Standing before a table laid with gleaming pink slabs of raw fish, mounds of white rice and crisp green wafers of seaweed, Nikki Rhum, 15, layers thin strips of lobster, fresh avocado, fried shrimp and bacon bits onto rice.
“I love sushi,” says the Buffalo Grove freshman, flashing a giant grin. Along with a half dozen other foodies, she’s spending Saturday afternoon at downtown hotspot Sunda, learning from founding chef Rodelio Aglibot. It’s one of two cooking sessions scheduled as part of the launch of In Chef’s Hands - Food Therapy For The Soul, a nonprofit that pairs chefs with food lovers with special needs for “food therapy.”
“She had been much sicker, thank god, than she is right now,” says Nikki’s mom, Jodi, who is standing by with a camera. A few years ago, Nikki was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a condition that makes her feel faint when she stands for too long, causes rapid and irregular heartbeats and can leave her feeling too tired to go to school, among other symptoms.
“She’s sometimes so dizzy she can’t function,” says Jodi.
Today, however, Nikki’s mind is on nothing but sushi.
“She loves to eat,” Jodi says. “She was really excited for today.”
The Rhums came to the opening session of In Chef’s Hands because of their connection with , one of the cofounders of the nonprofit. Jodi knows Crane, 23, a Northbrook resident with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, because she volunteered for a foundation that offers programs for patients with serious illnesses—and that once arranged for Crane to meet Michael J. Fox.
In Chefs Hands was inspired by an experience Crane had with Chef Aglibot. A food lover who participates in weekly rounds of cooking therapy with a volunteer for Midwest Palliative & Hospice CareCenter, Crane first came to Sunda last October with his family for a special behind-the-scenes dinner with Chef Aglibot, organized by real estate agent Jeremy Dubin.
A cousin through marriage, Dubin knew about Crane’s love of cooking as well as his illness, a progressive condition that affects every muscle in his body, including his lungs and heart. Crane, who gets around in a motorized wheelchair, became so weak in the fall of 2009 that he was hospitalized for two and a half months. With the help of medication, Crane is stronger now, but his condition often makes it hard for him to breathe and frequently fatigued.
“I thought, what can I do for Scott?” Dubin says. Knowing how much Crane loved food and cooking, Dubin called up his friend, Aglibot, and arranged for the chef to host Scott and his family for a sushi cooking lesson and meal at Sunda—a celebrity favorite where reservations are typically booked solid weeks in advance.
“It was an instant connection,” says Aglibot. “It brought me back to my family and sitting around the dinner table and sharing.”
“I think I got more out of it than they did.”
Out of that meal came the idea for In Chef’s Hands. Chef Todd Stein of The Florentine joined Crane, Dubin and Aglibot to found the nonprofit so that more food lovers with special needs could have experiences like Crane’s.
Renowned chefs will work one on one with individuals with illnesses or special needs, tailoring activities to the individual’s interests—whether that be choosing ingredients from a farmers market, learning how to use knives or creating a special dish, like today.
“Teaching is probably one of my favorite things about being a chef,” says Aglibot. “It’s really about having a one on one interaction with the participants, the foodies.”
Wearing a chef’s coat with “Scotty Crane, Executive Chef” embroidered on it, Crane takes a backseat at the event. He says he’ll help out where he can but doesn’t want to get in the way of the participants’ enjoyment.
“It’s not about me today,” he says. “It’s about the foodies.”
While he says he’s a little tired—he’s on his second launch event for the nonprofit, following a session where high school and transitional high school students got to make pizza at The Florentine—he’s excited about how quickly the nonprofit got off the ground and what it will do for others.
“Cooking is so therapeutic,” says Pam Paziotopoulos, a two-time cancer survivor from Chicago who brought her young daughter along, too. Preparing food while she was undergoing treatment took her mind off the disease, she says. She’s an expert in Greek cooking, but says she was always intimidated by sushi. Turns out it was easy, Paziotopoulos says—and now she can make it with her daughter.
Daniel Eichengreen, 22, says making sushi was also the highlight of the event for him. Eichengreen, who has autism, would like to work in a restaurant and studied culinary arts at the College of Lake County.
“It’s so hard to find places where our son can be understood and accepted,” says Daniel’s mother, Jerry. “It was so fun to see him having fun.”
In Chef’s Hands will hold a fundraiser from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, at Sunda. For more information, visit www.inchefshands.org.
To see the chefs in action, check out by Nate Daugherty.