Tim Halby (above) always wanted to cook. But when he began working at The Arc of Greater New Orleans in 2001, he was assigned instead to an entry-level position in grounds maintenance.
The assignment was in keeping with Arc’s mission to provide services to people with intellectual disabilities and support them to reach their fullest potential.
On the job
Later, Halby was transferred to the gardens but never gave up his goal.
Once, when Arc’s Vintage Garden Kitchen was short-staffed, he volunteered to pitch in. Chef Leo Tandecki demonstrated for him the correct technique for chopping vegetables.
“I saw promise and determination,” said Tandecki, who had observed Halby’s diligence in the gardens.
Eventually, a position in the kitchen opened up, and Halby jumped at the opportunity.
“Leo is awesome,” Halby said. “He is the best chef because he gives you a chance. When the other sous chef left, I was Leo’s right-hand man.”
Now, Halby works five days a week in the Vintage Garden Kitchen, making nutritious soup for its walk-up restaurant in the food court of a high-rise office building in New Orleans, that serves about 125 customers a day.
The Vintage Garden Kitchen menu rotates 22 soups, including fiery shiitake mushroom and barley, smothered chicken with rice and greens, sweet roasted pepper and carrot, and roasted butternut squash.
Halby grew up in Louisiana, so it should come as no surprise that chicken and andouille gumbo is his favorite.
“I make the roux from scratch. I’d never done it before.”
After three years in the kitchen, Halby has become indispensable to soup production. He is the crew member Tandecki trusts to butcher chickens for stock.
“We make a real broth, and that takes an entire day,” noted Nicole Blair, director of Arc Enterprises.
“The only tricky part is people can’t keep their hands out of my pot,” Halby quipped.
Prepared with local ingredients, soup stocks are simmered down in small quantities so they always taste fresh and flavorful.
“The way we approach our soups is what I learned at the culinary academy and Delmonico’s — following the French basics, but adding a healthy twist,” Tandecki said.
The chef carefully teaches by breaking down every task into several parts, making the process less overwhelming, as he would for a member of any kitchen’s staff.
“We always do things the same way because it brings consistency to the product we produce as well as a daily routine for crew members,” Tandecki added.
While the Vintage Garden Kitchen workers strive to achieve their personal best, they must also function well as part of a team. Halby has thrived in the Arc’s supportive environment, learning prep skills by closely watching the chef, and acting in a leadership role for others looking to him for guidance. Kitchens can be demanding workplaces with little tolerance for mistakes.
“We run a tight ship in the kitchen,” Blair remarked.
That attention to detail has allowed Halby and others to be successful.
“The success that I’ve had has been in enabling people to reach their potential and become role models for the newcomers,” Tandecki said.
“The real success is when they can support one another and use their collective strengths to do great things as a team. Everyone has shortcomings, and everyone has strengths, but when they work together, their combined strength helps them overcome any shortcomings that might exist.”
According to Blair, a typical kitchen’s hierarchical system meshes well with a person’s disability, allowing members to start in the most basic jobs before working their way up.
She believes the kitchen and Arc’s two organic farms are the most successful at fulfilling the organization’s mission of helping members achieve self-reliance. Its other businesses include grounds maintenance, commercial janitorial services and Mardi Gras bead recycling.
Opening the restaurant has kept the kitchen crew busy and provided new challenges for team members.
Another kitchen worker, Raul Ramirez, regularly takes charge of making three types of gazpacho and setting up for weekly farmers markets where mason jars of soup are sold.
“I pull my weight in the kitchen and stay on my toes,” Ramirez boasted.
In recent years, Arc purchased three acres of farmland in nearby St. Bernard Parish to cultivate seasonal produce and culinary herbs that complement its expanding soup business.
There, organic vegetables and herbs are harvested and processed by hand.
“We’re doing everything in the old fashioned way, which is safer for the farmers, the people eating it, and the planet,” Blair said.
Farm manager Jocine Velasco believes she has an distinct advantage because she works with long-term employees. The majority of Arc’s workers have stayed five years, unlike seasonal laborers on a typical farm, so they know well how to farm.
“They learn how to grow something from seed to harvest,” said Velasco, who teaches newbies in small steps, with lots of repetition and close supervision.
Tina Brown and Alexis Gonzalez enjoy working on the farm. Brown has learned about vegetables and herbs that previously were completely unfamiliar to her at the grocery.
“I didn’t know what thyme is. I didn’t know you could dry it ‘til I started to work on the farm,” Brown marveled. “Man, this is cool.”
Gonzalez had worked retail and restaurant jobs, but the pace was too quick.
“They’d yell in the kitchen: Come on with the toast! It’s complicated like that they want you to do two things at the same time,” she said.
She loves working at Arc where she feels fully trained for every job.
“Weeding is my most favorite task because I can help feed the chickens and ducks with the weeds,” said Gonzalez.
She dreams of owning her own garden some day, admitting she might have to start small. As Halby did.
Arc changed him, by providing not only a real career but also a community, including coworkers and bosses who give him well-deserved respect. Through this work, he has gained maturity and learned humility and how to accept correction when he makes a mistake.
He hopes one day to be able to work in a commercial restaurant. His experience at Arc may help him achieve that.
“There’s a whole lot of love to give here,” Halby said. “Everybody cares.”