A week after raising $110,000 to support victims of the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, more than 30 of Chicago’s top chefs have quickly turned their attentions to helping flood-ravaged Puerto Rico, proving tireless in their charity efforts.
“They’re not just chefs, they’re humanitarians,” says Billy Ocasio, executive director of the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture.
Chicago Chefs Cook for Puerto Rico is the latest fundraiser from the Green City Market-affiliated chefs who have raised money for Tigray and Ukraine. Ocasio says raising even $50,000 would be helpful to support World Central Kitchen’s campaign to help Hurricane Fiona victims. So far, 30 chefs, including Art Smith (Reunion), Paul Virant (Vistro Prime, Gaijin), and Sarah Grueneberg (Monteverde), have signed up to cook a dish for the event planned for Wednesday, September 28 at the Humboldt Park museum.
This is a fast turnaround for many chefs who volunteered at Chicago Chefs Cook for Tigray event on September 21. While many are also participating in the Puerto Rican, event fatigue is setting in for many as Chicago Gourmet followed on the weekend. A labor shortage for restaurants makes rest even more valuable. Charity events are a grind for restaurants trying to sustain through the pandemic. Some chefs say they weren’t sure if they’d be able to participate so quickly on the heels of the last event.
Ocasio served as Chicago’s 26th Ward alderman, before leaving politics in 2013 to better establish the museum. He’s a regular diner at Piccolo Sogno and friends with chef Tony Priolo. Priolo, with the help of his friends at Green City Market, spearheaded the charity events for Ethiopia and for victims of the war in Ukraine. The museum plans to open a breakfast and lunch restaurant next year, and Ocasio solicited Priolo’s advice. During that process, Ocasio offered the museum for future events. Priolo took him up on the offer. After seeing the energy at last week’s event, Ocasio says it was important to get funds to Puerto Rico immediately.
“It’s fresh in people’s minds, people want to help and not only that, you got these people on the island of Puerto Rico who still don’t know when they’re getting power; they still need generators,” he says. “You look at the island, five years later, there’s still houses that use blue tarps to cover their roofs.”
Ocasio grew up in Humboldt Park and has family in Puerto Rico who have been affected. His mother-in-law lives in a senior housing complex, which just had intermittent power restored a few days ago. The island’s power grid is still damaged from Hurricane Maria in 2017, and the 2019 earthquake. Ocasio derides the federal government’s promise of $5.5 billion in funds to fix the grid (FEMA made emergency repairs in 2018). Ocasio says the federal government hasn’t done enough; his enduring memory is former-President Donald Trump casually tossing packs of paper towels to a crowd while visiting the island.
Currently, the Chicago museum is hosting an art exhibit featuring the largest collection of Puerto Rican art outside of the island. The pieces are on loan from the Ponce Museum of Art in Puerto Rico, which has been closed since 2020 after the hurricane and earthquake. Officials had hoped to reopen next year, but now they’re reevaluating their plans after the last natural disaster. Fortunately, shipping some of their larger pieces to Chicago has turned out to be a silver lining in protecting those artifacts. Ocasio hopes to eventually route aid to Ponce.
Chef Cely Rodriguez of the Jibarito Stop (with locations in Logan Square and Lincoln Park), is the only Puerto Rican restaurant in the line-up. It’s a rarity to see Puerto Rican representation in a lineup of chefs with Michelin-starred restaurants or James Beard Awards. Ocasio says he wishes there were more, but also notes that many of these Puerto Rican restaurants are family-owned. They’re even more fatigued than other restaurants due to a lack of resources and can’t spare to donate a couple of thousand dollars of food to a cause.
Another Puerto Rican participating is Fox Chicago anchor Sylvia Perez, who is emceeing the event. Ocasio also called on Yvonne Cadiz-Kim, whose shuttered restaurant in Bucktown called Belly Shack. The restaurant combined Puerto Rican flavors with her Korean flavors, a nod to her husband, Bill Kim.
Last week, the museum hosted the Ethiopian fundraiser, which was a success in the eyes of event organizer chef Tigist Reda (Demera). They sold 240 out of 300 tickets. Even though a rousing speech from chef Erick Williams (Virtue) helped raised $14,000 during the silent auction, the final total represented about half of Reda’s $200,000 goal.
Ocasio says he’s faced challenges in raising money for Black and Brown communities. “There is a bias when it comes to people of color,” he says. Media coverage is a problem, but he maintains that chefs aren’t focused on racial divisions or politics — many in the culinary community are seemingly ready to help whenever they can.
“This is not just about power, it’s about medicine, it’s about health care,” Ocasio says. “So many people are trying to do the right thing”
Chicago Chefs Cook for Puerto Rico, Wednesday, September 28, National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, 3015 W. Division Street. Tickets ($155) are available on the museum website.