Courtney Theard's first day 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, and he even brought along a pad to take notes. But when the club's chef went home ill, Theard suddenly found himself responsible for turning out a luau-style dinner for a big party in the dining room.
"I wasn't expecting it, but I felt very confident once I realized what I had to do," Theard says. "As soon as I got into it, I just remembered what I'd learned, remembered my kitchen skills, and I got it done."
For those skills and at least some of that confidence, he credits Cafe Hope, a new nonprofit restaurant program in Marrero where he is an apprentice.
Cafe Hope uses the tried-and-true format of a full-service restaurant, open to the public, to deliver life skills training and career preparation to young adults who want to make a new start. It's a model similar to Cafe Reconcile, the Central City-based nonprofit restaurant that pioneered the idea in New Orleans 10 years ago and indirectly spawned Cafe Hope, which opened last month.
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 designed for Cafe Hope is intended for people ages 17 to 21 who often are 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 with guidance from industry professionals and volunteer mentors and help with job placement once apprenticeships are complete.
"It's a great model because food is personal and you get immediate feedback on it," Boyd says. "You serve someone a great meal and they tell you if they liked it. They might compliment you on the service you provided, on the restaurant you're representing, and that's a great affirmation for young people trying to do something new and get themselves 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 of New Orleans as a treatment center for troubled youth. Early programs — long-since discontinued — 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.
In a way, that spirit has been rekindled at Cafe Hope, too. Funding from Catholic Charities and a state grant marshaled by West Bank legislators were instrumental in completing the new restaurant, but the money Cafe Hope pays to its apprentices comes largely from people who eat there.
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. Nothing on the menu costs more than $10.
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.