Sanaa Abourezk, a Damascus-born chef and owner of Sanaa’s Gourmet Mediterranean in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was browsing the internet on the evening of February 5 when she realized that something was wrong. It was around 4 a.m. in Syria, where her siblings and other family live, but despite the early hour, many of her relatives were active online.
“I called right away and my brother told me about the earthquake,” says Abourezk.
That was the day that a pair of powerful earthquakes hit both Syria and Turkey in the wee hours of the morning. The first, measured at a 7.8 magnitude, is among the strongest quakes recorded in Turkey. The second hit a magnitude of 7.5, and cascades of dramatic aftershocks followed. The death toll of the crisis has surpassed 50,000, Reuters reported in late February.
Abourezk, a James Beard Award semifinalist who’s appeared on Beat Bobby Flay, didn’t know it at the time, but a group of her Chicago peers was once more springing to action to raise money, the next chapter in the Chicago Chefs Cooks series of fundraisers. March 16 is the one-year anniversary of the first event, which raised money for victims of the war in Ukraine. It’s the latest fundraiser from the Green City Market-affiliated chefs who have raised money for causes including Tigray, Ethiopia; and Puerto Rico. Those humanitarian efforts earned them an Eater Award for Pop-Up of The Year.
Chicago Chefs Cook for Earthquake Relief will take place Monday, March 20 at Avli on the Park, 180 N. Field Boulevard, So far, 45 chefs, including Nikolaos Kapernaros (Avli on the Park), Top Chef winner Joe Flamm (Rose Mary), and Brian Jupiter (Frontier, Ina Mae), have joined next week’s event. Abourezk, the sole out-of-town chef, will travel to Chicago to participate, and all funds will go to World Central Kitchen.
Though that initial phone call assuaged Abourezk’s immediate fears — her relatives in the coastal city of Tartus, Syria were alive without injuries — she knew it would be a long road to recovery. Her sister, a doctor who works in some of Syria’s most isolated regions, describes a populace so traumatized by the quakes and aftershocks that large numbers of people are sleeping in cars or makeshift tents instead of their own homes, terrified that the buildings will collapse on top of them. This crisis comes after more than a decade of civil war in the region, a situation that resulted in European and U.S. sanctions against the Syrian government.
The sanctions do allow for international transactions that address humanitarian goals, but the process can be slow, with extended compliance checks from banks wary of violations and fraud. Hunger, already an issue in the battle-scarred country, has only become more severe. “In Syria, because of the politics and the sanctions, it’s so hard to get help over there,” Abourezk says. “Especially in the mountains, all the poor people around Aleppo. No one is reaching them.”
World Central Kitchen, long affiliated with celebrity Spanish chef José Andrés, however, is in a unique position as a trusted, on-the-ground organization that provides both food and economic opportunities for farmers and chefs who are local to the area. WCK will also receive a portion of proceeds from another local fundraiser, a one-night pop-up collaboration from chefs Don Young (Duck Sel) and 2023 James Beard Award semifinalist Zubair Mohjair (Wazwan). The duo will serve an eight-course tasting menu on Tuesday, March 28 at Coach House by Wazwan.
For Kapernaros, a Greek chef who moved to Chicago five years ago, news of the disasters also struck close to home. After experiencing a 6.0 magnitude earthquake in 1999 while living in Athens, he knows the unique terror of feeling the ground move beneath his feet. He says these memories and his family’s history in the region motivated him to reach out to Chicago Chefs Cook leaders and chefs Tony Priolo (Piccolo Sogno) and Sarah Stegner (Prairie Grass Cafe).
“Our cultures are so close, no matter the religion or politics — what we cook, what we drink, how we talk with our friends,” he says. “It’s the whole Mediterranean style of life. We like helping people, no matter the difficulties with the governments. We’re here for each other.”
The turnaround on this event is somewhat more manageable for the chefs than last fall’s rapid one-two punch of fundraisers for Tigray and Puerto Rico. But pulling all the elements of volunteers, logistics, and sponsorship together in less than two months is no small feat, and charity events are both physically taxing and time-consuming. Organizers, including Paramount Events’ Jodi Fyfe (Eden) and Green City board members Eda Davidman and Darren Gest, say they’re facing a more difficult time securing sponsorships for earthquake relief than for previous efforts, but can’t explain exactly why.
This group of peers offers a model that keeps chefs like Flamm coming back to contribute again and again. “We’re not just being dictated to by a bunch of big organizations,” he says. “It’s a way of mobilizing chefs for causes that we care about. For us to be able to take control, to take it back, is the most important part of this.”
Chicago Chefs Cook for Earthquake Relief, Monday, March 20, Avli on the Park, 180 N. Field Boulevard. Tickets ($125 for general admission, $225 for VIP) are available online.