Café Hope has had a few hiccups since my last visit, not the least of which is when they had their copper wire stolen from all of their outdoor air-conditioning units, which cooled their walk-in freezer and refrigerator. The theft cost Café Hope over $5,000 in damages and an air-conditioning unit had to be completely replaced. In April of 2017, when I heard that Café Hope had decided to make the move to Timberlane Country Club, located at 1 Timberlane Drive in Gretna, I was thrilled. Not only because this wonderful restaurant would be closer to me, which mean I could regularly visit for lunch, but really because I knew that the club would provide more foot traffic for this wonderful organization.
Established in May 2010, Café Hope’s goal has always been to meet the needs of the at-risk opportunity youth population of the New Orleans area, so that they may be self-sufficient, contributing members of the community. The 16 week, free program is open to anyone between ages of 16 and 24 who is not in school and not employed. The program is intensive with the first 4 weeks focusing on life skills, the next 6 weeks focusing on working in the kitchen and learning all of the ins and outs of culinary training and the last 6 weeks working on the floor of the restaurant. In 8 years, 467 students have passed through the doors of Café Hope and the program boasts a 72% job placement rate. Café Hope also works with Louisiana Rehabilitation Services to help those with disabilities learn skills so that they may enter the work force.
Of course, the backbone of any good restaurant is the food and, in November of 2017, Chef Jason Goodenough, owner and chef of the famed Carrollton Market on Hampson Avenue in New Orleans, felt a call to action when he dined at Café Hope and knew that improvements could be made. Named Chef of the Year by New Orleans Magazine in 2017, Chef Goodenough decided to get into Café Hope’s kitchen and execute a complete overhaul. Chef Goodenough sees his work as an opportunity to nurture the future of New Orleans cuisine and he is now a board member and consulting chef at Café Hope.
Chef Goodenough’s first step was hiring Garin Siekkinen as Executive Chef. Siekkinen started working as a server at Carrollton Market and wanted to be a chef at Café Hope. Originally working in programming at the restaurant, he has been chef here for 6 months. Next, Chef Goodenough brought Lennon Fitzgerald on board as Chef de Cuisine. This Lafayette native moved to New Orleans 22 years ago and began her career at La Petite Grocery where she was promoted to pastry chef. She then moved on to Borgne where she was a pastry sous chef for 5 years. Fitzgerald was working as sous chef at the Caribbean Room, at the famed Pontchartrain Hotel in New Orleans, when she heard of the need for some help at Café Hope. Seeing an opportunity to make a difference, she has been Chef de Cuisine here since February 14th, 2018. Prior to culinary school, Fitzgerald was involved in elementary education, so teaching is in her blood. Being able to combine cooking and education in her work has been a thrill for her.
The kitchen team at Café Hope, as well as Executive Director Luis Arocha, Jr., wish to provide a restaurant that is completely “in-house”. All of the produce is local and much of it comes from the 1.2 acres of garden located on land at the former home of Café Hope in Marrero. Squash, tomatoes, basil, mint, peppers, radishes, lettuce and much more is lovingly maintained by volunteers. Seafood is obtained from local fisheries and everything possible is made from scratch. Chef Goodenough doesn’t mince words when he says that he wants Café Hope to be the best restaurant on the Westbank. That’s why the focus here is good food made with good ingredients, priced reasonably and all for a noble cause.
During my recent visit here, I was able to sit down with the restaurant team and sample some of their menu offerings. Some of what I tried included char grilled oysters, Lafayette chicken and sausage gumbo made with potato salad, Caprese salad, blue crab beignets with green tartar sauce, fennel and celery slaw and steak frites made with hangar steak, hand cut fries and served with roasted mushroom compound butter. One of the best things I got to try at Café Hope was their version of shrimp and grits made with andouille sausage. This dish is one of my favorites to order when I’m dining out, and Café Hope’s version is incredible. The creamy stone ground grits are packed with flavor, the Louisiana Gulf shrimp were huge and the sausage provided a nice, zesty kick. If you’re a fan of classic shrimp and grits, this variation is a must try. Café Hope also serves up two delicious dessert options. The lemon ice box pie is a creamy, delectable delight that has a refreshing lemon taste without being too overpowering. The peanut butter cookie ice cream sandwich was also tasty and completely gluten free. Other menu items include a Southern fried chicken breast, pan seared Gulf fish, and lunch classics such as a catfish po boy, hamburger and club sandwich.
On Friday nights, from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm, Café Hope serves up dinner and some menu items include pan seared drum, filet, crawfish alfredo, and a seafood platter with fried catfish, crab beignets, marinated shrimp, crawfish bread and hand cut fries. The restaurant is open for brunch on Sundays from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, with offerings such as a brunch burger, biscuit sliders, buttermilk pancakes, boudin benedict and the “Golfer’s Breakfast” which includes the classics: scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, breakfast potatoes, and a buttermilk biscuit. Additional sides are served à la carte.
At the end of the day, Café Hope is about the students who work here and, in the future, Arocha hopes to start an alumni association to keep track of former students. It’s important to the staff at Café Hope for the students to know that they will always have a home here and everyone does what they can to support graduates. Former students are offered jobs working catering events here, of which there are many, and the staff at Café Hope is always available to lend support to any student or former student who may need it. Chef Goodenough wants Café Hope to be the quintessential training ground for New Orleans restaurant staff. As he puts it, the goal is to train students to be the best wherever they go.
Café Hope’s hours are Tuesday through Friday 10:30 am to 2:00 pm, Friday night 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm and Sunday 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. The restaurant is closed Mondays. Reservations are welcome and on-site catering and event hosting is also available. Please call 309-2065.