This March was supposed to be the busiest spring yet for Q. Ibraheem, a Chicago chef hosting popular — and pricey — underground dinner parties.
After three years of serving her intricate multi-course meals to adventurous eaters at $250 per person, it was the first time she was starting to collect a salary doing what she loves. Ibraheem, who goes by Chef Q, was even getting booked for larger events through nonprofits and corporate gatherings.
Then COVID-19 hit.
One by one, high-profile gigs were canceled. Her career as a high-end chef serving duck hearts and caviar came to a halt.
“I was like: I’m going to vomit,” says the 34-year-old. “I lost all of my business.”
But along came a glimmer of hope.
Seeing the effect of the pandemic on people in some of Chicago’s most hard-hit communities inspired her to meld two worlds: She would combine cooking exceptional meals with helping those who can’t afford any kind of meal, even one for as little at $5.
A New Way to Cook
In Mid-March, Ibraheem came up with a free food delivery concept she called Kids with Coworkers, a riff on all the children who were now stuck at home with their parents (i.e. coworkers). Her goal was to cook and deliver “farm-to-fork” meals to needy families across Chicago. Many of the parents she knew in her community were furloughed or laid off from their jobs and were stuck at home tending to children without a safety net for their family.
“I’m living two different lives,” she says. “I feel like I’m in two Americas.”
In late March, as the entire city sheltered in place, she began daily deliveries of freshly made dinners to nine families. Local sponsors learned about the program on social media. One foundation’s executive asked her to write the amount of money she needed to run the program on a napkin, snap a photo of the number and text it over, so the nonprofit could get the money to her quickly. “People started to say: We see what you’re doing. How can we help you?” she says.
Keeping the project running requires an exacting level of coordination and management expertise, as well as food cost knowledge. She’s had to adapt her practice to get the most out of ingredients, and even sought advice from a Holocaust survivor and an older aunt on how to stretch food when times are tough. “I’m not used to cooking comfort food for people, it’s usually a bit fancy,” says Ibraheem. “I’ve never made meatloaf for 100 people.” She’s also making macaroni and cheese with broccoli, roasted chicken and rice, and pairing the meals with fresh vegetables.
Besides serving meals to the community through local sponsors, Ibraheem is also ramping up her teaching. She holds Zoom cooking classes for children and is running the Foster Street Urban Agriculture Program. The gardening program teaches 8- to 11-year-olds how to cultivate land and prepare fresh vegetables on an eight-bed raised garden in the socio-economically challenged 5th ward of Evanston, Ill. “If you are growing vegetables, it’s like printing your own money,” says Ibraheem, who helped expand the program since taking it over three years ago.
Bridging Two Worlds
On a personal level, Chef Q is familiar with both of the worlds that connect her career.
Ibraheem grew up living in Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Atlanta. She was raised Muslim with part of her family coming from the Middle East. She decided to return to Chicago in 2014 because one of her enslaved great-great-grandparents had settled in Evanston. “I wanted to be a part of where my roots were,” she says.
It wasn’t an easy road. She didn’t have any local connections and it took months to get hired in Chicago. Even with eight years of experience with independent upscale restaurants, only a chain restaurant would hire her. She got her break when Iliana Regan, owner of the popular restaurant Elizabeth, hired her. The restaurant earned a Michelin star the year she was hired, but she still remembers the difficulties of breaking into the industry as a black female chef. Looking back, she says now it was these challenges that led her to pursue entrepreneurship and launch her underground dining offering named Teertsemasesottegh (Ghetto Sesame Street spelled backwards). Her first event in 2017 sold out.
Back on Track
Months into the ongoing pandemic, Ibraheem now runs two kitchens with two people each to keep the spaces as safe and distanced as possible. She hired school bus drivers who were laid off to deliver the food to families. In July, she partnered with multiple local organizations to help finance the operation, including the Chicago Bulls.
On her roster are 162 people from 49 families, a number that grows daily.
On a personal level, she’s extra careful about her current work and social life because she lives with her 70-year-old mother and wants to remain healthy. “There’s no hanging out for me the way some friends are,” says Ibraheem. Her mother, seeing her daughter was out of work, even offered to pay rent in their Rogers Park apartment.
As citywide restrictions lift, business for her private dinners is also slowly picking up, allowing her to cook the kind of high-end memorable food that she loves. Some of her wealthier clients have even started writing checks or giving donations toward her new day job. One client recently baked 200 gingersnap cookies for her to include with the meals. “I’ve never seen anything like this, people are so willing to help their neighbors,” she says.
As her career evolves, she’s thankful for the opportunity to cook the kind of food she loves while helping others. It’s also allowed her to become more inclusive in her craft: “I was in a $5 million house last weekend with two pools outside. On the flipside of that, only 18 minutes away, I’m giving away food.”