by Tom Sims
Tom Sims searches the Valley for tips on eating healthy, buying healthy food, growing healthy food, and eating out healthy in the Valley, for this Healthy Eating in the Valley column. Feel free to share your suggestions of places and things to check out!
There is a Tree of Life growing in Downtown Fresno that is part of a movement to gather, feed, entertain and engage community in the heart of a great city. This Tree of Life is the Tree of Life Café and this is Part I of the story. My mouth is watering and I can hardly wait for the grand opening in March. That will be Part II.
When was the last time you showed up at a restaurant and felt like you were hearing the hosts say, “You are family; we care about you and we’re cooking for you.”
I love to eat and I love community and I love to eat healthy food. That is what I am anticipating when I walk into Tree of Life Café in a couple of months. As an added bonus I will get to participate in the rebirth of Downtown Fresno and the rebirth of some broken, mending lives.
There is more to the Tree of Life than meets the eye.
“You are family” is precisely the message that Steve and Carolyn Ocheltree want to ring out from the moment you arrive at Tree of Life Café on Kern Street in downtown Fresno. After successful years in business, education, and service to the community, this couple is ready to do even more.
Tree of Life is due to open in March. Steve says March 1, but he is the optimist according to Carolyn. Maybe the 15th. Maybe later. Maybe earlier. As Caleb in the Bible, who in advancing years, said, “Give me that mountain and I will take it,” Steve is, according to Carolyn, the Caleb she married. They are not nearly that old, but they are certainly grownups who have traveled some miles to this place.
It is a lot of work putting together a new icon that is both trendy and traditional, but mostly unique. Tree of Life is bringing back cafeteria dining to Fresno the way it is coming back to Los Angeles and New York City.
I was raised on it. You walk up to the counter, point to the dish you want. It is served up À la carte by trained servers and you pay for what you can eat. Mix and match. Eat a little. Eat a lot. It is your choice.
The commitment of Carolyn and Steve is to local, fresh and healthy foods. Working with J.D. Foods and Mark Ford, they are developing a strategy to focus on local growers as much as possible, trying to find a viable and sustainable way to implement a farm-to-table environment. “Locally sourced” is the phrase that describes this commitment.
The food selection will vary, but in the variance, there will always be variety. For instance, for every season there will be a local sausage featured. For March it will be “Lamb and Mint.” There will be something for everyone according to Carolyn. “No one will feel like an afterthought.”
If you eat only gluten free food, there will be an intentional and delicious variety of food for you.Vegans and vegetarians will feel very much at home.Carolyn, as executive chef will be joined by eldest son, Phillip as kitchen manager. Together, they will develop interesting and imaginative dishes that appeal to their dietary commitments and choices.
The food will always be interesting and the pies will be something to die for.
Carolyn’s pies are legendary in the community. I know this from personal experience and indulgence. She is developing her repertoire at an intentional pace in preparation for the opening. There will be the same variety and imagination in those offerings as in the rest of the menu.
The Ocheltrees love Fresno. They love the cultural diversity and the multitude of flavors and tastes that emerge. Carolyn says, “We are fascinated that you can stand on a corner in Fresno and travel the world.”
The many cultures of Fresno will be represented at Tree of Life. According to his mother, Phillip is a genius at fusion. The result of converging influences will be fresh, healthful, and innovative dishes.He is especially interested in Easter Asian, Indian, and Nepali foods. He was immersed in the culture and flavors of Nepal through friends he met as a student in Tennessee.
I cannot name one Nepali dish, but I fully expect for that to change. Even picky eaters will find a home and be fed according to Carolyn. That leads me to believe that the exotic will exist along with the familiar. Does that mean I can get a mac and cheese?
Carolyn and Steve’s menu statement says:
“Menu items will vary according to seasons. Typical breakfast choices will include seasonal fresh fruit, egg casserole, breakfast sandwiches, muffins, fresh baked bread, hot cereal and homemade granola. Typical lunch choices will include fresh salads made with seasonal produce, hot and cold soups made with seasonal produce, fresh baked breads, sandwiches, cookies and the “Pie of the Month”. Beverage choices will include hot coffee, tea, and water, as well as iced coffee, tea, water and soda. Bottled waters, fruit juices and sodas will also be available.”
Don’t forget holidays! “Multicultural holidays will be honored with food paying tribute to that culture’s customs. Background music in Tree of Life Café will vary, paying tribute to the many cultures that have contributed to Fresno County’s agricultural heritage.”
Steve Ocheltree’s vision, passion and clarity have driven this project from a dream to a plan to an emerging reality. I heard Tree of Life Cafe make their pitch at the 2015 Spark Tank hosted by Fresno Pacific University’s Center for Community Transformation. They were awarded a $2,000 prize to help start providing jobs in the community.
Long time volunteers with Fresno Rescue Mission, the Ocheltrees want to make a difference in the lives of the people they employ. They are committed to seeking out graduates of Rescue the Children who have finished their Life Transformation Program. They will be people who want to maintain their sobriety in a supportive, encouraging, and affirming environment.
Steve and Carolyn are creating community within and without. Right now, they are telling their story and gathering a community of support. In a very short time, that community will walk in their door and hear the message, “Welcome. You are family. Make yourself at home. Try this!”