His professional cooking career brought California native Leo Tandecki to the fine-dining kitchens of New Orleans. By 2008, however, he switched gears to become chef at the nonprofit Vintage Garden Kitchen (925 S. Labarre Road, Metairie, 504-620-2495; www.vintagegardenkitchen.org), a program of Arc Enterprises intended to create jobs and build independence for people with mental disabilities. As part of the programs at Arc, his crewmembers tend vegetable gardens and prepare soups and other foods that are sold at local farmers markets and by delivery. Last month, Vintage Garden Kitchen opened a cafe inside the Place St. Charles food court in the CBD (201 St. Charles Ave., phone n.a.), serving lunch Monday through Friday. Breakfast service is coming soon.
How did the Vintage Garden Kitchen concept develop?
Tandecki: The Arc tried doing a full-service restaurant, and they've had garden operations. We decided the kitchen would be a place where we could really focus on development, where I could focus on teaching job skills — the knife skills, making stock — all in a controlled environment.
Your local produce approach seems in step with the trends. Was that by design?
T: It really boiled down to having a mission within a mission. If we can help fill a void in healthy, locally produced food it adds more value to what we're doing. We want to reach out to the community in a thoughtful and helpful way and connect that to what we're teaching our crewmembers. We look for dishes that are healthy and that link us to the garden where we can produce the ingredients.
What's it been like for you to go from a chef to an educator in the kitchen?
T: It's the opportunity to teach someone from scratch. As each person came in, I was able to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and work with them like that. If they have any bad habits, they got them from me. I would pretty much put my crew now up against any kitchen crew. We focus on what they can do, not on disabilities. Like, we have one guy who just loves numbers, so he's in charge of stocking and labeling. Where there are deficiencies, they all really support each other. — IAN MCNULTY