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Chef's Scholarship winner follows her passion

By Alli Garner

Syrena Johnson shows off her skills at The International Center Culinary School.

On a recent Friday, Syrena Johnson, winner of the 2011 Chef’s Move Scholarship, walked through the door of the John Besh Foundation headquarters on Gravier Street, clutching a sheaf of papers. 

“There’s always something else these people need,” Syrena exclaimed with her signature chuckle. It turns out she was applying for her first passport, in anticipation of her first trip abroad – a trek to London with Chef Besh to cook with at-risk youth. 

“I’m really hoping to pick up some of the accent while I’m over there,” she said.

Syrena, the first winner of a culinary scholarship created two years ago by Besh and Jessica Bride-Mayor, represents what the program is all about: “to diversify kitchen leadership by providing minority applicants the opportunity to train up and become leaders in restaurant kitchens and in their communities”

The scholarship, valued at $65,000, not only provides tuition to The International Culinary Center in New York City, but also promises a paid eight-week internship within the Besh restaurant group upon completion of the recipient’s schooling in New York. In addition to being a minority chef, each applicant must have a high-school diploma or G.E.D., be a resident of the greater New Orleans area, and have at least one year of experience in a restaurant kitchen. Scholarship recipients must work in New Orleans for two years upon graduation.

African-Americans make up 60.2 percent of the New Orleans population, according to the United States Census Bureau, but they don’t have equal representation in local kitchens. Chef Besh recognized this under-representation in the local culinary environment and decided to do something about it. The The John Besh & Bride Mayor Scholarship has so far had three recipients: Syrena Johnson (’11), Calvin Virgil (’12), and Chris Okorie (’12). Starting in 2012, the Chef’s Move scholarship began giving out two awards per year, one for the culinary arts and one for pastry work.

Like so many New orleanians, Syrena got her culinary start at home.

Chef John Besh, Syrena Johnson, and Jessica Bride-Mayor

“I grew up in Central City,” she says. “My mom was always the cook of the family -- her and my grandmother are the reason I love cooking so much.”

After working several jobs at fast food restaurants, she took a job at Liberty’s Kitchen on Broad Street, which is where she initially heard about the Chef’s Move scholarship. “The program director for Liberty's Kitchen really pushed me to apply.”

After being selected for the scholarship, Syrena was whisked away to New York to study at The International Center Culinary School. 

“New York and New Orleans are very different,” says Syrena, whose favorite dish to cook is crawfish etouffe. “New Orleans is more traditional and sticks to the basics, whereas New York is always trying new things and reinventing its food. Both are great, but it is just something about New Orleans food.” 

Following her stint in New York, Syrena returned home and hasn’t looked back. After working at Besh restaurants Domenica and August, she now assists with cooking at Besh promotional events, while also getting the word out about the Chef’s Move Scholarship.

In a recent blog post to potential Chef’s Move applicants, she wrote: “If you are having mixed feelings or do not know if this is worth your time let me just reassure you, the program is everything it says it is: A once‐in‐a‐lifetime opportunity to study at one of most prestigious culinary schools in New York, the French Culinary Institute.

“You do not have to be a genius to apply. All you need is one to two years of kitchen experience. I had never worked at a fine dining restaurant before I won, so you will be fine. The last and final thing I should add is to just be you: have a personality, be passionate about what you do, and be honest about who you are. 

“Since the start, I have always said I am just a regular girl from Uptown New Orleans who didn’t go to the best schools, get the best grades, or live in the best neighborhoods, but I worked hard and was passionate about what I did. I overcame what I went through and was blessed to have this opportunity come around.” 

This article by Allie Garner is published as part of a service learning partnership between NolaVie and the students of Dr. Diane Grams' sociology classes at Tulane University.