Chef Syrena Johnson [Courtesy of Brandon Xuereb / Xistence Photography]

Chef Syrena Johnson's Culinary Journey

07:00 June 12, 2024
By: Emily Hingle

Liberty's Kitchen Success Story

For Chef Syrena Johnson, the role of food services director at Liberty's Kitchen delivers something more than any other title she's garnered.

"Something about working with the youth, something about telling them my story so that they can see that they're capable of doing it. That's rewarding for me. That's why I always gravitate back to it. It's something that's in me that I need to be doing," she relayed as she beamed with enthusiasm.

From being one of the first Liberty's Kitchen graduates to running the kitchen and teaching new generations, Chef Johnson has found her spot in the "puzzle that we call food here in New Orleans."

Portrait photo of Chef Syrena Johnson [Noel Marcantel Photography]

In 2010, 20-year-old Syrena Johnson was looking for some direction in her life as the city of New Orleans was still adjusting to a post-Katrina identity. She had jobs in fast food and small restaurants and took a chance on delving further into food as a career. "A friend told me Liberty's Kitchen was a cooking school. I went over there, and they were like, 'It's a program, it's not a cooking school. We do some cooking here, and we train people for the hospitality industry.' I was still working and not doing anything else with my time, so I figured I would do it as an alternative to what I was already doing. I was already two years out of high school—just a kid trying to stay busy and work. I went through the program, and I excelled fairly fast. It was a 12 week program. I think I finished in seven or eight weeks."

Johnson performed so well in her short time as a Liberty's Kitchen student that Program Director Omar Buckner helped to fast-track her career. Johnson confided, "They didn't want me to be bored. They wanted me to be enthused about everything, so they excelled me fast. Omar Buckner told me about a scholarship that was going on and said, 'I think you'd be the perfect fit.' Everybody on the team helped me. They made sure my résumé was good and helped me go through the application process. I won that and went to school at the French Culinary Institute in New York, and I stayed in New York for nine months. I came back and just circumnavigated the whole cooking scene in New Orleans, trying to find my way—trying to find what's good for me and where I fit in."

While Johnson has worked in the kitchens of high-end local chefs, received training from internationally-renowned chefs, and made meals as a private chef, she feels like she fits in perfectly back at Liberty's Kitchen. "This has been a full circle moment. When the customers see me running the café, and I say, 'I was the trainee and came through this program 15 years ago,' they can say, 'They're really serious about their mission.' Executive Director Mrs. Bernadette Lucas gives me full freedom to do whatever I need to do, whether it's make a $3,000 purchase for a piece of equipment that went out or create the menu, price the menu, and display it to the public. It's because she trusted me that I have the best in mind for what we're doing at Liberty's Kitchen."

Chef Syrena Johnson [Courtesy of Brandon Xuereb / Xistence Photography]

Not only does she have independence as a chef, she is able to give back to the very program that brought her all over the culinary world in a unique way. She excitedly related, "I can tell the trainees things about what they're going through because I went through it too. If you're well rounded, if you follow through with everything, you have a chance to actually do this. It wasn't overnight. I didn't do it as soon as I graduated [from] the program or as soon as I came from culinary school. This is years after. I had to work to get to that point. It sounds better from someone who went through the program."

Chef Johnson loves to pass along knowledge about cooking, as well as keeping the kitchen immaculately clean and organized. "I pride myself on cleanliness, and we try to relay that to the students. You can take these skills wherever. If you're together and organized, it's a little bit better. You can see clearly."

Chef Johnson enjoys her culinary creative freedom and ability to teach trainees so much that she feels that returning to a standard high-intensity dinner service role would not be worth becoming a huge name in fine dining. She explained that her work in such kitchens was far too consuming. "I'm all about work/life balance. I don't have to go in the kitchen and slave all night and work crazy long hours. I want to work. I want to do what I need to do and cut it off at some point and go on vacation. I want to live my life."

As a parting thought, Chef Johnson said that she aspires to be thought of like an inspiring school teacher who is remembered by a student for the rest of their life. "Teachers don't get the credit that they should. Who lives in somebody's head all that time? I don't want to be known for 'I cooked this.' I want to be known for 'this person taught me how to do this, they got me an opportunity, or they showed me how to get opportunities for myself.' I think that's more rewarding than anything I could put on a plate."

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