Melissa Martin does more than run the kitchen at Cafe Hope (1101 Barataria Blvd., Marrero, 504-756-4673; www.cafehope.org), a nonprofit restaurant that functions as a job- and life-skills training program. She also serves as educator and mentor for young people trying to change their lives through the program. She recently was selected by Cooking Light magazine as one of 10 national finalists for the publication's Neighborhood Chef Award, recognizing restaurants that are community hubs. The public can vote on finalists through July 1 via Cooking Light's Facebook page (www.facebook.com/cookinglight). Cafe Hope serves lunch Tuesday through Friday and a prix fixe supper on Friday.
What was your own introduction to cooking?
Martin: I grew up in Chauvin, one of six kids in a family of swamp Cajuns. I learned to cook from my mom and her sisters. It was all this gigantic, one-pot cooking where you had to find a way to make whatever you had delicious. It always revolved around seafood. We were very isolated there; I didn't even know what a bagel was until I went off to college
What sets Cafe Hope apart from conventional restaurants?
M: There's a sense of purpose and it's a classroom setting. Not everything will be perfect because we're teaching people, but instead of the reaction you'd have in a regular restaurant, where if someone isn't working out you replace them, we try to keep students improving. I told one guy, "You would have been fired six times today somewhere else." But he redeemed himself by the end of the day. We're creating situations where students can be successful.
Your menu is highly local and seasonal. How does this fit with the overall program?
M: It's part of how we teach students sustainability across their lives. They pick vegetables from our garden and compost the kitchen waste. But we also show them how their own food choices can nourish their bodies in sustainable ways, about being sustainable with finances, knowing interest rates and not wasting money, and how you need to plan to be sustainable. If a single mother enrolls in the program, maybe at the end we help her get a job at a big hotel where she'll have health insurance and can start getting off public assistance. So it's sustainability on all levels. — IAN MCNULTY