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Restaurant group forms all-star training team

As the restaurant boom rolls across New Orleans, finding and keeping qualified kitchen staff has become a major concern for chefs and restaurateurs. All around town, they share a lament that competition for trained cooks is high while the opportunities to develop new talent close to home are few.

Now, one of the city’s prominent restaurant groups is embarking on a new approach to addressing the issue, deploying a roster of highly experienced chefs to train younger employees as they move up the ranks.

In the past few weeks, Dickie Brennan & Co. has assembled an all-star team that includes well-known local chefs Rene Bajeux, Gunter Preuss and Greg Sonnier along with chef Robert Gurvich, a New Orleans native who has spent his career around the U.S. and recently moved back home. They’re joining Darin Nesbit and Gus Martin, two veteran chefs who were already on the staff of the restaurant group.

Rather than assuming positions as executive chefs at restaurateur Dickie Brennan’s various properties, the six men essentially serve as chefs-in-residence for the company in dedicated training and development roles. They will work with kitchen staff across the company’s four restaurants: the Palace Café, Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, Bourbon House and Tableau.

“For the longest time, we’ve had the idea to do something like this, but the missing piece was always the people, the chefs who would teach,” said Steve Pettus, managing partner of Dickie Brennan & Co. “Now we have that in place, and it’s a real blessing. Now we can do this.”

The in-house training program will revolve around what Pettus calls “centers of excellence” focused on areas like butchery, stocks and sauces, charcuterie, and purchasing and receiving, among others. Employees may be recruited or apply to the program, which they will undertake one day a week while remaining on staff.

“If you’re a promising young cook here, you might work four days on a station and the fifth day with one of these chefs,” said Martin, who has been a chef in New Orleans for more than 30 years. “That fifth day, maybe you’re working with Rene on charcuterie and learning directly from him.”

Pettus estimated it would take about two years for an employee to complete the program, which he hopes to have up and running by the end of the summer.

It’s a new approach to the age-old idea of apprenticeship, one that keeps the restaurant’s employees on the job but opens the opportunity for in-depth learning from highly accomplished mentors, some of whom are considered senior senators of the New Orleans dining scene.

“It’s a formalization of the process you’d like to have already,” Pettus said. “Our kitchens are busy; our people are working hard and fast. They teach where they can because they have a passion to do that. But now as a company, we’ve made an investment in this and put our money where our mouth is.”

Along the way, the corps of teaching chefs will develop new menu specialties for the restaurant group, too.

The depth of experience on the newly formed roster of chefs is extraordinary.

Bajeux, a native of Lorraine, France, is one of only a handful of chefs in the U.S. to earn the prestigious designation of French Master Chef. He was chef at the Windsor Court Grill Room in the 1990s and opened two iterations of his own Rene Bistrot in New Orleans, along with many other positions through the years. He was most recently chef at the J.W. Marriott Hotel.

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