A Cafe Where Hope is the Daily Special

New Orleans, La. –
Courtney Theard's first day on the job as a cook at a Gretna country club turned into an unanticipated trial by fire. The 19-year-old New Orleans native reported for duty that first day last month ready to learn the ropes, but when the club's chef went home ill, he suddenly found himself responsible for turning out a luau-style dinner for a big party in the dining room.

Though he wasn't expecting it, he soon settled into a rhythm and got the job done. For the skills to make that happen -- and most of all, for the confidence to believe he could -- Theard credits Cafe Hope, a nonprofit restaurant program in Marrero where he recently completed an apprentice program.

Cafe Hope uses the tried-and-true format of a full-service restaurant to deliver life-skills and career-building training to young adults who want to make a new start, while the dining public supports the effort just by having lunch.

It's a model similar to that used by Cafe Reconcile, the Central City-based nonprofit restaurant that pioneered the idea in New Orleans ten years ago and that indirectly spawned Cafe Hope, which opened this spring. The nonprofit's founder and executive director is Don Boyd, a Belle Chasse native and veteran of corporate hotel kitchens who was Cafe Reconcile's chef early in the last decade. The program he built for Cafe Hope is intended for people age 17 to 21 who are often referred by youth advocates, juvenile services, churches and family members. It combines a 12-week curriculum of hands-on training in the kitchen and dining room, guidance from visiting hospitality industry professionals and volunteer mentors and help with job placement once apprenticeships are complete.

The food service format makes a great model for getting young people on track because of the teamwork and discipline it takes to run a restaurant kitchen and dining room. Apprentices at Cafe Hope also get immediate feedback from customers on the product and service they provide. Boyd and others say that's a great affirmation for young people trying to do something new and get on a career track.

Cafe Hope is inside the Hope Haven Center, a campus of ornate Spanish mission-style buildings first opened in the 1930s as an orphanage and later run by the Archdiocese as a treatment center for troubled youth. Early programs here stressed self-support, so enterprises like an on-campus dairy and carpentry shop produced income for the center and taught its young residents potential job skills.

Though those programs are now long-since discontinued, in a way Cafe Hope has rekindled their spirit. Funding from Catholic Charities and a state grant marshaled by a group of West Bank legislators were instrumental in building-out the new restaurant, but the money Cafe Hope uses to pay its apprentices comes largely from people who choose to dine here.

The cooking is fresh and loaded with interesting twists. A creamy sweet potato soup with smoky ribbons of andouille started a recent lunch that continued with chicken stuffed with crawfish dressing and smothered with spicy tomato sauce. Cochon de lait sandwiches, black drum saut ed with sesame oil, crawfish enchiladas and the gooey Cafe Hope swamp cake are among the other options.

A vegetable garden visible outside the cafe 's windows supplies some of the produce used in the kitchen, including okra that is pickled and often offered as a lagniappe appetizer. It makes a tart beginning for what proves to be a very sweet dining experience.

Cafe Hope
1101 Barataria Blvd., Marrero, 504-756-4673
Open for lunch, Mon.-Fri. and for private events by reservation