When I was a little girl my grandfather would always accompany us to the mall. He wasn’t much of a shopper, but was happy to sit on the couches and chatted with people while we did our thing. On one such occasion, I joined him on the couch, approaching while he was mid conversation with a stranger. After the man left, my grandfather smiled and stated, “You know, most people in this world are kind, all you have to do is stop and say hello.” That statement has stuck with me my entire life.
Living in the city, interaction with strangers is almost unavoidable. And while I’ve had my fair share of unpleasant encounters, I’ve had more fantastic experiences that outweigh those negative moments. At its core, Chicago is a city of good people. It is a city of outstanding resolve and there are so many wonderful organizations working to help others. One such organization (that we’ve introduced you to on the Chicago Chic before) is Common Threads. They enter into underserved communities and teach children cooking and nutrition education. “Common Threads was built on the belief that cooking a meal together is good for the body and soul,” said Linda Novick O’Keefe, founding CEO of Common Threads. Their goal is to have one million children cooking for life by 2020 and we want to help bring that to fruition.
To raise money for the program they are launching the Common Threads Chef Takeover Fueled by Circuit of The Americas on April 30th. This pop-up dinner series consists of five one-night-only ticketed dinners throughout the country. The first dinner opens in Chicago and features a Charlie Trotter-inspired dinner menu, which pays homage to the late chef. Hosted by Prime & Provisions, each dish will be prepared by an acclaimed chef. Participating chefs include Chef Fabio Viviani (Siena Tavern & Bar Siena, Chicago), Chef Brad Kilgore (Alter, Miami), Chef Anita Lo (Annisa, New York City), Chef JJ Johnson (Minton’s, New York City) and Chef Dana Cree (The Publican, Chicago).
I had the chance to go behind the scenes during the planning process of this highly anticipated dinner series to chat with Linda Novick O’Keefe, founding CEO of Common Threads, Chef Fabio Viviani and Chef Anita Lo.
Linda Novick O’Keefe, founding CEO of Common Threads
What was the inspiration for the pop-up dinner series?
“Like so many of the best ideas, the inspiration was born out of an early morning conversation with my dear friend Joel Morales who runs ext.54, our agency of record. Like most conversations with your close friends, you vent and kvetch and then you problem solve. This was no different. There are 101 food and chef events, and like many non-profit organizations, we struggle to stay relevant, but we wanted to ensure that it was an event we would want to go to, one that felt intimate, special, while raising much needed funding and visibility for the Common Threads mission. Common Threads is beyond lucky to have so many amazing chefs influencing our kids and a network of corporate supporters, like Circuit of The Americas and Kenmore, that are ready and have been asking for a way to further support our mission. So we brought everyone together for a special evening around the table to raise awareness and funds for the future of our children’s wellness and nutrition.”
How did you select which chefs would participate?
“We were so fortunate to have such incredibly talented chefs willing to donate their time and skills in support of the Common Threads mission. All of these chefs share our organization’s passion for serving young people and building healthier communities. Their support has been invaluable in bringing health and wellness to the children, families and communities we serve through cooking and nutrition education. Many of the participating chefs have been donating their time since we started Common Threads 14 years ago. In fact, several of them were working in the kitchens of chefs who helped us get our start and are now award-winning chefs themselves.”
How can people who can’t attend the dinner help Common Threads reach their goal of getting one million children cooking for life by 2020?
“The success of Common Threads depends on the involvement of the incredible men and women who volunteer their time and funds to help further their mission. Those interested in volunteering can visit the Common Threads website ‘contact page’ to reach out. Here are a few ways you can get involved…
Volunteer: We’re always looking for passionate volunteers who want to roll up their sleeves in our classrooms and work with our students and families!
Cooking Classes: Contact us on our website to learn how you can sign up to lead classes, assist our Chef Instructors and help with class activities.
World Garden: Our World Garden is located in Chicago at 49th and Dorchester in Kenwood Park. Classes are held in the fall, spring and summer. Help is needed on a weekly basis, as well as for periodic maintenance throughout the year.
Events: Help is needed at special events throughout the year. Location, times and duties vary by event.
Donate: Common Threads welcomes and appreciates donations of any amount. Just $25 provides 8 weeks of nutrition education and healthy meals and snacks to a child in an underserved community. To donate, volunteer or learn more about our programs, people can go to www.commonthreads.org.”
Chef Fabio Viviani, Siena Tavern & Bar Siena
What is your dish?
“I will be making Ravioli Del Plin “Two Ways”. This dish includes Veal Sweetbread and Black Garlic – which is a personal favorite.”
What do you think Chef Charlie Trotter would say about your dish?
“I think he would appreciate it. My original inspiration when coming up with the dish was to include veal in it to pay homage to the chef. After researching all of his menus I noticed Chef Trotter would always have veal on his menus one way or another.”
You’ve spent many years working with Common Threads. What’s your favorite memory from working with this incredible organization?
“I think I just love being able to connect with the kids who are aspiring chefs themselves and helping them any way I can. I started cooking at a very young age and I see a lot of the same drive they have that I had as a kid. “
What’s one piece of advice you would give to parents who are short on time but want to cook a healthy meal at home for their families?
“I would tell them to keep it simple and stick to what they like. Yes, it is great to expand their palate, but I noticed my son loves the simplest meals I cook for him. The meals are also healthy because I’m not including a lot of ingredients in them.”
Anita Lo, Annisa
What was your reaction when you found out Charlie Trotter was the inspiration for the meal?
“I was a little intimidated honestly. I had never eaten at his restaurant and had only been aware of his awesome stature within the industry. I’d like to serve his memory well.”
How did you go about planning your dish?
“I have a set of his cookbooks so I went through those. Then Common Threads sent a few menu samples and I chose a dish to riff on from that.”
How can families execute your dish at home?
“The dish [steamed Australis barramundi with endive, sunckokes, and a blood orange-anchovy vinaigrette] isn’t that difficult, although you’d need to find sunchokes and endive. The fish can be substituted if barramundi isn’t available, but the rest is pretty straightforward. There is a version of this recipe using Spanish mackerel in my cookbook, Cooking Without Borders.”
Why do you think it is important to empower people through cooking?
“Cooking fills a basic need, and when you cook at home, it is generally healthier than dining out. Food brings people together and is an expression of culture and identity. Studies show that families who eat together at home regularly produce happier, healthier children.”
What influenced you to become a chef?
“I came from a food-obsessed family. And I’ve always liked to work with my hands.”
What was the first cooking skill you learned as a child?
“How to fold Chinese dumplings probably…we would make dumplings on Sunday mornings sometimes as a family. My mother would make the fillings and roll out the wrappers and all the kids would fold them. Then we’d eat them for lunch.”
How can children motivate their parents to adopt a healthier lifestyle?
“By cooking healthy meals for them!”
Featured photo by Common Threads.