Chef James Sandersafter navigating everything from working for the Chicago Bears to living the quintessential corporate lifeis reopening Dirty Birds Southern Kitchen on Friday, Aug. 4, at 8052 S. Racine Ave., in Chicago's Auburn Gresham neighborhood. ( However, people should not despair if they can't make it to its casual spot for its Nashville hot chicken as well as its red velvet chicken and waffles, as items will be available on GrubHub and UberEats. )
Sanders talked with Windy City Times about the restaurant, the perception of Auburn Gresham and how he's helping people during the pandemic.
Windy City Times: I read that you got started in the culinary arts because you were bored with your mom's cooking. What was your mom cooking?
James Sanders: When I was younger, my dad worked the 11 p.m.-7 a.m shift; my mother worked 3-11 p.m., so my dad was asleep. So after my homework, I just started cooking, and the reason I started is because I got the same meal three or four days a weekfried chicken, mashed potatoes and a can of green beans.
One day I guess the chef in me came out because I was frustrated and I said, "I wish you could start cooking something else." At this point, my dad told me, "Never depend on anyone to cook for you." After that, I just started cooked, and I fell in love with it. I didn't even know what I was cooking half the time; I'd put tons of garlic powder on things.
I also made my dad lunch for work. I don't think he even ate itI think he just dumped it out. [Interviewer laughs.] But that was the highlight of my childhood.
I went to SIU-Carbondale, and I always cooked for my fraternity brothers. When I moved to Chicago, I was an account manager at AT&T; I loved it and made great money, but the job didn't fulfill me. I ended up going to culinary school at the Art Institute of Chicago. So my days started at 7 a.m. for work; then, classes would be 5-10 p.m. and I'd work in the Chicago Bears kitchen from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. I did that for a year straight.
WCT: What was working for the Chicago Bears like?
JS: It was funny: I entered all super-cocky, and they put me in the dish room. I was heatedI was so upset! But I'm glad I went through that process so I could learn every part of the kitchen. It was a great experience. Every day is a lesson.
WCT: Let's talk about Dirty Birds. I saw the menu and said, "This menu speaks to me [and my upbringing]." For our readers, how would you describe your menu?
JS: The biggest thing with Dirty Birds is that we make everything fresh every day. We pick and clean greens the day before, and we cook them that morning. We make our cornbread from scratch. We make our own red-velvet waffle batter. When you order your food, that's when we cook it. Sometimes it's a 15- or 20-minute wait but it's worth it. People know the difference between fresh chicken and chicken that's been sitting under the lights.
We just put our heart into [the dishes]. Like the Hoppin' John [also known as also known as black-eyed peas and rice]we're probably the only restaurant in Chicago that sells it, and it's one of our most popular dishes. And we sell a lot of fried green tomatoes.
WCT: On another front, you're involved with a project to help people in rehabilitation centers in Chicago.
JS: So I have a catering company by the name of Fuze Catering. We're doing several different initiatives in the city of Chicago. One of them involves providing meals to a drug-rehabilitation center; we do 900 meals seven days a week. I've also been helping people going through financial difficulties because of the pandemic, so I've been working with Progressive Baptist Church, so we give out 900 meals ( 300 meals a day ) there on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
WCT: What spurred you to get involved?
JS: You know what? I read a story a couple years ago, and it really hit home. I was blessed to have two great parents who provided a foundation for me; my mother always had an amazing heart, and I guess I got that from her. I read an article about CPS [Chicago Public Schools] kids being homelessand I found out that the reason CPS never called school off was so kids could get at least one balanced meal a day.
Even at the restaurant, we gave 10-15 meals a day because people said they were hungry. I don't know if it's a scam or what, but I know where it came from when I gave the meals away. I just don't believe that anyone should be hungry at all.
WCT: When some people hear "Auburn Gresham," they unfortunately picture an ultra-violent area that had to deal with a rise in COVID-19 infections. Putting on your PR hat, what do you say to those who have negative perceptions of that area?
JS: I never put a dark cloud on Auburn Gresham; there are good and bad people all over Chicago. I think Auburn Gresham is a close-knit community, and I felt the love they showed me when I opened here.
Actually, I'm at a food desert. And for me to come here with quality foods… We're beyond fried chicken and French fries. Why can't I put out a well-thought-out menu? We have blackened catfish, grilled chicken and smoked turkey legs. I'm glad we have healthy alternatives. We're really trying to push the envelope with the food at this restaurant.
See DirtyBirdsSouthernKitchen.com .