The life of Demera owner Tigist Reda changed on November 4, 2020 – the day war broke out in her homeland of Tigray in Ethiopia. Over the next two years, the people of the region were plunged into a humanitarian crisis, which left them without food, medical services, banking services and communication networks such as telephones and the Internet. Today, a steady stream of refugees from Tigray flows into neighboring Sudan to find safety away from fighting and bloodshed.
“We feared the war, but we never thought it would reach this level,” says Reda. “It is a war against the people of Tigray. There has been a lot of crop burning and looting of schools, universities and churches.
Reda is raising funds to support Ethiopia by hosting its biggest event yet: Chicago Chefs Cook for Tigray on Wednesday, September 21. The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture will host the benefit, backed by the same Green City Market affiliate team behind the Chicago Chefs Cook for Ukraine event held in March.
A rockstar lineup of Chicago’s top chefs will hand out small plates at tasting stations, including Beverly Kim and Johnny Clark (Parachute), Joe Flamm (Rose Mary), Erick Williams (Virtue) and Paul Kahan and Greg Wade (The Publicain) . The benefit also offers Tigrayan cultural experiences ranging from music to performances to dance.
“Tigist asked if we could help him organize the event. So our group of chefs got together and everyone said, ‘Yeah, let’s go,'” said Tony Priolo, chef of Piccolo Songo and co-organizer of the Ukrainian performance.
Although she’s lived in Chicago for more than 25 years, Reda still has family in Tigray — loved ones like her mother and siblings she hasn’t heard from in more than a year. escalation of fighting. Communication is so limited that she learned that her little brother had given birth to his niece via WhatsApp messages sent by an association working in the region.
“It’s hard. You just wake up worried,” she says. “For me, cooking has been a coping mechanism. Now I can put my energy somewhere.
Demera is an Ethiopian restaurant in Uptown. While the place is generally known for serving dishes from Reda’s homeland – wots, alichas, sambusas and hearty family-style Messob – it has recently taken on a new mission. Since war broke out, Reda has used her skills to raise money for humanitarian efforts – hosting a series of pop-up restaurants and fundraising dinners.
Sarah Stegner, chef of the Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook and co-organizer of the Ukrainian fundraiser, says the industry response to Reda’s call to action was immediate: “It was so good. It felt like the community really came together,” Stegner says. “Many of them know Tigist, but not all of them. But they rallied.
While fundraisers and conflicts are similar in some ways, there are also big differences. One of the most important is the money – or, more precisely, the little money that is collected. Although they only had a few weeks to organize and fundraise for Ukraine, the Chiefs were able to raise $600,000. The Tigray advantage, on the other hand, just collected just over $16,000, despite having a lot more time. More than 70 chefs participated in the Ukrainian event. So far, 30 have signed up to support Tigray.
It’s a grim reality, says Reda. It’s confusing for her and the other organizers too – although it’s easy to point to the big fat systemic elephant in the room: prejudice. The media and the public at large had no problem rallying behind Ukraine, a predominantly white country, with high-profile fundraisers and awareness events. Yet when it comes to a place like Africa, event organizers can’t even get sponsors to give them the time of day. The head of the World Health Organization, who is Ethiopian, asked in April “if the world really pays equal attention to the lives of blacks and whites”.
Worse still, the conflict in Ukraine is increasing food insecurity in other parts of the world, including Ethiopia. The argument could be made that things are much, much worse in Tigray than in Ukraine, according to Reda.
“It’s disheartening and hurtful that the world seems to care,” Reda says. “There are six million people without food, without communication and without a bank. Imagine not receiving your salary for 10 months. What would happen to you?
“We have to let the public know that,” Priolo says. “The Russian invasion is making headlines. Yet Tigray isn’t in the news at all – and it’s really bad what’s going on. We also want to raise funds, but also increase people’s knowledge of Tigray so that they know what is going on.
Even though the Tigray crisis gets little mainstream attention, Reda says she’s overwhelmed by the support she’s received from Chicago’s food community. Although it serves a city of millions, it’s a close-knit group, according to Stegner. They treat each other more like family than co-workers – and they’re more than willing to help each other out when they need it.
“It’s amazing,” says Reda. “A lot of chefs I’ve met, but there’s a lot I’ve never met. When you feel ignored in the media and in the world, seeing these chefs say yes and introduce themselves is just amazing.
In January, Reda had the opportunity to visit a Tigrayan refugee camp in Sudan where her fundraising helped build a wellness center for women and children and a nutrition program. Being able to see the impact her money has had on refugees and meeting her fellow Tigrayans has been cathartic, she says. But it also highlighted his new North Star to help as many of them as possible. Now, with the benefit, she and the rest of Chicago’s food community have the chance to do just that.
“That’s why I’m doing this,” Reda said. “If they were here, I would feed them all. But I have to do it to support them in other ways.
Check out the full list of chefs below.
Chicago chefs cook for TigrayWednesday, September 21, National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture3015 W. Division Street, tickets can be purchased and donations can be made on line.
- Art Smith: Reunion
- Beverly Kim & Johnny Clark: With what
- Bill Kim: UrbanBelly
- Brian Jupiter: Ina Mae
- Cliff Rome: The Joyful Restoration of Rome
- Dana Cree Salls: Pretty cool ice cream
- Darnell Reed: Luella’s Southern Kitchen
- Devon Quinn: Eden
- Erick Williams: Virtue, Daisy’s Po’ Boy and Tavern
- Giuseppe Tentori: GT Prime
- Jason Hammel & Andrew Holladay: Lula Café
- Jenner Tomaska as Esme
- Joe FlammRose Mary
- Lamar Moore: River North Dining and Entertainment
- Louie Alexakis & Nikolaos Kapernaros: Avli
- Matthias Merges: folk art management
- Martial Noguier: Bistronomic
- Mary Aregoni: Saigon Sisters
- Noah Sandoval: Friendly pizza, 16″ center
- Paul Kahan & Greg Wade: Publican Quality Bread
- Rick Bayless & Zach Steen: Frontera Grill
- Sarah Stegner & George Bumbaris: Prairie Grass Café
- Tigiste Reda: Demera
- Tony Priolo: Little Dream