The first Crossroads Diner: At the Intersection of Hospitality & Community of 2020 takes a turn down memory lane, back to my high school days. A relatively unsupervised 3-month summer stay in Paris as a wee lass of 16 going on 17 is when I really started cooking, how could I not be inspired surrounded by French cuisine? But really being unsupervised on a trip funded largely by saved-up birthday money also meant learning to fend for myself. Alas, we are going even further back to the summer of 14 going on 15 (my birthday is the first day of summer, and I enjoy The Sound of Music), when I was volunteering to meet the requisite community service hours for #collegepreplife. Thusly, I found myself volunteering a few times for the Jewish United Fund Uptown Cafe and Inspiration Cafe - my first “restaurant” jobs.
Both Uptown-based cafes provide free restaurant-style meals to the needy where volunteers take orders and serve meals as well as interact and converse with guests. Uptown Cafe “is one of Chicago's first kosher anti-hunger programs” though it “feeds Jews and non-Jews alike”. At Inspiration Cafe, volunteers also prepare the meals. Volunteering at Inspiration Cafe is a bit more involved, which makes sense given that parent organization Inspiration Corporation also operates Inspiration Kitchens social enterprise restaurant in East Garfield Park. What is a social enterprise restaurant, you ask? Well, the restaurant is open to the public, but it’s primary purpose isn’t as a commercial enterprise since it’s nonprofit. It’s also the LEED Gold certified training site for their free 12-week Foodservice Training program for low-income individuals. The program includes employment and life skills classes as well as various support services to help overcome the many obstacles in escaping poverty.
Full transparency: unfortunately, they were having technical difficulties and my friend and I didn’t get the chance to actually dine there. Real bummer since I’ve been wanting to try it ever since the original location popped up in Uptown near my mom’s condo. That location was closed in 2016 due to a loss of state and federal funding for homeless “support services”; that whole neighborhood was hit hard. Regardless, the mission and spirit of the organization is perseverance. Inspiration Corporation was founded in 1989 by Lisa Nigro, “a police officer who was searching for a personal response to the people she encountered on her beat. Lisa borrowed her nephew’s red wagon, filled it with coffee and sandwiches, and pulled it around the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago offering a little dignity and respect to the people she encountered.” The story really resonates with me having grown up in that neighborhood, and on many occasions cleared out the pantry or wrapped up leftovers from holiday dinners to dole out to the many that live under the bridges in the area.
It’s a habit I’ll probably never break, and I greatly appreciate the fact that The Chopping Block partners with Fight2Feed to reduce food waste and combat food inequity. The Inspiration Kitchens restaurant tagline is “Dine Well, Do Good”. The Chopping Block's mission is to get you to cook. To do that, we must understand why people don’t cook. Obstacles to cooking typically range from time, budget, energy level or even a hatred of doing dishes. We know life can get in the way, but cooking at home is more healthful and less expensive than eating out, and it brings people together. It’s our goal to help you overcome obstacles to enjoy cooking at home. Whether at a professional or amateur level, or whatever obstacles present themselves, learning to cook goes a long way to doing good.
Everyone needs to eat; it’s an instinct of being human, a mammal, an animal. Knowing how to cook, however, is an important life skill. The self-sufficiency and creativity of being able to prepare a meal is a uniquely human experience, and the range of The Chopping Block curriculum features classes of varying difficulty to cultivate that experience at different skill levels. The Cooking Lab: Flavor Dynamics class taps into and develops your instincts, and you “Learn to make sense of your sense of taste. With stronger olfactory awareness, you can become a creative cook inspired by your own palate instead of following recipes to the letter. We'll teach you the art of tweaking the five basic tastes - Salty, Sweet, Bitter, Sour and Umami - and how to use herbs, spices, oils, vinegars and aromatic ingredients to create a rich tapestry of cuisine limited only by your imagination.”
The Culinary Concepts classes - chicken, eggs, meat, and seafood - get you critically thinking, and “challenge you to rethink everything you've learned in the past about cooking, and allow us to teach you the correct techniques in order to strengthen your culinary skills.” If cooking inspires you to the extent that you’ve considered culinary school, Culinary Boot Camp might just be the thing to kick start your culinary career.
Learn frenching a rack of lamb in Butchery Boot Camp