New Orleans chef Syrena Johnson, who went from working in fast food to become a rising star in the culinary world, advised Dillard students to “be humble, hungry and hardworking” during Freshman Convocation in Georges Auditorium on Sept. 7.
Johnson followed the talk with a cooking demonstration for the Ray Charles Program in African-American Material Culture in which she prepared jambalaya.
Johnson, a New Orleans native, said she always liked to cook. From cooking at home, she moved on to fast-food places like McDonald’s, Domino’s, Popeye’s and Piccadilly (“All places provide experience”) before landing at Liberty Kitchen, a non-profit cooking school here for at-risk youth, where she completed a 12-week cooking course in almost half the time.
Then she entered the first scholarship competition in 2011 held by Chef John Besh’s foundation, Chefs Move, a program to diversify kitchen leadership, and she won the opportunity to spend nine months training at the International Culinary Institute in New York.
Johnson attributed her ascent not only to her cooking talent but to personality and her ability to mingle with a variety of people.
“Show your personality; that is the best way to get your name out there,” she said.
“I am a regular young person, like y’all, but I was grinding hard…You do not have to compromise you are, your identity, to be relevant to people. Because you can come and be as casual, relaxed, and swaggy as long as you want as long as you know how to conduct yourself and handle yourself in situations you can go as far as you want,” said Johnson.
Johnson said she was nervous to leave everything she knew in New Orleans and go live in New York, but advised, “Sometimes taking a risk is not that bad.”