Demera owner Tigist Reda’s life changed on November 4, 2020 — the day war broke out in her homeland of Tigray in Ethiopia. Over the next two years, the people of the region were thrust into a humanitarian crisis, one that deprived them of food, medical service, banking, and communication networks like phones and the Internet. Today, a steady river of refugees from Tigray flows into neighboring Sudan to find safety away from the fighting and bloodshed.
“We were fearing war but we never thought it would get to this level,” Reda says. “It’s a war against the people of Tigray. There was a lot of burning crops and looting of schools, universities, and churches.”
Reda is raising money to support Ethiopia by hosting her biggest event yet: Chicago Chefs Cook for Tigray on Wednesday, September 21. The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture will host the benefit, backed by the same Green City Market-affiliated team behind the Chicago Chefs Cook for Ukraine event held in March.
A rockstar lineup of Chicago’s top chefs will be doling out small plates at tasting stations including the likes of Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark (Parachute), Joe Flamm (Rose Mary), Erick Williams (Virtue), and Paul Kahan and Greg Wade (The Publican). The benefit also offers Tigrayan cultural experiences ranging from music to performances, to dancing.
“Tigist asked if we could help her do the event. So our group of chefs got together and everyone said, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’” Tony Priolo, chef of Piccolo Songo and co-organizer of the Ukrainian benefit, says.
Though she’s lived in Chicago for more than 25 years, Reda still has family in Tigray — loved ones like her mother and siblings whom she hasn’t heard from in more than a year since the fighting escalated. Communication is so limited, that she learned that her little brother gave birth to her niece through WhatsApp messages sent by a non-profit working in the region.
“It’s hard. You just wake up worrying,” she says. “For me, cooking has been a coping mechanism. Now I can put my energy somewhere.”
Demera is an Ethiopian restaurant in Uptown. While the spot is typically known for serving up the dishes of Reda’s native country — wots, alichas, sambusas, and hearty family-style Messob — it’s taken on a new mission as of late. Since war broke out, Reda has been using her skills to fundraise for humanitarian efforts — hosting a series of pop-up restaurants and fundraising dinners.
Sarah Stegner, the chef of Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook and co-organizer of the Ukrainian fundraiser, says the industry’s response to Reda’s call of action was immediate: “That felt so good. It felt like the community was really coming together,” Stegner says. “Many of them know Tigist, but not all of them. But they rallied.”
While the fundraisers and conflicts are similar in some ways — there are also stark differences. One of the biggest is money — or, more specifically, how little of it is being raised. Despite having just a few weeks to organize and fundraise for Ukraine, the chefs were able to raise $600,000. The Tigray benefit on the other hand has just raised a little more than $16,000 — despite having much more time. More than 70 chefs participated in the Ukraine event. So far, 30 have signed up to support Tigray.
It’s a bleak reality, Reda says. It’s confusing for her and the other organizers too — though it’s easy to point at the big fat systemic elephant in the room: bias. The media and public as a whole had no problem rallying behind Ukraine, a country primarily filled with white people, with high-flying fundraisers and awareness events. Yet when it comes to a place like Africa, event organizers can’t even get sponsors to give them the time of the day. The head of the World Health Organization, who is Ethiopian, asked in April “if the world really gives equal attention to Black and white lives.”
What’s worse is the Ukrainian conflict is increasing food insecurity in other parts of the world, including Ethiopia. The argument could be made that things are much, much worse in Tigray than it is in Ukraine, according to Reda.
“It’s disheartening and hurtful that the world seems like they don’t care,” Reda says. “There are six million people without food, communication, and banking. Imagine not receiving your salary for 10 months. What would happen to you?”
“We need to get this out to the public,” Priolo says. “The Russian invasion is all over the news. Yet, Tigray is not in the news at all — and it’s really bad what’s happening. We also want to raise money but also raise people’s knowledge of Tigray so they know what’s going on.”
Even though the Tigray crisis garners little attention from the broader public, Reda says she’s overwhelmed by the support she’s received from the Chicago food community. Despite serving a city of millions, it’s a tight-knit bunch, according to Stegner. They treat each other more like family than coworkers — and they’re more than willing to help each other out when they need it.
“It feels amazing,” Reda says. “A lot of the chefs I’ve met, but there’s a lot I’ve never met. When you’re feeling ignored in the media and the world, having these chefs say yes and show up is just amazing.”
In January, Reda had the opportunity to visit a Tigrayan refugee camp in Sudan where her fundraising helped build a wellness center for women and children and a nutrition program. Being able to see how her money was impacting the refugees and meet with her fellow Tigrayans was cathartic, she says. But it also underscored her newfound North Star to help as many of them as she can. Now, with the benefit, she and the rest of the Chicago food community have the chance to do that.
“That’s why I’m doing this,” Reda says. “If they were here, I’d feed them all. But I have to do this to support them in other ways.”
Check out the full chef’s lineup below.
- Art Smith: Reunion
- Beverly Kim & Johnny Clark: Wherewithall
- Bill Kim: UrbanBelly
- Brian Jupiter: Ina Mae
- Cliff Rome: Rome’s Joy Catering
- Dana Cree Salls: Pretty Cool Ice Cream
- Darnell Reed: Luella’s Southern Kitchen
- Devon Quinn: Eden
- Erick Williams: Virtue, Daisy’s Po’ Boy and Tavern
- Giuseppe Tentori: GT Prime
- Jason Hammel & Andrew Holladay: Lula Café
- Jenner Tomaska: Esme
- Joe Flamm: Rose Mary
- Lamar Moore: River North Dining & Entertainment
- Louie Alexakis & Nikolaos Kapernaros: Avli
- Matthias Merges: Folkart Management
- Martial Noguier: Bistronomic
- Mary Aregoni: Saigon Sisters
- Noah Sandoval: Pizza Friendly Pizza, 16” on Center
- Paul Kahan & Greg Wade: Publican Quality Bread
- Rick Bayless & Zach Steen: Frontera Grill
- Sarah Stegner & George Bumbaris: Prairie Grass Cafe
- Tigist Reda: Demera
- Tony Priolo: Piccolo Sogno