Recently, Windy City Times chatted with Chicago chef Jenny Urban, the Director of Culinary Arts at Center on Halsted.
Urban has been in the Chicago restaurant scene for more than a decade, and they've recently brought their culinary expertise to the Center, where they've been heading up the Silver Fork culinary training program. Now in its 12th year, the program has trained over 450 chefs.
Windy City Times: You've been with the Center for about a year. You could have been a chef pretty much anywhere. What drove you to go this nonprofit route?
Jenny Urban: I graduated culinary school in Kentucky at like 21. I thought when I moved to Chicago, I would be able to be a chef anywhere. I was a little naive, and I actually had a tough time finding a job. … I accidentally found my way in the nonprofit world in 2001. I had circled some job options in the classified section of the paper, and I had my girlfriend fax my resume.
One of them that called me back is called Sarah's Circle. It's a day shelter for women experiencing homelessness. … When I showed up for the interview, I thought I had walked through the wrong door. I was expecting a restaurant and instead I got a shelter. … They offered me the opportunity to be their kitchen manager, and I fell in love with feeding people, feeding people over fine dining.
Food was much more than just a form of entertainment or a luxury. I had a real understanding that food is what we need to survive, to take care of ourselves. It's nurturing. It's medicine. So, I continued on that path.
WCT: How has staying at home with your children for a few years affected how you view your work?
JU: Being a parent gives you a different perspective on what you have to offer the world. You see the world in a totally different way. How I work with my children affects how they thrive, their success.
WCT: Are they big fans of being in the kitchen as well?
JU: No way! They do not want to be in the kitchen. They want me to cook for them. It's funny that you mention that. My dad was in the industry, and I grew up with my dad working in kitchens.
My parents had a delivery service like Grubhub, but in Kentucky in 1992. I started working there at age 12. I always worked kitchens and, after high school, my dad encouraged me to go to culinary school. He was self-trained and when [I] signed up for culinary school, he said he was going to sign up, too. I thought he was joking, but he did.
We went to culinary school together. We were the first father-daughter duo in the history of the school. My dad went on to open restaurants. I went on to open restaurants.
WCT: What does it mean to you to be a part of the Center?
JU: Full circle! This has been in the making since 2007. And that's when the Center opened to the public. I was awarded 30 under 30 by Windy City Times, and we actually had our award ceremony at Center on Halsted, before it was open to the public. For me to come back around so many years later to be the director, doing the same work, is really amazing. Being a director is amazing because I can actually make changes. I am being paid for my knowledge and 20 years of experience, so that we can be the best.
WCT: What are some of the things you're looking most forward to about this summer's class of Silver Fork?
JU: One of the great things is that we have 4 classes a year. This particular season is really great because we can access our rooftop garden.
Center on Halsted has this amazing rooftop garden. It's the best kept secret in the city. And for Silver Fork to have that right at our doorstep is really amazing. Our students are able to come into class and harvest the food right from the garden. It's organic; it's grown with intention.
We are working with the architect, they're called horticulture architects, a really lovely couple, the Sullivans, who created this garden as a memorial garden for their daughter, Sloane, who was a part of our community and passed away. At their greatest year, that garden produced 800 pounds of food.
When I get excited, I get excited about that access to fresh food. I have been working on some other great partnerships for requirement and enrollment. Working with Brave Space Alliance. Working with Night Ministry, The Crib, which is a shelter for people up to the age of 24. I'm targeting the circle of people who want to be part of a job readiness program.
I am also excited because I did as a director get to hire my chef instructor. I hired Tera Murray. Tera also uses they/them pronouns, like myself. We worked with each other almost 17 years ago. I have followed their work, and they have continued to teach non-profit culinary world. It's what keeps me going after 20 years, believing that I have a gift to offer. It drives me to provide. I was given the gift to cook and teach. I feel like it's my responsibility to help people cook and grow. It's the best part of my job.
See centeronhalsted.org .