Culinary series comes to BR

Ben Mitchell has been watching television cooking shows for years. Now, the pan’s on the other burner, so to speak, as Mitchell is one of the subjects of Cooking Channel’s new eight-episode docu-series, “The Freshman Class.”

The series follows four students during their first semester at Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge. In the first episode airing Monday, viewers will be introduced to the four, seeing them at home and at school, and learning how they ended up in “The Freshman Class.”

Mitchell, a self-employed, full-time taxidermist from Crowley, said Friday that he’s always loved to cook.

“We grew up right here in Cajun Country, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to buy the last piece of empty land in downtown Crowley, Main Street, about three or four years ago, and there’s nothing there. My wife and I discussed several times what we were going to do with it and we both came up with, we thought it would be a great idea to open up a nice restaurant in there, you know, farm to table hopefully, fresh food every day, and I wanted to do it right.”

When researching cooking schools, Mitchell said Louisiana Culinary Institute just kept popping up.

“I really thought that to be successful in the restaurant industry, I figured I better go to school to get some education,” the husband and father of three said. “When I got accepted, I was ecstatic. I’m always watching the Food Network and Cooking Channel, and I’ve been watching that for years. Those are always interesting shows and you learn so much from them.”

Mitchell is a fan of so many of these cooking series, he can’t nail down a favorite.

“I watch Giada (De Laurentis), I watch Guy (Fieri), ‘Iron Chef America,’ Bobby Flay, I watch them all, Ina (Garten), Paula Deen, I watch them all and respect them all,” he said.

Since January, crews from Punched in the Head Productions have been tagging along to class with Mitchell and three of his 30 classmates. The show is also shadowing:

Tiffany Theriot, a 41-year-old mother of four, whose daughter, April, is also enrolled at the school. She has enrolled in the school to get a culinary degree and open her own restaurant.

Jared Heine, a 23-year-old Marine Corps veteran, who suffered memory issues and hearing loss as a result of the injuries he sustained while serving in Afghanistan. He now is looking to fulfill his dream and earn his degree so he can open up a restaurant with a friend from the military.

Jasmine Simmons, a 22-year-old single mother and exotic dancer. Simmons has always had a dream of becoming like her grandfather, the owner of a popular seafood restaurant in the state.

For Mitchell, at least, it’s the first time in the TV spotlight.

“The biggest part was really wanting to be successful on camera. I guess one of the biggest fears was to be a failure, you know, on national television,” Mitchell said. “Everybody thinks culinary school is cooking, cooking, but it’s not. There’s way, way, way more book work involved than the average person could probably imagine.

“You try to block it out (the camera crew), it’s a little uncomfortable at first, but it didn’t take long to get (used) to it. Those guys are like family now. And regardless if they’re there or not, you still have to pass the test, you still have to make the grade.”

Mitchell scratched his head as to why he was picked as one of the show’s featured aspiring chefs.

“Well, I think my situation is very, very unique,” he said. “I’m 41 years old, I’ve got three young daughters, my wife works in Lafayette, plus she travels (for work). I work for myself. I drive three hours a day just to go to school. Not counting the rest of my life. I work out in the gym an hour a day six days a week, on top of raising kids, going to school and working in the (taxidermy) studio. There’s a lot there. When people ask how I do it, I say, ‘I don’t think about it, I just do it.’”

The Louisiana Culinary Institute’s purpose is to educate its students to become professionals in food service operations. It focuses on professional cooking techniques, sanitation, nutrition and day-to-day business operations to successfully operate and manage a food service facility.