Niquenya Collins is a natural problem solver, someone who enjoys commiserating with shoppers while searching for ingredients in the international aisles of her favorite Chicago grocery stores — at least she did before the pandemic. Collins made a habit of reverse-engineering her favorite foods from Afro-Caribbean restaurants, trying to emulate those flavors at home. She found that shoppers, including those who represent Jamaican, Senegalese, and Puerto Rican cultures, are invaluable resources.
Becoming culturally literate isn’t easy, but it doesn’t hurt that Collins knows Spanish, French, Latin, American Sign Language, and Hangul (Korean): “Yes, I am a polyglot,” she says with a laugh.
Collins is opening a new takeout and delivery restaurant to showcase cuisines that haven’t gotten enough attention in Chicago. Cocoa Chili debuts today on the Near West Side inside the Hatchery, a food incubator with shared kitchen space for chefs and food entrepreneurs. As comfort food sweeps the country, a trend brought on by how the well foods like stews and pizza keep for carryout and delivery, Collins wants Chicago to fall for dishes like jerk chicken, Senegalese poulet yassa (marinated stewed chicken), Puerto Rican rice, and curry chicken: “It should always remind you of being hugged by a blanket,” Collins says of her food.
Those are the restaurant’s anchor items. Collins plans to expand those offerings, including potato salad, and no, it won’t contain raisins: “With my potato salad, you’ll always get invited to the cookout,” she says with a laugh.
Her son, Kahari Ward, wants to franchise the concept. Collins is open to that, but she’s got big plans for her first location. Another signature dish is the cocoa chili, made with black beans con carne using the restaurant’s signature spice blend. Collins is selling the spice mix (she says it reminds her of mole) and Jamaican jerk sauce under the Cocoa Chili brand. She wants to build the name and to eventually open a restaurant with an event space while expanding her other businesses.
Opening day is also the first day of Black History Month, and Collins is aware. She sees Cocoa Chili as having the potential of leaving a legacy for her family, something that she can pass on to generations. This is her first restaurant. Prior to Cocoa Chili, she worked as a life and business coach. She says there are synergies to explore with her past entrepreneurial side and the restaurant.
She grew up on the North Side, in Uptown and Edgewater, and attended Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School. The school left an impression on her, introducing her to several culinary cultures — from European sausages to Korean kimchi to Jamaican food.
With her restaurant, she wants to extend that philosophy while sharing some of Black diaspora with her customers.
“I’m looking to create unique experiences with my food,” Collins says. “Each bite should be an experience it and of itself.”
Cocoa Chili, inside the Hatchery, 3101 W. Lake Street pickup only, delivery from DoorDash upcoming, opening hours are 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays.