of ongoing education for working chefs. When, a few years back, pork cookery became all the rage, someone could have given expert lessons in curing pork butts. In the future, such classes could be routine on Howard Avenue.

Roux predicts that there will be a teaching theater where culinary experts and celebrity chefs could provide demonstrations. He would welcome cocktail classes with Ti Martin, for instance. Those demonstrations might be videotaped for television broadcast, Roux mused.

The general public is eager to acquire fine cuisine skills, he said.

"If I'm in a hurry going to the grocery store, I don't wear my Delgado shirt, because people stop me to say they want cooking classes," he laughed.

Despite the apparent popularity of the restaurant business in American culture, job-seekers may not be lining up at the kitchen door. A recent story by New Orleans CityBusiness by Greg Larose, which was picked up by The Associated Press, noted that some of New Orleans myriad eateries are starved for qualified employees.

In the AP story, Roux told Larose that his Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management program at Delgado is "maxed out" with 140 students. But NOCHI should help provide more skilled employees. In a telephone conversation Tuesday (June 10), Roux speculated that as many as 500 students could enroll in a two-year program at NOCHI. Those students interested in completing a four-year culinary or hospitality education may be able to continue their NOCHI education through UNO or Tulane, without leaving Howard Avenue.

It is difficult to say how many NOCHI students will be bound for New Orleans kitchens and hotel desks, Roux said. His rough estimate is that 65 percent of his current Delgado students will spend at least part of their careers in the Crescent City. NOCHI, he said, might have a much different proportion, because it may draw students from around the world, just like the CIA or Johnson and Wales. Then, they might go home or take jobs elsewhere.

Who wouldn't want to study cooking in the heart of an indigenous American cuisine, he asked.

"It just makes sense. In my jaded, proud New Orleanian viewpoint, we are the center of the culinary world."

Delgado's participation in NOCHI is crucial because the community college will contribute $9 million of state taxpayer money to the project. Markowitz said the re-developement of ArtWorks may also receive $4 million in historic and new market tax credits from the federal government. Plus, the future institution has an $8 million dollar bank loan to work with. More than one-third of that loan is guaranteed by philanthropists Bill Goldring, Phyllis Taylor and David Kerstein of the Helis Foundation.

Markowitz hasn't run into any NOCHI naysayers. There may be some residual misgivings because of the ArtWorks debacle, but most people seem to be on-board with the culinary institute, she said.

"We need to have a sound business model, because we understand investors might be a little shaky," Markowitz said. "We have to make sure it lives up to the grand vision."