You know something is different at a restaurant when a worker calls the owner “Mama O,” and they exchange hugs and say “Love you!” at the end of a shift.
No, that worker wasn’t family, though the new Tree of Life restaurant in downtown Fresno is family-owned. The restaurant, at 2139 Kern St. near L Street, has been serving a limited menu for the past few weeks and will hold its grand opening at 10 a.m. Thursday, March 31. The restaurant is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
There are so many things that make this farm-to-fork breakfast and lunch place different, from the Nepalese influence on the menu to the succulents and herbs growing all over the restaurant. But perhaps the biggest difference is that Tree of Life employs men and women who have gone through drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation programs.
Owners Carolyn and Steve Ocheltree have thought about doing something like Tree of Life for a long time. Carolyn, a first-grade teacher turned stay-at-home mom who raised four boys, and Steve, a CPA, have a personal reason for opening such a restaurant.
Tree of Life offers vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and meat options.
One of their sons had a meth addiction, went through a rehab program at the Fresno Rescue Misson and is now clean and sober.
“Out of gratitude, we said, ‘What can we do? How can we help give hope?’ ” says Carolyn Ocheltree – she’s Mama O.
They started volunteering after their son went through the program, with Steve joining the board of the Fresno Rescue Mission and Carolyn teaching and mentoring at Rescue the Children, the mission’s shelter for women and children.
Getting a job after going through rehab can be challenging. Employers spot the suspicious gap from when the person was getting sober and many won’t hire someone who has been convicted of a crime.
So the Ocheltrees decided to open a restaurant – along with another son Phillip, who is a chef – and hire people who have gone through rehabilitation programs. They were a finalist in the Downtown Fresno Create Here Business Plan Competition last year. They didn’t win. But the experience turned the restaurant from an idea to reality. (In fact, five of the 10 finalists have either opened a business downtown or will soon.)
More than half the staff at Tree of Life have gone through rehabilitation programs, including Salvador Limon. He left a life of gangs, meth and marijuana behind and is almost finished with a live-in program at the Rescue Mission. At Tree of Life, he’s a dishwasher and cookie baker – the snickerdoodle is his specialty.
“I like showing up here in the morning,” he says. “I actually prayed to get a job where there’s positive people.”
Sandra Perez McMaster, the unofficial “prayer captain,” gathers the employees every morning in the kitchen to hold hands and pray – for each other and their customers.
Serving food to customers is the real business, of course. The restaurant is “urban cafeteria” style, Mama O says. Customers order at a counter, get a tray of food and sit down to eat. There are soups, salads and a bakery with fresh-baked breads, but the biggest part of the menu is casserole-style entrees like spinach and kale lasagna, mac and cheese with bacon, and housemade lamb and mint sausage fried with potatoes.
Chef Phillip Ocheltree says the food is seasonal, locally grown and organic whenever possible. Ingredients are locally purchased too, including pocket bread from Hye Deli, spices from India Sweets & Spices, Lanna Coffee and Raizana tea.
There are Mexican, Hmong and Armenian-inspired dishes on the menu and the aforementioned Nepalese flavors.
The chef went to college in Tennessee in an area that had a large Nepali population and made a few Nepali friends.
“I spent countless hours just cooking with these guys,” he says, learning to use fresh ginger, garlic and cilantro.
The Nepalese flavors show up in the momo dish – dumplings stuffed with seasoned pork, fried and served with apple lemon chutney and a burnt-tomato sauce.
There are desserts too. Most feature chocolate right now, but local fruit will be used soon when it’s in season.
We’ll be pie crazy, as soon as strawberries and berries and kiwi come into season.
Chef Phillip Ocheltree
The dining room itself is locally sourced too, with succulents growing on the walls from Fresno-based Propagation Station. The wooden wall art in the shape of California with a heart where Fresno is was made by The Rugged Heart, a Fresno-based business that sells on Etsy. Tables are made by Exeter native Alex Best, some of the wood from an old barn in Oakhurst on Road 426 (also called Talking Bear Road because there’s a bear statue and when you press a button it talks).
The Ocheltrees got the name Tree of Life from the Bible, Revelation 22:2: “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
The name symbolizes all the different local fruit that Fresno County produces, Mama O says. And it’s symbolic of the healing that happens inside the restaurant too.