High-End Evanston Chef Feeds Families During Pandemic
“My philosophy is, follow my instincts. I try to balance my heart with my brain. I let my heart lead a lot.
I think that if you look at the human heart it will show you what we’re really capable of.
We’re seeing it in our own community.
So I’m trying to be very love-centric and stay spiritually balanced.”
-- Chef Q. Ibraheem
Until just six weeks ago, Chef Q. Ibraheem had her head, hands, and heart full running a successful high-end secret supper club, working with Michelin-star chefs around the country, and in the spring and summer, teaching Evanston kids of all ages how to garden, grow, and cook their own healthy food. Around town and around the clock, you’d see her in her crisp chef’s coat catering events, or conducting cooking classes, or digging in the dirt with students in the vegetable garden at Family Focus Evanston.
This had been her life since she became a chef seven years ago. But everything changed. The pandemic hit, and her supper club stalled. Her catering gigs and contracts dried up. Her students were stuck at home.
“Then I started getting calls,” she says.
“When people got their very last checks, they were crying on the phone. All of these families all of a sudden needed food, and I couldn’t think. I had really just lost everything. My own business. And I was like, I don’t know what to do, but I know how to feed people.”
So that’s what she did. She started grocery shopping and making meals. She hired two school bus drivers who’d been laid off to deliver them. Her crisp chef’s coat--now matched with a mandatory mask--became her front-line uniform.
“It all happened so fast,” says Chef Q. “I started making meals out of my own pocket. I started with seniors. But then I was like, ‘My babies!’ Thing is, I work with everything from Oakton Community College, Evanston Township High School, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Literary and Fine Arts School, Nichols Middle School, DeweyElementarySchool. I know so many of those kids. It hurt.”
Chef Q. started with eight families, but word spread fast, demand grew, and she now makes and delivers 120 to 140 meals every night, focusing heavily on healthy: lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, nothing fried.
On Sundays, dinners are extra-special.
“You know that’s like family dinner. It gets you started for the week,” Q. says. “It was always a big night in our house, so we do a really fabulous family style meal on Sundays.”
She runs a tight ship. Everything is zero contact. Everyone is masked. Shoppers arrive and place groceries in the designated decontamination area outside. They sanitize every single package before they come into the kitchen. Bags are thrown away, boxes broken down.
“It takes an extreme amount of time before even bringing it inside,” says Q. “It’s a long process.”
Dinner might be beef and broccoli. Or roast turkey with mashed potatoes and green beans. Or chicken ponzu over noodles.
Volunteers, like Evanstonians Jim Reardon and his wife Carol, whose wedding Q. catered five years ago, help out a couple of times a week, making their signature baked potatoes with various fillings (the couple runs 'One Potato, Two Potato' which has been feeding people who are food insecure in Chicago for years). Others, like Rick Tulsky and his wife Kim, donate cookies.
“I feel like these people were sent into my life just for this project,” says Q. “It’s the most beautiful thing ever.”
Delivery is no-contact, so the drivers call ahead and leave meals at the door or on people’s porches.
“We’re really big on customer service,” says Q. “We know our people by name. We call them ahead of time to let them know we’re coming, ask how the kids are doing. So it’s really like you’re family.”
Family and community (and fresh food) have always been central to Q., who has lived all over the country--Evanston, New York, Michigan, Atlanta, to name a few. She was raised Muslim and grew up partly on her dad’s farm in Georgia, picking corn, slaughtering chickens, and cooking outside. Her family was polygamous, so it was large: her dad, her mom, her dad’s other wives, six brothers, and five sisters.
“As a kid it was awesome,” Q. says. “You know the wives, you know your brothers and sisters. You have dinners together. It’s a very well-run partnership. But it’s all you know, you don’t know anything different.”
Though she had a variety of other jobs on her journey toward the kitchen (she’s worked for a liquor label, cleaned toilets and been a Saks Fifth Avenue personal stylist for mayors and basketball players), Q. says she’s been a chef since birth.
“I was the kid on the chair with my mom making string beans. Cooking was probably the only thing I would have done for free,” she says. “But I had no idea that could be a career.”
When she was older, her parents divorced. Money was tight, so instead of vacations, Q. says, she and her mom traveled through food.
“Every paycheck, she would take me to a different type of restaurant. That’s what we’d do every two weeks. And we’d talk only food at the table,” she says. “There was one place I really, really loved. It was a Greek restaurant. I remember the first time we ordered Saganaki and I jumped off my seat when they lit it because I was so scared. And it was that restaurant that was my very first job. I was a hostess.”
From there she moved up--server, assistant manager, general manager.
Q. attended, but didn’t finish culinary school. Instead, she was accepted into an apprenticeship program, and went through training. She worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago and traveled the country with well-known chefs. She started a catering business and then her secret supper club, Teertsemasesottehg (Ghetto Sesame Street, backwards!)
Being a chef, Q says, is being an artist and a student.
“It opens up your energy. My perfect date is going to a new grocery store. The things I don’t know create new universes,” she says.
But her goals are far greater than simply serving delicious dinners to folks who can afford them.
As president of the Evanston Food Exchange, Chef Q. is committed to reducing hunger and poverty in Evanston by creating a more sustainable food system. Through the Exchange, she reaches hundreds of students of all ages and inspires them with her enthusiasm for culinary adventure and passion for planting, harvesting, cooking healthy foods, and creating community.
“I really love that there are kids who haven’t tried a lot of new foods and you say, ‘We have a two-bite rule.’ They’re going to eat it because they were part of the creative process,” she says. “They helped prepare it. That’s really fun, opening up young minds to new experiences as well.”
She believes that cooking is a skill that can lead to a healthier lifestyle and that the pandemic has laid bare stark realities.
“If you can’t cook, you’re more likely to eat low-quality processed food,” she says. “You can see what we’re going through right now. Seventy percent of Covid-19 deaths are in the Black community and a lot of that has to do with diet.”
And though Q. says she’s always been aware of food insecurity through her work with the Exchange, the pandemic has really opened her eyes.
“Honestly, I had no idea,” she says. “It has definitely magnified the reality of our systems. We’re going to really have to talk about some new systems that have to be implemented. We have to get a direct hold on this, because hunger is just not acceptable. We have too much land for anyone to be hungry.”
She hopes when the pandemic subsides, it will bring about change--and her focus is to start local.
“I hope Evanston will be able to assess what has happened in our community and create new ideologies to combat that,” she says. A lot of people have ideas and thoughts to share, but there has to be a seat at the table to create equity. If you want to see changes, you have to be willing to help with that process. Even if it just starts with you.”
Q. loves being back in Evanston, engaged in the community. As a very young child, she lived here, and her family has deep roots here: her great-great grandparents came here from Ontario, Canada, and opened a store in Wilmette. Her grandmother and her mother went to Foster School (now Family Focus), and the library at Family Focus is named after her aunt, Eddie Lee Sutton. [photo courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center].
“I have so much history, it was amazing to move to Evanston as an adult and realize that I’ve heard the history of the fifth ward forever,” she says. “That’s how I really became involved. I wanted to be part of it. It’s such a rich culture.”
But Chef Q. is much more than part of the community. Right now she’s helping to sustain it during one of the most uncertain times it’s faced--just as she faces the yawning uncertainties in her own life.
Her days now are a blur of planning, coordinating, shopping, sanitizing, cooking, delivering, and consoling families who have been left jobless, moneyless, and foodless. She’s also started some Zoom cooking classes for kids, to keep them engaged, to keep herself connected to them, and for some much-needed income.
It leaves little time for her to contemplate her own future, her own career for which she’s worked so hard and for which she had started receiving high acclaim.
“I’ve invested everything into my community from the first day I got here. I just got this. It took forever,” she says. “But I literally don’t have time to think about it right now. Let’s make sure the kitchen isn’t contaminated, let’s make the drivers have their gloves. I can’t even concentrate on what’s next for me, but when I get there I’m going to be going through the reality that hit everyone else five weeks ago.”
Chef Q. says she’s grateful for the community’s support to help her feed families in need. She received a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation's Rapid Response Fund for this past month, and generous friends and supporters have donated through a GoFundMe campaign.
“The best part about being a chef is I can sometimes stretch [the food] a little more,” she says.
But the number of families she serves has grown and she needs more funding to accommodate them through the end of May (please donate to Chef Q’s GoFundMe).
For now, Chef Q.’s mission is to make sure everyone who needs a meal gets one. She says her basic instinct is to feed. She hasn’t had time to sit still.
“Right now I have to just be guided by this moment, and live in it. Let me stay focused. Let me treat everyone with kindness, make sure I’m staying safe. Everything right now--I’m just gonna kill it with love until the next day, because that’s all I have.”
Listen to my Zoom interview with Chef Q.