By: Evelyn Shelton, chef/owner of Evelyn’s Food Love in Chicago, IL and Kendall College alumnus ‘09
I have lost track of the number of times people have called me crazy for opening a restaurant on Chicago’s South Side. After all, I already had a successful career in health care but decided to attend culinary school and open a restaurant in the Washington Park neighborhood.
To many, Washington Park was a neighborhood that far too many people were abandoning – not opening new businesses. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I ignored the negative commentary and chose to become part of the solution.
On May 23, 2018, my restaurant, Evelyn’s Food Love, will celebrate its one-year anniversary. In less than a year, we have created jobs and become a sit-down dining destination in an area known for fast food. Our delicious menu has resulted in countless smiles and compliments. We are doing exactly what we set out to do: make a difference in our community one meal at a time. And we are not alone.
On May 7th, hundreds of restaurant owners, chefs and bakers will converge on my hometown for this year’s James Beard Awards Gala. The James Beard finalists are incredibly talented and work tirelessly. I even have a hunch that each has been called “crazy” a time or two.
The theme to this year’s James Beard Awards is “Rise”, meant to celebrate the spirit of the culinary community and the power of food. It is a fitting description because each nominee has risen above a variety of obstacles to earn their recognition.
I always knew I was a good cook, but I learned that it takes a special set of culinary skills and creativity to gain a restaurant following. While attending culinary school at Kendall College, my instructors were extremely transparent and expressed to me just how difficult it is to be a successful restauranteur. Several instructors previously owned and operated successful restaurants, so they shared best practices, as well as missteps that they learned along the way.
One of the most memorable pieces of advice was understanding how to work, learn, grow, develop and inspire. For me, this meant opening a restaurant was just the beginning. Making a difference in the community and inspiring the next generation of chefs and business owners became the larger mission.
It is easier said than done. Regardless of whether you are a new restaurant owner or an established James Beard award winner, balancing a budget, differentiating the menu and hiring the right staff are difficult, and one can get tunnel vision, focusing specifically on the operation.
That is why I suggest restauranteurs take a step back on a regular basis. Recognize and appreciate what you have done for your guests and your community. Think about the ways you can make an even greater impact on your employees, guests and neighbors.
Of course, understand that there will be doubters along the way. They might say that your efforts will not effect change. They may even call you “crazy” for trying. But in the spirit of this year’s James Beard Awards, I am confident that culinary leaders of the world will continue to Rise to the occasion, understanding that the smallest acts of kindness, can, and often do, result in lasting change.