Every Wednesday, Alan Mares wakes up before the sunrise and gets ready for a long day of cooking, meal prepping, and virtual learning. If he’s lucky, the 27-year-old chef misses traffic on his morning commute from Logan Square to the West Loop, though luck doesn’t often follow him.
Luck does follow Mares into the kitchen at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, where he recently became head chef for the youth program of the longstanding Catholic charity house for at-risk youth. There, he gets to do what he loves: cook for and teach young people about the power of food and community. The young people he works with might not have grown up with fresh meals and may have experienced traumatic upbringings — they’re youth like he was.
“To me, it’s not a job. I’m just learning while getting paid,” Mares says.
The chef, who started in October after working at the award-winning restaurant Mi Tocaya Antojeria, feels blessed to be working at Mercy to bring joy to children who cannot see their families or have had to alter their lives to stay safe during the pandemic. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Mares, who lived at Mercy for three years as an older teenager and experienced homelessness and substance abuse. He credits the home for giving him a roof over his head, teaching him leadership and job skills, and helping him find his love for cooking.
While at Mercy, he went to college and culinary school — which the home paid for — and then got an internship at Lula Cafe. He loved cleaning asparagus and kale, he says, as well as working with the team that helped him excel in his career. It was a chaotic time in his life, though, because he was studying and working full-time — and trying to permanently stay in the country.
Originally from Mexico, Mares is undocumented and has lived in Chicago since the age of 9. After a push from a Mercy friend, he decided to apply to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). He remembers the day he got approved in 2015 like it was yesterday. It’s part of his identity he wears proudly.
“It was one of the greatest feelings in the world,” he says. “In a way, it was like I was born again. It was like someone had given me immense power, like I could do anything.”
Mares’s resume, besides Mi Tocaya, includes working for two of the city’s most successful restaurants and chefs. He’s worked with Jason Hammel at Logan Square icon Lula. He’s also worked with John Manion at El Che Bar in West Loop. While he keeps a low profile, Chicago restaurant industry observers may recognize him as the cook who was attacked in 2019 at Chicago Gourmet. Mares says he hasn’t had an update on that matter for months and fears the case has been thrown out.
But it was at Mercy Home where Mares became the person he is today. Reliant on generous donations and annual events, the respected charity has been a safe harbor for youth aged 9 to 21 in crisis since 1887, offering personalized care and support services while promoting healing for families. The organization served nearly 1,500 individuals from July 2019 to July of this year, offered ongoing support to 428 former residents and families, and housed 138 youth between its two houses.
When the pandemic hit, Mercy acted quickly to ensure its youth and their families were taken care of, shutting down both campuses to visitors and adding strict safety precautions. Father Scott Donahue, president and CEO of Mercy Home, says the house is following advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Rush University Medical Center epidemiologists, who inspected the dorm rooms and said they were too crowded to ensure proper social distancing. That meant finding new homes for half of the youth living there and moving its AfterCare resource services, such as therapy, schooling, mentorship, financial literacy and parenting tips, online. Mercy also created new community partnerships with longtime donors to help the organization stay afloat after all of its funding events were canceled.
“We had to find a safe place for youth who had to leave residential with the promise that we would continue to provide the same resources we provided in residential care where they were living,” says Donahue.
Since many young people at Mercy could not go back home, they were placed with other family members, mentors, and community members. By extension, the households that took them are receiving AfterCare program support, now called CommunityCare to better reflect the over 8,000 staff and outside partners assisting this endeavor. Donahue also created the Compassionate Care Task Force to coordinate the therapeutic and tangible support by tackling immediate needs first: food for the families and youth now at greatest risk of hunger or food insecurity.
About 300 families and 570 individuals are part of the extension. They have each received hundreds of grocery or meal drop-offs from local restaurants have received hundreds of drop-offs such as Hangry’s, RPM, and O’Brien’s, food pantries, and companies like Isola Imports and Barilla, which donated 1,000 pounds of pasta and pasta sauce, as well as coupons for free pasta.
“One of the great things that have helped us is the restaurant community,” Donahue says. “The food community has been extraordinarily generous in helping us feed others.”
He hopes to keep donations coming for the next year and a half to help youth and families hit hard by the health crisis, as some experts predict the pandemic could last at least two years. He says the generosity from nationwide donors has blown him away, and credits that to the organization’s reputation and commitment, which is now desperately needed.
In a time when community feels sparse and isolation has become the norm, food has helped the Mercy family stay connected outside of its physical campus. But inside the home’s walls, chef Mares is sparking that connection and inspiration among youth, Donahue says — even though the cafeteria is not as fun and only two to three people eat together per table.
Mares currently feeds 60 young people and the on-site staff, with help from a line cook and youth volunteers. Noah is one of Mares’s helpers and says he started eating in the cafeteria again since Mares took over. Before that, the 18-year-old would eat in his room or in smaller groups, as is often the case with the older youth at the home.
He’s new to the kitchen job, but says he enjoys seeing how Mares cooks and what he can learn from the chef. He’s especially grateful for the fresh-cooked meals during this time, he says.
“I appreciate it because there are people outside of Mercy who are not able to get those meals, so [Mares] giving back to us and coming to work with a positive attitude shows he really does care,” Noah says.
That reputation makes the chef smile wide. Donahue says the way Mares treats the kids, and his passion for his work, exemplifies Mercy’s mission to boost self-esteem and teach a strong work ethic to the people it serves.
Mares is now studying to be a social worker so he can be in better position to help the at-risk youth he sees every day. Not only does he want to teach them about cooking, but he seeks to empower them, to know that despite a difficult upbringing or circumstances, that their futures can be bright.
“I want to help people through food the way it has helped me. I want to create this space where mainly Black and brown youth can come in and learn about cooking, fall in love with cooking, or just get the skills to survive,” Mares says. “If I can reach one person and plant the seed of helping others, I am good with that.”