I spoke with Garin Siekkinen, a chef with Cafe Hope, about the nonprofit’s mission to fight poverty through prepping youth for, and helping them find, service industry gigs.
Cafe Hope is basically the little sister to Central City’s neighborhood landmark, Cafe Reconcile. Founded in 2003 by Craig Cuccia, a contractor and restaurant industry worker, the late-Rev. Harry Thompson of Immaculate Conception Church, and local lawyer Tim Falcon, Cafe Reconcile is the tangible result of a conversation begun in 1996. The men wanted to help revitalize the once-thriving neighborhood in a way that would provide opportunities and keep locals around, rather than encouraging the type of gentrification that would push them out.
Cafe Reconcile was such a success that Tim Falcon decided to replicate the model on the West Bank, where he grew up. In 2010, Gretna’s Cafe Hope was born, and it now graduates about 50 alumni a year. Over 70% of those students find full-time industry employment.
Cafe Hope is a non-denominational, faith-based organization. According to chef Garin Siekkinen, this means that students, staff and volunteers don’t need to identify as any particular religion, but staff want to “make sure students know that, as they have a body and a mind, they have a spirit, too.” Every day, before classes, they have “Grateful Morning,” where each student and staff member names one thing that they’re grateful for.
Garin was raised in New Orleans and Hammond, and came to Cafe Hope with primarily “front of the house” experience, having worked his way from server to manager at the famed Commander’s Palace. For the past year and a half, he’s been in the kitchen, learning alongside his students, under the guidance of other chefs who have cooked in some of New Orleans’s most well-known restaurants.
Cafe Hope serves lunch six days a week (it’s closed Mondays), breakfast on weekends and dinner on Friday nights. But last Mardi Gras season, restaurant regulars began asking for King Cakes. Garin had never made a King Cake before, so he and his students tried out different recipes, mixed and matched, and settled on four “successes” that became their King Cake repertoire —traditional cinnamon and sugar, cream cheese (Garin’s favorite and the most popular order), strawberry cream cheese and pecan praline.
16-Weeks Till Success…
The mission of Cafe Hope’s free-to-students 16-week program is to place alum in industry jobs within six weeks of graduation. But Cafe Hope teaches a lot more than the restaurant business. The first four weeks of the program focus on social and personal growth, such as conflict resolution, team work, financial literacy, managing emotions and how to dress and present yourself professionally.
Weeks 5-10, students work in the kitchen, learning prep, cooking and cleaning. The final few weeks, students work in the “front of the house”—restaurant lingo for hosting, serving and managing—in addition to creating resumes and polishing interview skills.
The students, who are between 16 and 24, often approach Cafe Hope themselves, coming by word of mouth. Others are recruited from high schools or homeless shelters, such as Covenant House.
One of Garin’s favorite Cafe Hope stories is about a student who entered the program hesitantly and, during his interview, asked if he could “not have to talk to anyone” while he studied. He was excruciatingly shy and anxious.
During his early days with the program, while in a teaching session on stereotypes, this student was asked to “act like a black woman.” (The point of the session was to have students role-play different stereotyped members of society, in order to help them deconstruct their own stereotypes but also, the stereotypes others project onto them.) Suddenly the student came alive, inhabiting and enjoying the role. His fellow students encouraged and laughed with him, and that was it. From then on, he was able to relax into the program and now, he’s a line cook at uptown’s Carrolton Market—a highly rated, upscale take on Southern food.
“He’s a good kid,” Garin said. “I feel like he’s my own.”
Like many former students, this alum returns to Cafe Hope to eat, hang with staff and encourage current students. The program becomes a home for many students, long after they complete training.
Garin says anxiety is common among students, who often find the “front of the house” weeks daunting. He’s watched many students gain confidence during these weeks, through working directly with the public in the Cafe Hope restaurant.
“Really, what we’re trying to teach is work ethic,” says Garin. “I may not be able to turn someone into a line cook in 16 weeks, but they can learn what it means to work and cooperate with others.”
Want to Volunteer?
In addition to a small staff, Cafe Hope is fueled by volunteers—Gulf Coast Bank employees teach financial literacy; tutors work with students on literacy and studying for the GRE or simply refining math skills in order to multiply and divide recipes; social workers and counselors support students through personal challenges. A local pastor leads spirituality training sessions. Often guest speakers share how they were able to overcome obstacles and find success in the restaurant industry and otherwise. Sometimes volunteers cut menus and fold napkins.
Basically, if you want to work with Cafe Hope, there is probably something they need that you can provide. Just call (504) 309-2065 and tell them you’re interested.
Order a King Cake
If you want a King Cake from Cafe Hope, your best bet is call (504) 309-2065 or email firstname.lastname@example.org 48 hours in advance, although it never hurts to check for last minute availability. Cakes are $20 and serve at least a dozen.
Cafe Hope is on the campus of Timberlane Golf and Country Club, at One Timberlane Drive in Gretna (a ten minute drive from the center of New Orleans). Operating hours are Tues-Fri., 10:30-2pm for lunch, Sat-Sun. from 9am-2pm for breakfast and lunch and Fridays, 6-8:30pm for dinner.