Liberty Kitchen’s virtual dinner brings questions of race, inclusion in New Orleans to the table –

When a special dinner from Libertys Kitchen gets started Thursday, chef Alfred Singleton, of Caf Sbisa, will be at the stove but far from the guests assembled for the evening.

The same goes for Tour Folkes, the cocktail pro behind the nights featured drink pairing, as well as Libertys Kitchen grad Gioia Barconey, the host for this edition of the nonprofits virtual guest chef dinner series. Even T-Ray the Violinist will provide the nights music from afar.

Yet for Libertys Kitchen, and for those cooking and following along from home, an event held at a distance is closely aligned with issues now ringing through the outcry against racism and calls for change.

People are more willing to talk about whats happening in our society now and thats in tandem with our mission, said Dennis Bagneris, CEO of Libertys Kitchen, the nonprofit cafe and youth development program.

Liberty's Kitchen CEO Dennis Bagneris high-fives a trainee during family meal, where trainees and staff gather to eat lunch at Liberty's Kitchen in New Orleans.

Virtual events have been a lifeline for many groups through the pandemic, with large gatherings off the table. For Libertys Kitchen, this ongoing guest chef series is vital because it takes the place of its biggest annual fundraiser, Come Grow With Us. The series will continue in July (people who sign up for the dinner get a box of ingredients delivered to prepare as they follow a live Zoom event, or can support just by logging into the Zoom video to follow along; see details below).

The Libertys Kitchen dinner arrives as the nonprofit is simultaneously compelled by the pandemic to find new ways to operate and energized by greater attention to the issues that have always propelled its work.

Were not a Black program, were a program for people in need, what does it say that 90% of the people we serve are people of color? Thats not a coincidence, said Bagneris. The problems lie with the racial profiling, the inherent bias or the in-your-face racism that young people have to encounter to get hired or stay hired.

Culinary Training manager Tori Nero and a trainee at Liberty's Kitchen.

Libertys Kitchen works in the same realm as Caf Reconcile in Central City and Caf Hope on the west bank, two culinary-based youth development nonprofits.

While the cafe and culinary training program are the vehicles, the mission goes beyond food. It's about investing in talent and talent development, Bagernis said.

Its an opportunity to learn, develop, grow, make mistakes, in an environment where youre free to fail, instead of having that experience be life-altering, because society has given a certain segment of the population less chance to make mistakes, Bagneris said.

Gioia Barconey, an alum of Liberty's Kitchen, chats with the crowd as chef Michael Gulotta starts preparations at the Ann Maloney Cooking Club.

When the pandemic hit, the Libertys Kitchen cafe had to close (it is now scheduled to reopen for takeout on July 6). The nonprofit's leaders worried that the crisis would also limit their work with youth.

In fact, the opposite happened, it redirected us to who we are, Bagneris said. Because at the core we are about being here for our young people, about wanting to make a change for the work environment and the society they live in as a whole, it has still resonated with people.

The group was able to sustain and in some cases expand partnerships with other organizations. Its food access programs continued and Libertys Kitchen case management staff found themselves working with their Youth Development Program participants more, not less, as the shutdowns sharpened needs and focused efforts.

The virtual chef dinner series is another way Libertys Kitchen is moving forward.

Dennis Bagneris, CEO of Libertys Kitchen, and Toure Folkes, bartender and cocktail consultant.

All of the people Libertys Kitchen recruited to lead Thursday's dinner are Black, and that was intentional.

Singleton built a career in big-name New Orleans restaurants before reopening the classic Caf Sbisa in 2016 as chef and partner, starting a new chapter in one the French Quarters oldest restaurants, now with Black ownership.

Folkes, a cocktail consultant, last year created Turning Tables, a program to increase inclusion for people of color in the bar and spirits business.

T-Ray The Violinist is a New Orleans-based musician who takes a multi-genre approach to violin.

T-Ray the Violinist uses his performances to break stereotypes about musical styles, and the musicians behind them.

And Barconey is a Libertys Kitchen success story on multiple levels, as a graduate of its program, president of its Youth Leadership Council and founder of her Greezy NOLA Catering business.

They tell a story about the fabric of our community, said Bagneris.

The overwhelming message from people of color is that getting to the next level shouldnt come down to the approval of a White audience, he said. It shouldnt be about people of color having their talents pushed forward and celebrated in spite of their color. That should never be a challenge or an issue. It should come from who they are and what they do.

Liberty's Kitchen Virtual Guest Chef Night

When: Thursday, June 25, 5-6:30 p.m.

What: Guest chef Alfred Singleton, of Cafe Sbisa, guides participants via Zoom as they prepare a meal in their own homes, with a cocktail pairing from Tour Folkes, music by T-Ray the Violinist and Gioia Barconey as host. Tickets are $60 and include a box of ingredients to prepare the meal and cocktail delivered to your door (delivery in New Orleans only); or contribute $25 for Zoom conference access to follow along. See details here. Get tickets here.

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Liberty Kitchen's virtual dinner brings questions of race, inclusion in New Orleans to the table -

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