On Garfield Boulevard just west of Washington Park, the Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe has become a space for South Siders to explore their culinary passions and hone their craft through artist Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation. The foundation’s idea of culinary incubation existed before the pandemic's start, but only since July 2021 has the cafe been able to officially host its chef-in-residence program. The program allows culinary talent from Chicago’s South Side to learn the ropes of their chosen disciplines — including cooking, coffee service, craft cocktail creation, and more — in a real-world setting.
“It’s a lot more responsibility than I’m used to, which is not a problem, but it’s less stressful at the same time,” says Ariya Taylor, the cafe’s current chef-in-residence. “I like being in control when I cook — that’s the very fun part about this experience I’m going through right now. Being in control of my ideas and bringing them life.”
Since November, Taylor has helped run the kitchen for Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe. Gates, an installation artist, founded Rebuild in 2009. He’s been a supporter of Black chefs and workers in the restaurant industry, and a loyal customer at Erick Williams’ Virtue. In the 13 years since Rebuild has stewarded cultural and artistic development on the South Side. Although not necessarily an obvious fit, the artist-led foundation celebrates culinary arts as another facet of community cultural development. Taylor now joins other lauded South Side culinary talent as a chef who’s worked at the Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe, which has hosted chefs including Lamar Moore of Eleven Eleven and Cliff Rome of Peach’s Restaurant. Past participants of the chef-in-residence program include CTRL Z Coffee, Dozzy’s Grill, chef Jazer Syed, Monday Coffee Company, and Pour Souls Cocktail Club.
Taylor decided to apply to Rebuild’s chef-in-residence program to push herself outside of her comfort zone. Rebuild’s focus on professional development, culinary entrepreneurship, and empowering South Side locals to hone their skills all provided a perfect opportunity for Taylor to move to the next phase in her culinary career.
A central part of Taylor’s program includes planning her own menu, which is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, and during dinner service from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays. Although she has no shortage of ideas, there is a learning curve when trying to create something both engaging and approachable for Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe’s guests while, most importantly, delivering on flavor. Taylor’s cooking is inspired by Black foodways, but she also really likes to cook fusion-style cuisine with items like a Nayarit-style po’ boy. Taylor’s menu at the cafe includes shrimp etouffee with cornbread and a breakfast plate with beef kefta, shakshuka, and baked eggs. Taylor’s menu will be available until the end of January, at the conclusion of her residency.
Taylor worked at Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe while Dozzy’s Grill owner and chef, Dozzy Ibekwe, managed the kitchen. Her application drew upon experiences working for talented chefs throughout the city, which translated to an exciting proposed menu inspired by Taylor’s childhood in the kitchen with her family in addition to her other culinary interests.
Taylor was selected out of numerous applicants from across the country not only due to her demonstrable successes in Chicago kitchens — including Nico Osteria and Lux Bar in Gold Coast — but also because Rebuild ideally wanted to select a promising South Side Chicagoan of color for the role. Chef Ellison Park of Parachute and Income Tax has guided Taylor, showing her how to build a menu and helping her hone her hospitality business fundamentals.
“We hosted a number of pop-ups to see how some of these applicants could execute in the space and share their craft with the larger community,” says Sabina Bokhari, director of communications and philanthropic initiatives for Rebuild. “After reviewing their menus, and reviewing the responses from the community — it was a tough decision because they were all so great — but chef Ariya definitely had a connection to the community and a really unique menu that spoke to her background.”
Rebuild has wholly committed itself to creating opportunities on the South Side where a significant portion of Chicago’s Black population resides due to discriminatory housing policies and the legacy of redlining. One of the foundation’s guiding principles is that Black people matter, Black spaces matter, and Black objects matter. The Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe is a space where Black culinary artists and entrepreneurs can focus on their work and get a brick-and-mortar experience without having to overcome the hospitality industry’s historically high barrier of entry for Black people and other racial minorities.
“We were really intentional about making sure that local talent didn’t need to travel up north for really stellar opportunities to grow their craft in the kitchen,” Bokhari says. “It’s really beautiful to see her growth from somebody who was helping in the kitchen with our last chef-in-residence to somebody who is now leading her own enterprise in the kitchen.”
Though Rebuild has a demonstrated history of focusing on visual and performative mediums of art, including dancing and painting, food has become an increasingly significant portion of Rebuild’s focus. The foundation’s support of culinary art has allowed Taylor to think of the way she composes each dish through an artist’s eyes.
“It’s like painting a picture on the plate — it’s literally like art,” Taylor adds. “Food is very visual; before you can even taste it, you’re looking at it. Sometimes food is so pretty, you don’t even want to touch it.”
Rebuild’s commitment to the South Side and the people who live there has truly made something special at the Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe. The organization hasn’t just identified promising culinary talent on the South Side but also created an essential space of creative expression in Washington Park. And not only that — Rebuild is continuing to foster entrepreneurs as they hone their business skills and craftsmanship and create more restaurants and food-centered businesses on the South Side.
“I’d really like to gather my community and show them that we can eat really good food on the South Side of Chicago,” Taylor says.