Stephanie Caspelich

Reporting the news that matters.

Chef Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel: Changing Lives One Urban Garden At A Time

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The Bronzeville Community Garden on the southeast corner of 51st Street and Calumet Avenue has been a symbol of hope, peace and development for its residents since the gardening project was started by co-builder and designer Chef Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel in 2010.

“The garden is a place for community engagement, community learning on multiple levels,” said Emmanuel, 48, a self-taught chef who specializes in international vegetarian and raw vegan cuisine. “It has become a place where folks who do not normally interact can interact and socialize in a peaceful, nurturing environment.”

Emmanuel’s love for food and community building started as a young boy in Aurora, Wis., a small town 100 miles north of Green Bay. Being close to nature and growing up among dairy farm owners and urban gardeners inspired the budding chef to focus on how food is grown and where it comes from. It gave him a complete understanding of the farm-to-table concept that grew out of America’s heartland.

“My father was my initial inspiration. Just watching him cook and prepare healthy meals for 16 children was amazing,” he said. “There were a few years where we did have a small garden. We were able to harvest vegetables that fed the whole family. It was a lot of hard work with very little returns sometimes. But it brought us together as a family.”

His older brothers’ vegetarian lifestyle influenced Emmanuel to become completely vegetarian. Experimenting with vegetarian and raw food preparation as a hobby soon turned into a full time professional interest. Because there were no cooking schools dedicated to vegetarian cooking and raw vegan food preparation when he started 30 years ago, Emmanuel learned most of his craft from books, cooking magazines and television programs.

His culinary travels have taken him all over the U.S.: Baltimore, where he was a prep cook at a restaurant for five years (“I got really good with the knife skills.”); Atlanta, where he was hired by the African Hebrew Israelite community to start Soul Vegetarian Restaurant in 1989; and Chicago, where Emmanuel continued to develop recipes for the local Soul Vegetarian for five years.

“Chef Tsadakeeyah is incredibly committed to his cuisine. He is all about a sustainable lifestyle, respecting the planet and being careful about the resources you use,” said Bernard Loyd, a resident of Bronzeville and builder of Bronzeville Cookin’, a development plan by the CTA Green Line’s 51st station geared toward creating jobs and promoting healthy eating by way of the garden. “He is passionate. When he puts his mind to something he wants to do like the community garden, he does it.”

Bronzeville, a neighborhood on the south side community of Douglas, was once the center of African-American migration and enterprise in Chicago. Some famous residents were the following: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, civil rights activist and journalist; Andrew “Rube” Foster, founder of the Negro National Baseball League; and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, legendary trumpet player and bandleader. The neighborhood fell into disrepair when poverty, violence and narcotics use had overrun the public housing projects (the largest of which was Robert Taylor homes) built in the 1950s and 1960s and managed by the Chicago Housing Authority.

“We are trying to do what we can be done to try and reinvigorate the community, attract businesses and black professionals back into Bronzeville by showcasing the garden and the potential it brings,” said Emmanuel. “I am very proud of the effort it took to start the garden. It would not have been possible without the support of the community and the volunteers, both young and old, who have worked hard to make this garden a reality.”

For longtime resident Eldrich Hawkins, 53, who helped Emmanuel and other community volunteers prepare the vacant lot for gardening in early 2010, the garden has been a welcome change from the blight and squalor in the neighborhood.

“Harvest time is great. In August, Chef Tsadakeeyah held a cooking class in the garden’s pavilion and showed residents how to prepare, season and cook the vegetables from the garden,” said Hawkins. “We had greens, okra, eggplant, beans, various herbs and onions. It’s nice to see how the garden has brought people together. It is changing the neighborhood and bringing peace to the community.”

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