Sowela students cook with Mercy Chefs

With only a year of culinary school under their belts, three SOWELA Technical Community College students were thrust into the frontline of their aspiring careers, cooking thousands of meals each day for the survivors of Hurricane Laura, the most powerful storm to hit the Louisiana coast in more than a century and a half.

Working with Mercy Chefs, a faith-based, non-profit disaster relief organization that serves professionally cooked meals to disaster survivors, Lillian Peal, Sherman Broussard and Kiaeem Walker all suffered damage to their homes during the record shattering storm and lost their student externships at local restaurants. The three second-year SOWELA culinary students then were offered full-time jobs as chefs creating menus, devising recipes and volume cooking lunch and dinner for the thousands storm victims throughout Southwest Louisiana.

Mercy Chefs, which was founded in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina left destruction in much of New Orleans, provided more 6,000 meals each day to the storm ravaged area of Southwest Louisiana, and this week have moved their operations to Alabama near the Alabama-Florida state border with the recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sally. SOWELA culinary student Walker is continuing with Mercy Chefs, working on the road and continuing his online culinary classes at the same time.

“When we respond to disasters, we rely on the local community for support,” said Gary LeBlanc, founder of Mercy Chefs. “These culinary students are making a huge impact on our response in Lake Charles, helping us serve over 70,000 meals. They had been put out of work from the storm and we were thrilled we were able to hire them to join our response team to serve their own neighbors in need.”

SOWELA culinary program director and professor Jerry Sonnier says as bad as the crisis was for so many Louisiana residents, it provided an opportunity for these three students to fulfill their lifelong dream jobs as real-life chefs. “The COVID pandemic crippled the culinary industry, and the hurricane dealt a near final blow throwing these SOWELA students out of their externships, but now that have risen to the top of the line with the Mercy Chefs job,” he said.

Sonnier says there is emergency funding for all Southwest Louisiana culinary students impacted by the devastating storm through the local Lake Charles chapter of the American Culinary Federation by going to their website at