The idea of creating a professional culinary school for the New Orleans restaurant industry goes back a long time, and now it's here. With the active support of the restaurants themselves, the school is a reality this year. In late 2019 the second class graduates in this gorgeous old building it shares with its tenant Tulane's Freeman School of Business. It is called The New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute. Find NOCHI @ www.nochi.org.
NOCHI has assembled a modernized, complete food service facility in this lovely space on the corner of Carondelet Street and Howard Avenue. (It's interesting that the street is paved with irregular blocks of stone that go back nearly to the earliest days of New Orleans history.)
Last Friday at lunch, NOCHI staged a pop-up dinner in a full kitchen called Tanchi Kitchen, open to the public. There were several ideas considered by all the students, who discussed different themes and voted on them. Tanchi is a pre-colonial Native American theme serving food based on ancient food of the region. The main ingredient was corn, so when we arrived we were presented with a small dish of popped corn dusted with chili powder and chocolate powder. This was light and crunchy and really surprisingly delicious. Also on the table were light and fluffy corn muffins that were just as tasty as the popped corn. I chose a Pinot Noir from Napa Valley to drink and MA had hibiscus tea she declared delicious.
We were there with an assortment of other diners, for whom the open kitchen generated a full lunch. It was all unique, and definitely gourmet in taste and presentation. Nobody left less than impressed by what NOCHI and its Tanchi Kitchen put out. When the director came out to visit our table, we learned why this was all so good. It was under the tutelage of Allison Vines-Rushing, who will leave soon with the children to join her husband Slade in his wonderful new opportunity in London’s Covent Garden. This is a great loss for NOCHI, but she will be replaced by any number of other great chefs just as enthusiastic about this project.
The lunch was a three-course, full-service dinner, with the chef and the students both creating and serving the meal. The diners were free to make their choices. The idea is to let the cooks serve the customers, and servers doing a lot of the kitchen. In the end, the Pop-Up experience is as well-rounded as it would be in a standard restaurant. Probably more so.
When Mary Ann and I arrived, the dining room was about two-thirds full, and everybody in it was eager to serve more. We had a choice of five starters. Mary Ann rhapsodized about her choice of an Autumn Squash salad with Watercress, Satsuma Vinaigrette, and Seeds, and crispy duck ham. It was pretty, fresh, colorful, and tasted great. My appetizer was even better: A Banaha tamale, filled with Oaxacan cheese, pecans and molé. I am always looking for this unusual Mexican chocolate-based sauce, but I almost never have anything even close to this. I hope both that I eat this again, and that the recipe is passed around.
The same routine could be said of the five entrees. When we were seated, one of the entrees was sold out--a spiced venison loin with risotto and Wojabi berry sauce. But that's something that always happens in restaurants, and it made my decision for entree easier this day.
Another choice was grilled redfish with crawfish and corn maque choux. The familiarity of that entree probably explains its quick sale to Mary Ann, who also toyed with the idea of getting shrimp and grits. I wound up ordering the game-filled tacos, which artfully focused on rabbit, duck, and alligator. This was exciting. If dishes from Tanchi Kitchen become permanent, this one should be offered regularly.
The dessert course offered five final courses, most of them at least a bit familiar. Beignets with honey ice cream. Wild rice pudding. Warm chocolate tamale grabbed MA, and she even raved about the accompanying spiced ice cream with a toffee crunch underneath it. I got a creme brulee that I called Third World Spumoni for its turmeric color. There was nothing Third World about this-it was really polished.
In the style of truly first-class restaurants, a little plate of sweet nibbles finished the meal. There were macarons, housemade marshmallows, and truffles that MA reported to be especially dense chocolate.
The restaurant community has waited a long time for an opportunity to educate its potential professionals. In almost every part of the world, people who want to learn the skills of every career apprentice with someone. Cooking, serving, managing, catering, and every other part of the learning curve exists for restaurants. And there is an ongoing shortage of people who know what they're doing in the restaurant business. This wonderful new NOCHI program could be a tremendous boon for a lot of potential culinarily potential. If they have a course for restaurant critics, maybe I'll sign up.
725 Howard Ave New Orleans