Lisa Boudreaux-LeCoq, center, and many other local chefs and restaurateurs take time out of their schedules to mentor students enrolled in the ProStart program. Here, students are pictured passing out their hors d’oeuvre creations at a local event. Photo courtesy Lisa Bordeaux-Lecoq.

Giving back: LRA Education Foundation

Food has the power to transform. And not just ingredients into dishes, but the people who come together to craft, share and enjoy it. For decades, food has been a vehicle for connection, collaboration and compassion. There are few occasions that exist without cuisine, with most centering around it. From holidays to meetings and even to volunteer work, food is always present to nourish bodies and relationships.

For 24 years, Lisa Boudreaux-LeCoq has observed this process as she made her way up through the ranks of the culinary industry, eventually opening her own catering company, The Gilded Artichoke. However, when she connected with the Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation, her eyes were opened to yet another way that food, and the institutions surrounding it, can make a difference.

“I got involved in the foundation 10 years ago and I was struck at how much of a family it really is,” explains Boudreaux-LeCoq, who is now serving her second year as the president of the LRA’s Greater Baton Rouge chapter. “It’s restaurateurs coming together to enrich the lives of local kids and shape the future of the industry.”

In the classroom, students use skills taught by teachers and local chefs to create dishes and sometimes even cater professional meetings to gain real-life experience.

Established 25 years ago, the Education Foundation, which works through regional chapters throughout the state, caters to high school students by providing valuable career training through ProStart, a two-year program that is completed alongside high school curriculum. The foundation provides funding to give schools the tools to offer the courses and support the participants.

“Locally, there are 18 schools that benefit,” Boudreaux-LeCoq says, noting that funding allows schools to offer holistic courses by purchasing things like appliances. “For students who are not planning to continue education, or even some who are, the opportunity is there for them to learn the field and the many skill sets that go along with it. It helps create a strong basis for when they go out into the workforce.”

The ProStart program not only teaches the techniques that make for innovative chefs, but allows students the chance to cultivate management skills by making business plans and budgets, as well as making valuable connections by attending local events and working under industry professionals.

“ProStart requires 400 hours of work within the field to receive a certificate,” Boudreaux-LeCoq explains of the industry-recognized certification. “It’s a lot, but it means these kids are dedicated. That’s one of the most important traits to have in the restaurant industry.”

Beyond the direct impact in the lives of students, Boudreaux-LeCoq explains that the foundation gives those in the industry a way to network and better their trade. Whether through hosting fundraisers like an annual golf tournament or Fête Rouge or meeting with classes to offer advice and inspiration, restaurant and business owners are given the chance to work toward a singular goal, despite being competitors.

“Everyone is 100% in. We are all family,” Boudreaux-LeCoq says. “We have one endgame, and that is to give the community the best of the best.”

And that promise is one that goes far beyond the food that is brought out at restaurants or gatherings. By reaching out to young people, the LRA Education Foundation gives career-building opportunities while ensuring the future success of what makes our area so special: Southern hospitality. The high school students currently working through the ProStart program will one day form the class of professionals who continue projects like the restoration of Mid City that add so much value to Baton Rouge.

“No other state has what we have,” notes Boudreaux-LeCoq of Louisiana’s melting pot of culinary influence. “Working with LRAEF, it has been so inspiring and motivating for me to see these children work and develop a passion. The restaurant industry is about service, and we want to serve our community and each another.”