Back in March, Jose Cueva got an unexpected phone call from the president of Kennedy-King College: Cueva's perfect 4.0 GPA meant he would be graduating as salutatorian.
"I was in shock; I wasn't expecting that," Cueva told Windy City Times. Weeks away from earning his associate of applied science degree from the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) system, the first thing Cueva did after receiving that call was to share the news with one of his former history teachers, who said, "It's your turn, Jose. Show the world what you're made of, what you want to do, how you're going to make a difference."
With this in mind, and drawing from his culinary background; the challenges he endured growing up in Lima, Peru, during a period of violent armed conflict and poverty; and a desire to help others, Cueva said one of his goals is to create a system to provide healthful food to low-income people and empower them to decisions that benefit their health.
Cueva said he has witnessed first-hand the "vicious cycle" of many consumers choosing highly processed foods filled with sugar or salt, leading to illnesses such as diabetes, and a lifetime dependence on prescription medication.
"How can we break that circle. How can I disrupt it?" Cueva said.
One way, he said, is by helping people understand how foods are made and by knowing how to read ingredient labels. Cueva envisions community kitchens where people learn how to use basic, wholesome ingredients to create nutritious yet enjoyable meals.
One of his favorites is ceviche: a Peruvian dish made with fresh, raw fish cured in lemon or lime juice and seasonings, and sometimes accompanied with chopped vegetables.
"Many people think it's horrible," Cueva said, "but you have to explain the right way to make ceviche and the history behind it. Ceviche is nutritious and can save a lot of people."
Cueva's other specialty is bread: He spent part of his education in the CCC system studying culinary arts, specifically baking and pastries.
Recalling the first time he stepped inside the Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute's facilities at Kennedy-King College, Cueva said: "I was speechlessit was an entire city of a kitchen. I told myself, 'if there was something like this in every neighborhood of Chicago, there wouldn't be as many people eating poorly.'"
One way to do this, Cueva said, is to show others how easy it is to make bread with as few as three ingredients (wheat, water, yeast), or simply by encouraging people to choose unrefined sugar or wheat instead of processed ingredients.
"I'm going to be old and still explaining this," Cueva joked, "but what matters is teaching people how to feed others, their families, and even other generations of their families. Food is so important in our lives."
Cueva, who earned presidential scholar awards in 2019 and 2020, was inspired to support his community from his early days in Chicago nearly two decades ago, after he and his now-husband moved into their first home in the citya fixer-upper in the Englewood neighborhood. On the weekends, Cueva would go around the neighborhood, picking up trash.
Cueva said, "People looked at me funny. 'What is that guy doing? He's crazy,' they would say. 'It's the city's job, not his.'" However, Cueva thought differently: "Why wait, if I have a few minutes to spare? I can grab a bag, a broom and a dustpan, and spend 20 or 30 minutes at a time. I started inviting my neighbors and, one by one, they started pitching in. Now, you'll find a cleaner neighborhoodor, at least, a much cleaner block."
Cueva and his husband have also helped their neighbors with home-renovation projects, lending tools, their time and expertise to make small improvements around the neighborhood.
"Many people in my family didn't think a gay person could be successful; my husband has been so supportive, and we've accomplished so many goals despite being gay, and breaking lots of stereotypes," Cueva said.
Having grown up with a conservative and religious background, coming out to his family was difficult at first, but Cueva said his parents later came to accept them.
"One day I decided to invite my parents to Chicago," Cueva said. "My father was so amazed by my husband that, at one point, he said I would have a strong future with him."
A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020, Cueva received the tragic news that his mother died in a hospital in Lima from the virus. Tragedy struck again the next year, when Cueva lost his sister to the coronavirus.
Throughout these difficult times, and just months away from earning his degree, Cueva turned to his husband and one of his culinary school mentors, Chef Delfina Perez, for support.
"In the end, I had no other choice but to finish [school], despite all the pain that my soul was feeling," Cueva said. "I needed to find answers. I spoke with Chef Perez, and she told me to be strong, to finish my education."