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Chef Sheldrick Holmes embraces spirituality, authenticity at The Grail Cafe
by Henry Roach
2021-11-08

This article shared 1054 times since Mon Nov 8, 2021
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Officially, The Grail Cafe is a restaurant in the South Loop.

But for owner and chef Sheldrick Holmes, one of the few openly gay Black restaurant owners in the area, the cafe is both home and spiritual space.

"I see my customers as guests," Holmes told Windy City Times. "They are guests into my home. This is my house."

Holmes opened The Grail Cafe on Jan. 1, 2020, and survived the pandemic as a new business by running takeout and pastry orders. Now able to host indoor dining, he cooks "French New Soul food," a style he said draws from the seasonal ingredients and techniques of French cooking as well as the soul-food philosophy of doing whatever is necessary.

"I cook soul food. I just cook it my way," Holmes said.

Humorous dish names decorate the menu, each paired with one of the five words: Hope, Courage, Faith, Love or Dreams. For example, the "Grail's B.S. andwich" comes with "Love," while "Dano, Meat Me @ The Grail Cafe Hash" is accompanied with "Faith."

Holmes said the five words embody his cornerstone values, and he added them to the menu in 2021 as an act of setting intentions in the new year. Love is the foundation, he insisted.

"I believe with love, you can have the faith, courage and hope to dream," Holmes said. "The beautiful thing is when someone says, 'Can I have a little love? Can I have a little hope?' That is what it's about. It's like manifesting those things in the world."

The words match the titles of the gold-colored art pieces on the walls. Gold iconography abounds throughout the space—a deliberate decision by Holmes to reflect a spiritual presence. Holmes is spiritual, but not religious, he said.

"This place in many ways is my university and also like a church or spiritual space for me," Holmes added. "And I think it's a very spiritual space for a lot of people that come here."

Holmes designed the cafe to feel comfortable so people, including himself, could "lower down their shields." Opening the cafe allowed him to work towards being authentic because it is fully him. If he's a mess, or if he's feeling the love, it's going to show, he said.

Right now, "I'm in new-love stage," Holmes declared, so his playlists and energy reflect that mood. He also dressed up for the interview, he explained, gesturing to his long-sleeved black shirt, gold necklace and ship wheel-shaped earring. Throughout the interview, Holmes gleefully steered the conversation in new directions. He inquired about zodiac signs and asked for advice on how to show love to his new boyfriend, an Aquarius. (Holmes, incidentally, is a Scorpio.) He was an animated speaker as he whirled about, multitasking but dedicated to being present in customer interactions. Slowly, he revealed his personal trajectory.

After growing up in Florida, Holmes joined the Navy in 1999, when he was 18. A year later, he moved to San Diego and met his ex-husband, with whom he spent more than 19 years. After leaving the Navy, he attended school and spent three years as a research associate at University of California-San Diego, where he focused on schizophrenia and psychology.

In 2008, Holmes moved to Chicago and worked in two companies over eight years. He left corporate life in 2016 to attend culinary school at Kendall College and spent six months in a Four Seasons internship program in 2017.

At 38, Holmes, now 41, developed a business plan for the cafe, securing a loan from a bank and persuading a landlord to give him the Grail Cafe space, despite his limited food-service experience.

Holmes said he currently runs a one-person operation most days until his dishwasher or sous chef arrives: Duties include running coffee refills, brewing drinks in the espresso machine, taking orders, ringing up customers at the cash register, bussing tables and preparing food dishes. He works seven days a week, but he's trying to take Mondays off, he said, starting this month.

Holmes doesn't want to be pigeonholed into doing one thing for the rest of his life, including Grail Cafe. Life is too big, Holmes said, adding he strives to always be in spaces in which is learning something. He is developing a non-profit organization called Grail Goodness, which he explained aims to help "Black and Brown kids to learn how to be good—by learning, cultivating and inspiring . . . and learning about food service."

"Being myself is what I'm doing for the rest of my life," Holmes said. "I like doing the Grail Cafe because it is me. But [as] I just mentioned before, I'm in evolution—but goodness is my purpose."

The Grail Cafe is at 715 S. Dearborn St. Visit www.thegrailcafe.com .


This article shared 1054 times since Mon Nov 8, 2021
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