Chefs and restaurateurs, by their very nature, are hospitable creatures. They are naturally programmed to receive and tend to others, to entertain strangers. It’s just what they do.
So it should come as no surprise that when there’s a natural disaster or a man-made tragedy, the hospitality industry dives right in to provide aid. Sadly, there has been plenty of opportunity in the past few months. Chef José Andrés, known for his innovative restaurants in Washington, D.C. and New York City, has himself served more than 1 million meals in Puerto Rico since September’s devastating Hurricane Maria. For a little perspective, that’s more than the Red Cross. He displays a selflessness and determination that is truly mind-boggling. Food is love.
Here in Chicago, the hospitality industry has long pulled their weight when it comes to giving back to the community. Some chefs have started their own nonprofits, like Rick Bayless and his Frontera Farmer Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting local Midwestern farmers with capital development grants, or the power trio of Paul Kahan, Jason Hammel and Matthias Merges, the chef-founders of Pilot Light, “feeding young minds” by bringing food education into the classrooms of CPS. And of course, many restaurants and chefs take part in the plethora of food-centric charity events that raise money for various nonprofits.
Other chefs and restaurateurs have become involved in grass-roots efforts to give back to the community and beyond, by offering their time, product, and expertise in an effort to feed and educate those that need it most, or holding fundraisers to help in times of crisis.
Here are some of the philanthropic folks (listed alphabetically, of course) who are diving in and lending a helping hand; this is only a small subset of all the good work being done out there, so look around and see what you can do — by attending a fundraiser, donating goods, or educating yourself about where the need may be. We can all be part of the solution, can’t we?
Michael Jordan’s Executive Chef Craig Couper volunteers his time with Bella Cuisine’s “Cooking with Cops,” which seeks to improve relations between Chicago police officers and the neighborhoods they serve. It brings together cops and at-risk youth to build a strong working relationship. The kids create healthy menus, do the shopping, and help with the cooking. Couper helps on-site in the schools and hosts the kids and cops at his restaurant, where they can see a restaurant kitchen in action.
John des Rosiers
In addition to donating regularly to local nonprofits and houses of worship in the form of gift certificates and product, Inovasi’s chef/owner John des Rosiers hosts a few nonprofit events every year at the restaurant where he donates the space, food and beverage to the charity so that they might fundraise without overhead costs. “We do so much for our local charities because we believe in our community,” says des Rosiers. “It extends through every single thing we try to accomplish, from buying all of our foods from local farms to our extensive charitable works. This has real and lasting meaning for us.”
During the month of November, Inovasi will help raise funds for the Napa and Sonoma wine communities that have been paralyzed by the recent forest fires. All wines from the region will be 50 percent off menu prices, both by the glass and by the bottle. Winemakers have told him the best thing to do for them is to sell as much wine as possible to generate revenue for the wineries, to help them keep their workers employed.
Vermilion (Chicago and New York)
A staunch supporter of women in the restaurant business, and a proponent of the education of women and girls globally, Rohini Dey founded the James Beard Foundation’s Women in Culinary Leadership Scholarship to support and promote women to leadership positions through active mentorship, cultivating the talents of women in the hospitality and culinary arts and giving them the tools to succeed. Dey is also a James Beard Award Foundation Trustee.
Big Jones (Chicago)
Social responsibility is top of mind for chef Paul Fehribach, who has long been involved in social and environmental justice issues, especially where they coincide with culinary concerns. He’s a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which researches and documents the diverse food cultures of the American South, and an avid fundraiser for the Edna Lewis Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving African-American culture and heritage. Closer to home, the school gardening program Gardeneers gets his time and attention.
Chef-proprietor Carrie Nahabedian raises funds year-round to “86 Hunger” (“86” is a restaurant term for when you run out of a menu item) with the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “It’s inconceivable that so many people have to choose between food, medicine, and energy to survive,” says Nahabedian. “The work they do to provide food and resources to the neighborhood food banks is lifesaving to so many.” She also raises funds for the for the Kick Hunger Challenge for the Taste of the NFL, held the night before the Super Bowl in the host city. A longtime supporter of the Green City Market, Nahabedian is also involved with numerous Armenian organizations, including the Armenian Tree Project and Save the ArQ.
Given her very active calendar of nonprofit work, it’s hard to know how Alpana Singh has time to run three successful restaurants. She has been very active with Deborah’s Place, which works to open doors for homeless women, chairing their 2016 Gala, hosting smaller fundraisers, and volunteering on site. Countless community nonprofits have been the beneficiaries of fundraising events at her restaurants, from Imerman Angels and the YWCA Evanston/North Shore to Northlight Theatre. On Nov. 5, she is organizing a “Somms & Song” event at The Boarding House for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. Learn more and buy tickets online.
Prairie Grass Café (Northbrook)
Chef Sarah Stegner has been passionately involved with Chicago’s Green City Market since its inception 19 years ago, serving on the Board, actively fundraising, and helping with the educational aspects of the nonprofit. “I believe if the market thrives, and all the educational components of Green City Market flourish, people will understand how important it its to protect our local agriculture,” says Stegner. “The Market ensures our and future generations’ access to the fundamental right to have healthy, clean, delicious food. Sustainable farming also protects our environment and supports the local economy.” Stegner has also been involved with the Shedd Aquarium and Highland Park’s Ravinia School. “We are better and stronger supporting each other.”
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.