Fundraiser Pairs Chefs, People With Special Needs
CHICAGO — Daniel Schnitzler knows what he likes to eat. He likes barbecue sauce and Kraft Parmesan cheese, but not sour cream. And he creates his own concoctions, like frozen green beans, corn and peas sprinkled with Parmesan, eaten cold in a pink Tupperware bowl.
His specific tastes inspired the new chicken Milanese at the Chicago Athletic Association’s rooftop restaurant Cindy’s, created by executive chef Christian Ragano for Doors Open Dishes. The project aims to benefit homes and workshops that host Chicagoans with developmental disabilities, partnering with restaurant chefs who create dishes inspired by an individual in one of those programs. Schnitzler, a cheerful 42-year-old who loves Madonna songs, ’90s songs, musicals and singing all their words, has autism.
At Cindy’s, a portion of proceeds from the dish benefits Gateway to Learning, which serves adults 18 and older who have intellectual challenges and developmental disabilities.
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“Chefs get asked for a lot of things, and I feel like they are a very giving bunch, especially in Chicago,” said Nicole Schnitzler, Daniel’s sister and founder of Doors Open Dishes. “To find that this is something that can really resonate with some of them has been really inspiring for me, and I hope for them too.”
A food and travel writer who has also worked with many chefs, Nicole came up with the idea for Doors Open Dishes years ago. She had always marveled at how her brother put together frozen veggies and Parmesan, and was curious if a chef could create something similar to appeal to restaurant diners. While watching chef competition shows that focused on different challenges, she wondered, what if one of those challenges could benefit an organization like those that serve people with autism and had been so helpful for her brother?
At the time, Nicole was having regular conversations with her father about the impact of state budget issues on group homes for people like her brother. Like many family members of people in state-funded organizations, the Schnitzlers regularly discussed what year-to-year changes in funding would have on organizations like Gateway to Learning and the enormous impact that would have on people like Daniel, who has attended Gateway to Learning every week since 2003.
Food is a big part of the programming at Gateway to Learning, which is open 8:30 a.m. to about 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. In the organization’s five kitchens, 85 participants can learn to prepare meals and help make products for the bakery that are sold at nearby Book Cellar, farmers markets and the group’s own Lincoln Square storefront, Dorothy’s Can-Do Cafe.
These activities are offered alongside life skills, like grocery shopping and money management.
“What are the skills for meal prep, and what are the skills for planning and measuring and mixing,” said Gateway executive director Kathryn Lavin. “We also (think about) what food is as a connector. When you use the term ‘breaking bread,’ it’s that it promotes community, it builds social skills, it builds those relationships.”
Funding is important for groups that help adults with disabilities, who might no longer have parents to care for them or need to transition elsewhere after they lose access to programs for children 18 and under, said Gateway director of advancement John Ratzenberger.
For her part, Nicole Schnitzler said she hopes that Doors Open Dishes will help keep the doors open at nonprofits that rely on funding in a state known for fiscal crisis. Doors Open Dishes is the manifestation of Nicole’s desire to connect food and people like her brother, beginning with a conversation between a chef and a person with a developmental disability. The takeaway is a dish inspired by that person.
“The most important thing, I thought, was for there to be genuine interaction,” she said.
Before the Cindy’s dish was created, Daniel Schnitzler and Ragano met for an hour at Gateway, talking about what music Daniel likes (Madonna, Broadway shows) and the food he loves (Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce, Birds Eye frozen vegetables). Ragano got a tutorial on combining frozen veggies and Parmesan.
“I tried it,” he said. “It’s not bad.”
Then Ragano began workshopping the dish, beginning with a roasted chicken breast before settling on fried chicken to create the crispy chicken Milanese. It’s served on a bed of sweet corn pudding, with arugula and “Texas caviar” — beans alongside peas and carrots, evocative of Daniel’s beloved frozen vegetables.
“You look at what he likes, and the foods that he likes to eat, and you try and incorporate it as much into the dish without the dish becoming over-conceptualized or the flavors becoming muddy,” Ragano said.
The dish is not only a reflection of Daniel’s tastes, Ragano said, but the man himself.
“It represents his personality. It’s fun, it’s playful, it’s colorful. It’s bubbling,” he said. “The dish smiles.”
In a video posted on YouTube capturing their encounter at Gateway, the two men share favorites, like music, and Daniel cheerfully says his favorite food to make is spaghetti.
Doors Open Dishes is personal to Ragano. His aunt, his father’s only sibling, had autism and Down syndrome. Her name was Christine, and she died when she was just 9 years old. Ragano is named for her.
Every morning, Ragano said, early enough that no one else is awake to see him cry, his father watches the video of Ragano and Daniel together. Ragano thinks it must evoke childhood memories with his sister.
“I made my dad proud,” Ragano said. “That was pretty heavy for me.”
Through the month of September, the chicken Milanese is available on the Cindy’s lunch menu. Already, they’re selling about 30 dishes a day. Next up will be a dish available in November at Nico Osterio created by chef Bill Montagne and inspired by a resident with autism at Rimland, an Evanston organization that provides care for adults with autism. This dish was based on the woman’s description of the tacos she was making the day she and Montagne met in Evanston.
At Cindy’s, before the dish hit the menu, Daniel came by to try it for the first time. If he didn’t like it, Ragano would start over.
“Daniel was pretty happy,” Nicole said. “I turned around, and it was gone.”
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