A Monday night rally hoping to bridge Chicago’s African-American and Latinx communities will involve more than 30 top Chicago chefs including Carlos Gaytán (Tzuco), Erick Williams (Virtue), Paul Kahan (One Off Hospitality), and Mariya Russell (Kumiko). Healthy Hood — which has already partnered with Chicago restaurants to deliver food to marginalized residents around the city — will host the event at its Pilsen location. The rally promises food, special performances, and speakers from leaders in the Black and Latinx communities.
Organizers are calling it a social distance-friendly “coalition cookout,” so the hospitality industry could lift spirits while marchers continue to protest racism across the nation. In Chicago, tensions mounted in Little Village along 26th Street after reports of looting on June 5 and 6. Social media posts claimed armed Latinx business owners were violently targeting African Americans.
Manny Mendoza saw what actually happened on 26th Street and says the social media posts about gang violence snowballed and caused damage between communities. Mendoza is a chef and started Herbal Notes, an underground cannabis dinner series.
“The incidents were so small and isolated,” Mendoza says. “But they gained so much traction because people are gravitating toward the negative.”
Mendoza also works for Healthy Hood, a charity organization based out of Lincoln United Methodist Church. The Pilsen space has a reputation as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. Healthy Hood was already planning a rally. At the same time Mendoza’s friend, chef Daniel Espinoza (Cantina Laredo) was organizing his own event. They merged ideas and invited some of Chicago’s biggest culinary stars including Joe Flamm (Spiaggia), Diana Dávila (Mi Tocaya Antojeria), Brian Jupiter (Ina Mae’s Tavern and Packaged Goods), and Brian Fisher (Entente). The goal is to reiterate that Black Lives Matter while fostering togetherness. The rally goes beyond shallow Instagram posts that support Black Lives Matter, Mendoza says. This is a way chefs can actually take action.
“Food is everything, man,” Mendoza says. “People live and die over it. This is our opportunity for us to show, as a restaurant community, that this is bigger than business — this is about justice, this is about the solidarity of the people who work with us, for us, the people who come out.”
Espinoza and wife Jhoana Ruiz marched with protesters earlier this month through downtown. Espinoza notes there’s anti-Black sentiment within the Latinx communities and he want to eradicate the ill-will between the two marginalized groups. As a Mexican American, Espinoza says he was terrified while watching the video footage showing George Floyd’s last breaths: “That could literally be me.”
Espinoza says owes the African-American community. He talks about the supportive African-American neighbors he grew up next to in Humboldt Park. He mentions the career advise Virtue’s Williams gave him. Williams is one of the city’s best known African-American chefs. The rally is a way Espinoza can show appreciation.
In West Loop, Mariya Russell made history last year as the first African-American woman to lead a Michelin-starred restaurant for her work at Kumiko. But chef Russell has been without a job since March, as the pandemic has kept Kumiko closed. She sees the rally as a way to “promote joy” while “telling their own story.”
For Monday’s event, Russell and her crew — husband Garrett and colleagues from Kumiko — are making roasted pork shoulder with avocado chimichurri, along with watermelon. Russell laughs when if she’s making a statement with watermelon, which comes with racist stereotypes.
“It’s just literally one of my favorite fruits,” she says. “It’s nostalgic for me.”
Searching for positives, Russell sees opportunities for restaurants to reset, to apologize for past discrimination, and to create solutions that address systematic inequalities. That includes the elimination of racist kitchen banter, more opportunities (including inviting African-American chefs to work at food halls), and narrowing the pay gap between white and POC workers.
“This is very important,” Russell says. “People are not playing around anymore about how they’ve been treated.”
There were protests last week through Pilsen and Little Village promoting unity as a response to earlier violence. But Mendoza says the vibe at Monday’s rally will be different with speeches. The event starts at 6 p.m. Mendoza didn’t say who would be speaking. Espinoza is hoping for one: Barack Obama: “How cool would that be?”
Together We Rise Rally, 6 p.m., 2242 S. Damen Avenue, Healthy Hood Chicago.