Chili Cook off at Lincoln Middle School

Each family's workstation. They were given the hot pans and cookware to be able to make and provide chili for their families at home.

Since we started We Eat CNY, Chris and I have been amazed by how we have been embraced by the food community here in the Syracuse area. Last weekend, we were visiting Owera Vineyards and struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to us. This happens more frequently now that Chris is taking pictures of our food and drinks and I am rearranging plates, glasses, and napkins so he can get the best shot. While we explained our situation, the woman exclaimed that she follows our Instagram account and loves seeing the foods we feature and checking out the restaurants in the area. The woman happened to be LaJuan White, the principal of Lincoln Middle School in the Syracuse City School District. As a SCSD teacher myself, we immediately connected and our mutual love of food gave us lots to talk about. LaJuan told us about a Chili Cook Off that was taking place at her school and invited us to attend. Her friend Michele Ragussis, a finalist on the eighth season of Food Network Star, was going to teach students and their parents how to make chili. The chili would be donated to feed the homeless through We Rise Above the Streets, a local non-profit, and the families would get to keep the electric skillets, cooking utensils, and containers used so they could cook chili at home. Chris and I were honored to be invited and excited to attend the event.

During the week Chris connected with Michele and we were looking forward to meeting her, since we watched her season of Food Network Star and rooted for her. She mentioned that she had been sick with the flu and was hoping to feel well enough to make the trip to Syracuse. On Thursday morning, Chris received a Direct Message through Instagram from LaJuan informing him that Michele was unable to travel and if he knew of anyone who might be able to fill in for the cook off. Chris said he would make some inquiries and get back to her. Thinking about all of the chefs we know, he had to find someone who could fill in for a chef who is well known in the culinary world and engage a crowd of middle schoolers and their parents, which would be no easy task. The person needed to be dynamic and instructive, but also relatable. Chef Michael Brown of Grover's Table in Fayetteville came to mind and he immediately responded that he would be happy to come and spend some time with the Lincoln students and their families. 

LaJuan talking about the importance of community, while Chef Michael Brown prepares his table.

The cook off started with a welcome from LaJuan White and a discussion about the importance of bringing families together to spend time with each other. The hope was that cooking could be a way for children to connect with their parents. Then Al-amin Muhammad, from We Rise Above the Streets, spoke about how he was chronically homeless for ten years, but was able to turn his life around through work with a non-profit organization while he was homeless in Atlanta. After finishing college at Atlanta Technical College, he knew his mission was to start his own non-profit organization. While driving around Syracuse and seeing the homelessness in the area, he knew that his calling was to help the community he was once a part of and We Rise Above the Streets was born. Through his outreach, the organization feeds approximately 600 homeless men, women, and children on Saturdays through their "Sandwich Saturday" program, as well as clothing them through "The Clothing Closet." After Al-amin talked about the importance of giving, selflessness, and outreach, all in attendance repeated his affirmation, ”If we eat, they eat!”  


"If we eat, they eat!"

Al-Amin Muhammad talking about the mission of We Rise Above the Streets.

Chef Mike took over and instructed us how to make the chili with step-by-step instructions that were easy to follow. I had the pleasure of cooking with seventh grader, Keairah, and together we chopped, sautéed, seasoned and tasted our way through making the chili. Mike did a phenomenal job of breaking down the steps needed to efficiently chop vegetables and made his way to each cooking pair to offer advice and further instruction as needed. He commanded the room and managed to both make cooking fun and instill confidence in the families to attempt the recipe at home. The chili was put into huge steel pots to be reheated and fed to homeless people downtown, and the rest of the cookware was cleaned and packed up for the families to take home. 

While our Friday night date night was a little different from our usual visit to a local restaurant, it was definitely one of the most rewarding evenings we have had in a while. Seeing the families working together, the staff members who stayed late on a Friday to engage with the families, and the students actively participating in making the chili, reminded us what community is all about. Food and cooking have a way of bringing people together. Through shared experiences, story telling, and a common goal, new relationships were formed that most likely would not have taken place.

After the event's conclusion, we were able to spend some more time with LaJuan and talk about more ways to be involved in the Lincoln Middle School and surrounding communities. Bringing a farmer's market to the school parking lot to make fresh produce and meats more accessible to the students and families and to involve the local Sedgwick community, bringing in guest speakers to talk about nutrition for our youth, and increasing the frequency of cooking demonstrations like Friday's Chili Cook Off, were all shared over a glass of wine. Chris and I are both looking forward to the continued support of the community through food and a greater awareness of the local food economy.

A special thank you to LaJuan White and the rest of the Lincoln Middle School for including us and making us feel welcome; to Al-amin Muhammad for inspiring us; and to Chef Michael Brown for being all around awesome.

Update: We Rise Above the Streets has just been approved to host Sandwich Saturday at Lincoln Middle School for the next 6 months! It will be starting at 10 am and the address is 1613 James Street, Syracuse, NY 13203. If you are interested in volunteering, you can call or text 315-491-7164 to get more information!