It’s a matter of 15 minutes. That’s how long the drive is from some of Chicago’s best restaurants to Inspiration Kitchens, a nonprofit restaurant that provides job training and meals for the homeless on the perimeter of Garfield Park. The neighborhoods surrounding the park are among the city’s most underserved. Chef Bill Kim, of Time Out Market's Urbanbelly, was volunteering at Inspiration Kitchens one day when he realized there was more he could do than make one meal. Why not take on the biggest meal of the year, Thanksgiving?
Seven years ago, he rounded up some chef friends and family and hosted a Thanksgiving meal at the space. He wanted it to feel different than the typical soup kitchen experience. “Volunteers usually get an ice cream scoop and scoop things on a plate, and people eat,” he said. “And I wanted this to be the opposite, almost like inviting guests to a holiday party at your parents’ house. And that was the whole idea: Have your favorite holiday food, but you’re actually cooking for strangers.”
The chefs showed up with hotel pans of their family’s most beloved Thanksgiving dishes that included macaroni and cheese and chicken biryani. They ran out of some dishes, and there were a few kinks in the process, but it was by and large a success. The volunteers and the diners, many from the two nearby homeless shelters, sat down to a meal together, and everyone went home stuffed.
Since then, Chefsgiving, as it’s been named, has only grown. And this year promises to be the biggest yet. More than 90 chefs have signed up to make dishes. Now there’s a Google doc organized by dish category, from salads to sides to proteins. Kim doesn’t micromanage the recipes; each chef is encouraged to do it their way. Around 36 chefs will contribute to the meal at Inspiration Kitchens, and about 70 more will cook dishes for delivery straight from their restaurants.
Some things will stay the same from past years. Kim will be cooking turkey and a rice side dish. Monteverde chef Sarah Grueneberg will make her Aunt B’s hash — a cheesy potato casserole topped with cornflakes — because “everybody asks for it every year,” said Kim. The local grocery store Mariano’s will provide hundreds of miniature pies.
And some things will be brand new. A partnership with DoorDash has made it possible for even more chefs to participate — and even more meals to reach Chicagoans in need. On Saturday, November 19, the weekend before Thanksgiving, the chefs cooking from their restaurants will each hand over (at least) 20 prepared meals to dashers, who will deliver their meals to the closest places of need: nursing homes, shelters, community centers, and churches. This is part of Project DASH, an initiative within the company to combat hunger and food waste. By working with DoorDash, the chefs are able to send restaurant-caliber hot meals to people who might not have a microwave or oven to reheat them, a small detail that can make a huge difference. By Kim’s estimate, they could be delivering more than 1,200 meals throughout the city.
Chefs are instructed to prepare a complete Thanksgiving meal, however they define it. Chefs John and Karen Urie Shields from Smyth + The Loyalist are preparing turkey breast, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, cornbread stuffing, kale salad, dinner rolls, and apple pie. Chef John Boudouvas from Petterino's and Nonnina is preparing slow-braised pork belly, herbed polenta, and roasted butternut squash.
Kim will spend the days before Thanksgiving preparing his turkey and rice and fielding last-minute calls from event coordinators and chefs. By the time actual Thanksgiving rolls around, he doesn’t cook a thing. He and his wife, Yvonne Cadiz-Kim, drive to the suburbs to have a marathon meal of a Korean Thanksgiving at his parents’ house, followed by a Puerto Rican Thanksgiving at the in-laws’. “You’ve got to share, you’ve got to go to both families,” he said, laughing at the laundry list of dishes from each meal he’ll consume. “You can't just give one side all the love.”
Chefsgiving is the culmination of months of coordinating, recruiting and reminding chefs to sign up for dishes, and, of course, cooking. “But at the end of the day, when you see the people eating, all the hard work and all that doesn't matter,” he said. “For me, it's not enough to just cook food; you’ve got to be able to give.” He hopes that the event spreads beyond Chicago, to cities nationwide. “If you have the skills to cook, you’ve got to share it.”
Learn more about Chefsgiving and donate a meal (or more!) for local Chicagoans in need here.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Bill Kim / Cornerstone Restaurant Group