Italian chef cuts red tape to make his dream come true
Posted at 6:23 a.m. on Wednesday, August 24, 2022
If Leesa Howard had known the difficulty and expense involved, Lake Charles could do without her curator incubator and kitchen, Le Cucina. It has the distinction of being the first in town and the only one of its kind. Le Cucina, which means kitchen in Italian, is the only full-time commissioner between Baton Rouge and Houston, according to Howard.
“I grew up on good food,” Howard said. “My grandmother was from Sicily. “Once a year, on my birthday, my mother made stuffed artichokes.”
It was a labor-intensive and expensive business. That’s why it was only served once a year.
On the day of the interview, Howard was preparing for his son’s birthday with lasagna and Amaretto white chocolate bread pudding.
“About six years ago people asked me to cook for them,” Howard said, “just a few friends. I was Italian. That’s what I do. I had just retired from McNeese and I had free time. So I thought, no big deal.
When her friends’ friends tasted her food, they asked if she wanted to cook for them too. She chose Wednesday to do her cooking and made a quick phone call to the health department to get their blessing.
“I found out that I needed a commercial kitchen that they would approve of,” she said. “The authorization process was arduous. I hadn’t realized how difficult it would be. I took a food safety course. I did everything I was supposed to do.
She found a restaurant that would allow her to use her kitchen during off hours. After her health inspection, she was told that to work in this commercial kitchen, she would need her own refrigeration and dry storage space. The KC Hall allowed him to rent out his kitchen space, but the inspection failed because there was no grease trap.
“I told the inspector that it wouldn’t be a problem not having a grease trap because I didn’t fry,” she says.
When the inspector told her she would need it for her gray water, she said she didn’t plan on having it either. Then she discovered that gray water is the used water that goes into the grease trap instead of the city’s sewage. Her next try was in a beautiful new commercial kitchen at Queen of Heaven Daycare. Someone was cooking for the children in the morning. She would use the kitchen in the afternoon. Everything was going well until one day someone from daycare came into the kitchen to cut some fruit. The inspector happened to be there and told her she couldn’t share a kitchen that way because of the possibility of cross-contamination.
She had pretty much decided not to cook meals for friends until a trip to Austin brought her into contact with a sorority sister who owned a commissary kitchen.
“I didn’t even know what it was,” Howard said. “I found out that it’s a kitchen that rents out to people who want to cook for the public.”
The friend discouraged Howard from pursuing the idea because of the expense and because it was such a heavily regulated industry.
“I came across this old building here that had been a little restaurant,” Howard said. “It was run down, but there was a grease trap. There was a commercial stove and a ventilation hood…”
It was also more than she could afford. She talked to her husband about getting another mortgage.
“I really feel called to do this,” she told him.
The couple took the plunge, and with no budget, they watched YouTube videos to learn how to tear down and rebuild walls and lay floors.
“My poor husband, the things I put him through,” she said. “My thought was if I could get just one food truck, it would pay the bill and I would have a kitchen that I could cook in.”
The grand opening was celebrated in 2016. A few people stepped up to use it. The health department put the commissioner, something they had little experience with, through the regulatory bell.
“Long story short, here we are five years later and 27 people are paying me to use the kitchen,” Howard said. “I just believe that God led me here.”
It serves farmers market vendors, food truck owners/operators, caterers and others. The kitchen is located at 536 Alamo, a few blocks from Ryan Street Books a Million.
“I see my role as not only providing a commissary kitchen, but also providing a business incubator.”
She helps companies navigate the authorization process which she now fully understands and approves of and does it for free.
“Everything they say and do, they say and do for a reason,” she said. “I was so naive. I’m grateful that I didn’t know how difficult or expensive it would be to get here. Ignorance is bliss.”