The 30-member-strong Culinary Crusaders at Brother Martin High School started the new year with something for which to be extremely proud.
Several members helped cater and serve a pumpkin-shrimp bisque, dirty rice, pulled pork, muffulettas and more for approximately 250 people attending the annual Brother Martin Ladies of the Shield Home Tour.
“I love to cook and have a passion for it,” said club member and eighth grader Nicolas Milano while working the outdoor kitchen at an Old Metairie home. “It’s pretty fun getting to see people enjoying the food.”
The club began this school year, championed by Brother Martin and NOCCA student Daniel St. Etienne. Having a strong interest in a culinary career – already prepping food in local restaurants – he pushed to form the club a year ago.
“As I kept going in my high school career and got more serious about cooking, I realized a club was necessary, the 16-year-old said. “I wanted to give back and share what I have learned in a place where community is taught to be a part of life. Brother Martin has taught me to grow as a person and share with others what I have.”
Club co-moderator and math teacher Bill Rieger said Daniel helps ground the club, leading discussions during weekly meetings. Donnie Midkiff, a class of 2003 Brother Martin graduate, is the other co-moderator.
Members spent many fall meetings preparing for the December home tour, Rieger said.
“We’ve been learning little recipes like making the olive salad for the muffulettas,” Nicolas said. “And we all work together and learn the nutritional values of food, too.”
Kitchen to classroom
Rieger, a 1995 Brother Martin graduate, brings restaurant and cooking knowledge to the club as well as a degree in mechanical engineering from Louisiana State University. He realized that engineering wasn’t what he enjoyed and ventured into cooking instead, working with chef Frank Brigtsen at Brigtsen’s for 11 years as a prep cook and one of two line cooks, and Peche Seafood Grill. He also had a food truck in Victoria, British Columbia, with wife Sarah for two years until returning to New Orleans in 2016 after his children, Elouise and Adelaide, were born. He said a Brother Martin friend introduced him to his wife in Houston.
“You can take the boy out of New Orleans, but there is nothing like this city. I wanted to raise my children here,” he said.
Upon his return, he visited Greg Rando, Brother Martin principal, took the Praxis test that measures teacher aptitude – his was high in math due to engineering – and was hired as a math teacher.
“This (culinary) club is new, so I feel like it’s meant to be,” Rieger said about his involvement and teaching at Brother Martin High School.
Math is a handy skill in the kitchen that Rieger demonstrates to club members as they convert recipes, understand heat transfer and break down basic local recipes, such as crawfish étouffée to see why it tastes as it does and then make it more nutritional.
“We’re trying to teach the nutritional value of food,” Rieger said. “A lot of food is oversaturated and unhealthy for no other reason except flavor that can be gained in other ways.”
Rieger sees teamwork as the most beneficial aspect of the club.
“Cooking is sharing. That’s what drew me to be a chef. It’s the Catholic-Christian idea of coming together at table with food that is a big part of it.”
With the current popularity of culinary schools, “why not teach the kids that there is a possibility of a career in the field. It’s a great thing for them to see, if they want to be a chef.”
Rieger said Frank Brigtsen taught him everything he knows. He paid tribute to him at the home tour when he prepared a variation on Brigtsen’s famous shrimp bisque, substituting pumpkin for butternut squash.
“It’s nice to keep sharing and cooking for people, even though it’s not my career anymore,” Rieger said.
Eighth grader Race Skrmetta joined the club to expand what he already knows.
“I’ve been cooking with my dad a lot, and we make desserts,” Skrmetta said. “(Since being in the club) I’ve definitely been learning how to make a wide variety of things. … It’s definitely fun, especially doing something this large (catering the home show.) My mom and dad have a big party on King’s Day, so I kind of know how it works but it’s fun actually doing it.”
Because the club is in its infancy, Rieger is exploring its future direction.
“If there’s nothing holding us back, why not (do catering)? Maybe do some school events first and possibly charitable events for the community.
“I think the sky’s the limit,” he said.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at email@example.com.