Chefs and Gardeners Come Together at NOAHH HUG Garden Party

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Syrena Johnson never expected to be a chef. Growing up, she helped cook for her family, but she did not expect to one day be receiving the Chefs Move! Scholarship, much less become the first graduate of that program. The opportunity arose while she was working for Liberty’s Kitchen, and she made the most of it. She has been fortunate enough to work with many of New Orleans’ finest, and while she worked at Restaurant August, Chef Michael Gulotta (who now co-owns MoPho) took her under his wing. From there, she has been on an amazing journey of learning and growing.

She has made seizing opportunities a habit. From finding work at some of the city’s best restaurants, to becoming a Chefs Move! Scholar at the International Culinary Center, to a recent grant to attend a symposium for young chefs in Denmark, she is always finding new opportunities. Among those was when a friend of hers told her about the NOAHH homeownership program. Seeing a chance to achieve another dream, she applied and was accepted. Now, she has selected the lot where her new home will one day be built.

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On Monday, August 18, Syrena joined chefs, gardeners, NOAHH staff, board, and friends, including Councilwoman Susan Guidry, as they gathered for a garden party. The party, hosted by NOAHH at MoPho, brought together NOAHH’s Habitat Urban Garden (HUG) initiative partners with representatives from local restaurants to help bring fresh produce to the city’s signature industry. The New Orleans HUG program began in 2012 as a way to fight blight, save costs, and efficiently use lots NOAHH was not currently built on while giving local groups and individuals space to cultivate greenery and fresh food in the city.

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Jim Pate, NOAHH’s executive director, described the work of the garden partners, “Some of our gardeners are growing for their own farmer’s market uses, and some are growing for community groups or church groups. Several of them give excess produce to Second Harvest, and some are marketing directly to our chefs and wonderful food networks.”

Chef Gulotta was especially enthusiastic about the program. “We work a lot with Ms. Posey [of Pelican Produce], and they bring us so many amazing things. What’s so great about it is not only just what we want them to grow for us but what they just bring to our door that’s in season,” he said. “[T]o think that you’re in the middle of a major city, and that you can serve something that was grown blocks away. It’s really great what they do for us, and all we want to do is be able to pay it back in kind… [H]opefully we can grow it and make it better and have more farms, have more diversity, and be able to sustain just off of south Louisiana.”

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Syrena joined Chef Gulotta before the party to help prepare the food. When told about the party, she leapt at the opportunity to work alongside her mentor once again. Speaking of her time under his wing, she says he taught her how to work in a kitchen, how to lead, and how to be humble. Helping him host the garden party, which brought together her role as a partner family with NOAHH and her role as one of the city’s up-and-coming chefs, was an opportunity she was overjoyed to take.

“I’m glad I had the opportunity I was blessed and honored to have a chance to work with [him],” she said.

Using fresh produce, honey, and other ingredients from urban gardens across the New Orleans area, Chef Gulotta crafted multiple exquisite dishes in his Asian-New Orleans fusion style, including a curry made from acorn squash and soup made from watermelons provided by the Pelican Cooperative’s gardens, as well as garnish for the soup made with honey from Capstone 118. Meanwhile, the cucuzzi squash provided by Pelican Coop proved so popular, it became the key ingredient in the restaurant’s Som Tam house salad.
This coordination of our HUG partners with local chefs is part of NOAHH’s ongoing work to not just rebuild New Orleans, but to improve it where we can, while also helping empower and preserve the culture of the city that makes it so special. Giving the culinary institutions that form the cornerstone of New Orleans culture a source of locally grown vegetables and a chance to form partnerships that give them access to the freshest ingredients only makes it easier for them to continue making the food of New Orleans the best in the world. The program provides a resource for the chefs, keeps the city green, and helps local organizations.

“I just love being part of things that are making our city better and richer and you guys are a part of that so thank you,” said Councilwoman Susan Guidry.

Read more coverage at NOLA.com.