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Travis Cheatum, 23, was a high school student when Hurricane Katrina swamped his family’s home in New Orleans. Now a banquet chef at NOLA, one of Emeril Lagasse’s signature restaurants, Cheatum is working in partnership with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity to build his own house in Jefferson Parish.


Travis Cheatum, 23, has been a banquet chef at Emeril Lagasse’s famed restaurant NOLA for almost two years. When Hurricane Katrina struck his native New Orleans, Cheatum had just graduated from high school and was living with his mother.

Now he is following what had always seemed like a distant dream: cooking for a living.

Shortly before the storm made landfall, Cheatum and his family evacuated to Shreveport and then to Houston, then back to Shreveport and back to Houston. Having lost everything he owned, the laid-back young man found himself rootless and distracted.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said, flashing an easy smile. “I’m glad to be alive. Material things can be replaced.”

Cheatum was on track to become a firefighter after finishing high school. But Katrina struck before he could take the scheduled civil service exam. During months of displacement, he began rethinking his career course.

“I always liked cooking,” he said. “My grandma always had me in the kitchen. But I never thought I could make a living at it. But after Katrina, I thought, ‘Why not try?’ So I went to a culinary school in Shreveport and kind of took it from there.”

Once he had gotten a job doing what he loves, the next step was to fulfill another youthful dream: owning his own home.

He went through the qualification process with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity and is working on building his house in Jefferson Parish, on the West Bank of the Mississippi River.

On one spring day, a crew from MTV’s “Real World” had pitched in to help build. Cheatum, a young man on a mission, didn’t even seem to notice the television cameras all around him as he stopped hauling lumber long enough to admire the house that was taking shape in front of him.

“It’s coming along,” he said quietly. “It feels good to be a part of it.”