22 Chicago Chefs, Restaurateurs and Food Entrepreneurs Creating Social Impact

Here in the Midwest, we are renowned not only for our hospitality, but our big hearts. Chicago-area chefs, restaurateurs, and food entrepreneurs are no exception to this; rather, they lead the way. Because there’s no greater show of humanity than feeding the soul as well as the body. Here are a few of the people that are standing up and supporting their community, and making all of our lives immeasurably, undeniably better in the process.

Rick and Deann Bayless, Lainie Bayless Sullivan, and Kevin Sullivan

Bayless family
Photo by Tanya Velazquez.

You may already be familiar with celebrity chef royalty Rick Bayless’ Frontera Farmer Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting local, sustainable Midwestern farms with capital development grants, but did you know that the Bayless family — Rick, wife Deann, daughter Lainie, and son-in-law Kevin Sullivan — has a second charitable arm? The Bayless Family Foundation awards transformational grants to Chicago-based theater companies through their Stepping Stone Grant Program, which recognizes the importance of the arts to the human spirit. These capacity-building grants, aimed solely at nonprofit theaters in the Chicago area, provide theaters with a $150,000 grant paid out over three years. This is life-changing money for these theaters, helping them to take the “next big step” in their development, be it capital improvements, programming, or other methods of engaging and retaining audiences.

Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp

Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp of Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago

Honey Butter Fried Chicken’s chef/owners Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp have inspired a fanatical following not only among fried chicken connoisseurs, but their employees as well, and it’s easy to understand why. All HBFC staffers get health benefits — a rarity in the restaurant industry for hourly workers — and up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave. Cikowski and Kulp are leaders in the local restaurant community in supporting the Healthy Workplace Act, and have been at the forefront of the movement to eliminate the sub-minimum wage (aka “tip credit) in Chicago. They were early adopters of the Sanctuary Restaurant movement, which strives to create an atmosphere of equality and inclusivity in the hospitality industry. In a recent op-ed in Eater Chicago, they spell it out clearly: “This is not only an economic issue, it’s a social justice issue,” Cikowski and Kulp write. “This is an opportunity for our industry to take steps to begin the hard work of addressing racial, class, and gender inequity.”

Paul Fehribach

Paul Fehribach of Big Jones in Chicago
Photo by Grant Kessler.

Social responsibility is always top of mind for Big Jones’ chef/owner 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.

Melissa Graham

Melissa Graham of Purple Asparagus in Chicago

Melissa Graham, Purple Asparagus‘ “Head Spear” and Founding CEO, was a tax lawyer before she became a chef and started this educational nonprofit organization. She was moved to help kids change their relationship with fruits and vegetables, and now PA’s Delicious Nutritious Adventures can be found in 17 schools and 22 communities across the Chicago area. By teaching children about and exposing them to the deliciousness of fresh produce in an engaging way, they inspire kids to share what they’ve learned with their families, helping fight obesity and lessening incidences of type 2 diabetes and heart issues. “Building a future of healthy and adventurous eaters for a lifetime” is what Purple Asparagus is all about. They are truly “changing the future … one bite at a time.”

Paul Kahan, Jason Hammel, Justin Large, and Matthias Merges

These four visionary Chicago chefs (James Beard Award-winner Paul Kahan and Justin Large of One Off Hospitality, Jason Hammel of Lula Café and Marisol, and Matthias Merges of Billy Sunday and Mordecai) came together in 2010 to create the Pilot Light Institute for Food Education to empower kids to make better food and nutrition choices. Pilot Light feeds children’s minds as well as their stomachs, weaving nutrition-based information into math, science, and history classes. By strategically working with Chicago schools and teachers to integrate food knowledge into curriculum, they advance the ability of children to advocate for themselves and understand the importance of good nutrition — how it directly impacts the health of community members and the environment alike. 

Sheila and Chris Kennedy

As co-founders of Top Box Foods, Sheila and Chris Kennedy have long been involved with the pressing hunger issues that stymie our nation, where 37 million Americans struggle with hunger, an unconscionable number. In 2012, they founded Top Box Foods, a community-based nonprofit that provides a year-round resource of affordable, nutritious grocery boxes filled with fresh produce and proteins to food-insecure neighborhoods. Purchasing power is the key to their impressive savings, and they partner with local churches, community centers, and schools to help with distribution each month. They’ve expanded to include needy communities in Lake County and even in New Orleans. Their motto, “Healthy food matters, where you live shouldn’t,” sums up the ethos of their mission. Everyone deserves access to affordable food. 

Martha and Rich Melman

When Rich Melman started what would become Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc. (LEYE) back in 1971 with the opening of R.J. Grunts, he couldn’t possibly have envisioned that it would one day grow to encompass over 120 restaurants across nine states. Melman and his wife, Martha, pay it forward every day for the tremendous success of their family-owned business. In addition to the Richard and Martha Melman Foundation, Martha has devoted over 20 years of service on the board of Metropolitan Family Services, where she co-chairs the Campaign to Mpower Families and has set an ambitious goal of $25 million to “transform communities, one strong family at a time” by focusing on early childhood education at MFS’ new, state-of-the-art Early Learning Center.

Carrie Nahabedian

Carrie Nahabedian of Brindille in Chicago

Brindille Executive Chef and James Beard Award-winner Carrie Nahabedian raises funds year-round to “86 Hunger” (“86” is a popular restaurant term for when you are out of a certain 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 Kick Hunger Challenge for the Taste of the NFL, held each year on Super Bowl eve in the host city. A longtime supporter of Chicago’s Green City Market, she is also involved with numerous Armenian organizations, including the Armenia Tree Project and Save the ArQ.

Ina Pinkney

Ina Pinkney

Ina Pinkney, Chicago’s forever Breakfast Queen and reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, is a fighter. She didn’t let childhood polio get the best of her, and she certainly wasn’t going to let her recent health issues keep her down for long. As a longtime mentor and champion of many Chicago chefs, she’s got an army of people on her side who love and support her unconditionally, just as she did for them as they were coming up in their careers. Pinkney still raises money and awareness for Rotary and the Gates Foundation as they work toward the goal of eradicating polio worldwide, and continues to dispense the restaurant wisdom hard-won from years behind the stove and working the floor at her eponymous West Loop breakfast spot.

Pinkney was recently honored with the Meals on Wheels Chicago Chef’s Council Award for her fundraising efforts, and will be awarded the 2020 Jean Banchet Culinary Achievement Award for her support of the Chicago restaurant community.

Alpana Singh

Alpana Singh
Photo by Jeff Schear Visuals.

Given her very active calendar of nonprofit work, it’s hard to know how Alpana Singh has time to run her bustling Evanston restaurant, Terra & Vine, as well as host WTTW’s popular show “Check, Please!” 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 restaurant, from Imerman Angels and the YWCA Evanston/North Shore to Northlight Theatre. She was recently honored at the YWCA Evanston/North Shore 2019 YWomen Leadership Awards for her advocacy and impact in regards to women’s empowerment issues.

Julie Smolyansky

Julie Smolyansky

As President and CEO of Lifeway Foods, Julie Smolyansky has expanded the once-local kefir brand to widespread distribution across the U.S., Mexico, the United Kingdom, and parts of Central and South America, increasing revenues tenfold since she took over in 2002. Extremely philanthropic, she co-founded Test400k, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the backlog of rape kits in America. A certified rape crisis counselor, she has executive produced a number of documentaries in support of sexual assault victims, including the award-winning film “The Hunting Ground,” which addresses rape on college campuses. Smolyansky uses her platform as the female CEO of a company to bring these important issues into the public eye.

Sarah Stegner

Sarah Stegner of Prairie Grass Cafe
Photo courtesy of Kurman Communications.

The James Beard Award-winning Stegner (Prairie Grass Café) 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 is to protect our local agriculture,” Stegner says. “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.”

Erick Williams

Erick Williams of Virtue in Chicago
Photo by Gary Adcock/Studio37.

Erick Williams grew up on the West Side of Chicago, and after running the kitchen as executive chef of MK for many years (and partnering with DMK Restaurants at County BBQ), he decided to open his own place — Virtue, his Hyde Park ode to soul-stirring Southern cuisine — on the South Side. Recently profiled in the New York Times as one of “16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America,” Williams pays it forward by focusing on hiring and training young people of color in his restaurant. It’s the kind of place where everyone is nurtured, whether on staff or sitting in the seats. Williams joins forces with the newly opened Time Out Market Chicago for a series of educational events that aims to give young Chicagoans an idea of what it means to be a chef, including discussion, dinner, and hands-on cooking demonstrations. He continues to inspire through word and deed.

Julie Chernoff, 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 counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night. 


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