When I moved to Chicago seven years ago, I randomly ended up as roommates with Rene De Leon who had moved from Cincinnati to work as a chef at Alinea. The passion for food and cooking Rene instilled within me during our four years as roommates is one of the driving reasons why Rachel and I are making our three month trip to Europe.
Three years ago Rene and I started cooking dinner at a homeless shelter once a month. I wish I could say that I got involved for purely altruistic reasons, but initially I just saw it as an opportunity to practice chopping vegetables without paying for them. That changed the first time we cooked Thanksgiving dinner at the shelter. Alinea donated food, Rene donated a substantial portion of his paycheck, and we prepared a four course meal better than most people with disposable income eat all year.
Rene, coming from the best restaurant in the country, showed the guests that they have as much of a right to eat good food as those who can afford a $400 dinner. He never said “They’re just homeless people” but instead prepared for them the same meal as he would have prepared for the most honored of guests. He cut no corners, going so far as to individually place micro-herbs on each dish with tweezers. That night he gave the guests not just a great meal, but dignity.
Today, Rene’s busy schedule as the sous chef of Next precludes him from going with us each month, but he has made a point to return to the shelter every holiday season. Though the multi-course blowouts always go over well, sometimes the guests prefer the familiar over culinary experimentation.
This year Rene decided it would be easier to prepare the meal at Next instead of at the shelter. That’s how myself and three other friends spent the Tuesday before Thanksgiving cooking a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in one of the hardest to get into restaurants in the country.
Many thanks to Kristen Hettinga at Testa Produce for generously donating several hundred dollars worth of produce, to chefs Andrew Graves and Dave Beran (who turned down dinner at Schwa to join us!) for helping us prepare the meal, and to Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas for supporting us over the last three years.