Giving Back: Chicago Philanthropy at Its Finest

Alison Holmes

Mindy Segal Preparing for an Event

Dining at a gourmet restaurant may be a special occasion for some, but for others, simply having a hot meal can be a challenge. Mindy Segal, Owner and Executive Chef of the wildly popular restaurant Hot Chocolate, has proven that she has a passion for more than just food; she has a passion for helping others. When Hot Chocolate opened in 2005, Segal held her first Taste of the Nation fundraiser, the main platform benefiting Share Our Strength, a national non-profit organization that is working to end childhood hunger. It seems great food not only brings people together, but also helps those in need. And Mindy Segal’s philanthropic efforts don’t end there. She has recently begun efforts to leave a mark of her own on the fight against hunger.

What made you decide to really get involved with your community and community organizations?

Last year I decided I was at a point in my career, that I needed to not only make a difference in my community, but that I wanted to focus my time and attention to one organization. And I’ve chosen Share Our Strength to be it. It’s a very big, national organization that’s been around for 25 years. It was founded by Billy Shore and his sister Debbie Shore. They are really in the platform of ending childhood hunger in many different ways. Their beneficiaries are non-profit organizations that educate, that give food stamps and that are health clinics…they do it in many different ways.

It’s pretty impressive for a non-profit organization to be around that long. How do they do it?

One of the ways they do it, is they have a national benefit every year called Taste of the Nation, and it was the first tasting event of its kind in this country. He [Billy Shore] came up with this concept that chefs cook, they understand food…and what better way to connect food and hunger, but through chefs?

Absolutely, but how do they choose who gets the funding?

Each city’s Taste of the Nation benefits people in the local area. So it’s not like the money goes back to corporate headquarters and then its disbursed. We know exactly who we’re giving the money to. The proceeds for the event go towards funding Taste of the Nation. I’ve met all the beneficiaries, I’ve gone to all the places…I know who they are. And I am the chair for Taste of the Nation in Chicago. I’m also on the national council for Share Our Strengths, and I was also chef/restaurateur for 2009 for Share Our Strengths.

Share Our Strength Advertisement

I took Taste of the Nation, which was dying in Chicago…the benefit was dying. They only raised $30,000 two years ago and we raised $150,000 last year. I revamped the platform and started from scratch…and now we have a template for a very, very, very good benefit on a yearly basis. So this year it’s August 12th, at the Aragon Ballroom. It’s a big job, but it’s such a good cause.

Pretty impressive.  Tell me more about the fundraiser that you host here in Chicago at Hot Chocolate.

There’s always a theme. Last year it was beer chefs…chefs who have beer-friendly restaurants. And the whole concept of how I started this dinner…was that I thought it would be really cool to ask a bunch of chefs who were into beer…and they would each take a course, then I would pair them with a brewer and together they would create a pairing. It connects the chef to the brewer and it connects the brewer to the food.

I heard a rumor that you had a star-studded line up for this year’s chefs.

Well, this year it’s very special. I put together a list of all the chefs that I would want to be pastry chef for…and they all said yes. We had Bill Kim [Le Lan] who’s a very dear friend of mine…my chef [Aric Miech] who of course I’m the pastry chef for…my mentor Michael Kornick [Mk Restaurant]…Paul Kahn [Blackbird]…Paul Virant [Vie], and Rick Bayless [Frontera Grill]. I would love to be any of their pastry chefs. This is what I do. This is what I am. So I’m really committed.

I’m also working on starting another program, that’s actually through Operation Frontline, which is one of our beneficiaries [through Share Our Strength]. They teach families and people that immigrate here how to cook with food stamps, naturally and with whole products. And they try to teach people the understanding of the food chain. It’s a great program.

Segal Skinning Apples

Yes. I’m starting it this year…it’s going to be in October. And I’m starting it in Chicago, but then we’re going to take it nationwide. It’s gonna to be called An Apple a Day…it’s pastry chefs, once a year through Operation Frontline, that are going to bus inner-city kids—and people that are part of Operation Frontline—to an apple orchard. We’re gonna have the farmer take them on a tour of the farm, pick some apples, and then we’re going to go back to Operation Frontline and we’re gonna make apple sauce, apple pie and apple crumbles…so they can see what you can do with a raw product. Most people don’t know…they don’t know where apples come from. These kids eat junk food…they have no idea. We’re going to be teaching people how to do this.

What does the future look like for Mindy Segal?

Well, I opened up a restaurant so I could have an avenue for my creativity. I thought that opening up a restaurant…a full service restaurant…from the eyes of a pastry chef is interesting, because we’re detail focused. Since I had been working with a lot of really great chefs, and I saw a lot of really great food go out in my career I thought that I could interpret the things I had seen and learned throughout my years in my career, [and put that] into my restaurant to help others.

[Now] I’m really refocusing what I do for a living because I think it’s important. And my restaurant is doing very well and I think that it’s important to give back. And I love it. And I’m very happy, it’s very rewarding.

For more information on Share Our Strength and Taste of the Nation, please visit:

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Johnny O’Hagan’s

Outside of Johnny O'Hagan's Irish Pub

Lindsey Arquilla

Hidden beneath the Brown Line El tracks is a proud and distinguished Irish pub, Johnny O’Hagan’s. Ever since  I can remember, when asked what nationality I am, I have always quickly responded, “Italian.” As soon as I would give that answer, I would realize that that isn’t the whole truth. Especially when my mother would always be there to remind me saying, “You’re Irish, too!”

To say that I grew up strongly priding myself, and my family, in our Italian roots would be an understatement. I was raised by a father who has an assertive and ambitious Type-A personality, who is practically fresh-off-the-boat Italian-American.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Irish heritage, but it’s difficult to recognize that segment of my background when every Saturday and Sunday morning of my life I have been woken up by blaring Italian music and television programs. Sure, my mother enrolled my sisters and I in Irish dance classes—we even danced in Chicago’s South Side Irish Parades (Which will be dearly missed). Somehow, though, the Italian side always outweighed the Irish.

With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, I knew I wanted to feature Irish food, but had no idea where to start. With the assistance of my good Irish friend and copy editor Jess Geiger, we spent weeks seeking out the best Irish spot in the city, until we found Johnny O’Hagan’s.

Located at 3374 North Clark Street, O’Hagan’s is Wrigleyville’s favorite Irish Restaurant and Pub. Since I have been to maybe three Irish pubs in my life, I really had no idea what to expect. The moment Jess and I, along with a mutual friend, walked in, we knew it was going to be a good time.

Author Lindsey Arquilla with Owner/Manager Coley Newell

The place was packed, so packed that we could not find enough chairs for all of us to sit down. After asking the bartender if he could grab us another chair, I let him know that we would like to speak with him and the manager or owner, if they could spare a few minutes. By the time I got back to the knee-high wooden table, the manager, Coley Newell, was already waiting graciously there to talk with us.

Although the pub was very loud due to the huge crowd, the conversation was successfully entertaining. I managed to hear Newell say, “I’ve been here ten years and when I go out drinking with the guys—this is where I come.” And I had no problem seeing why. Upon entering, it was as if I traveled to Ireland and sat down in a local pub for a pint (which I later learned is equivalent to a regular draft size glass of beer). The atmosphere of O’Hagan’s alone is enough to hook some true, and even not-so true, Irishmen.

Interior of O'Hagan's

The restaurant, which has been in Wrigley for a solid ten years, is filled with employees from Ireland.  Not just Irish, but actually from Ireland; Irish brogues (accents) and all. We were able to learn a lot about the native country simply by having some friendly chats with our server, Lynn O’Neill. After moving to Chicago in October of last year, O’Neill didn’t have trouble deciding where she would seek out a job. “The bar is named after a guy from my hometown,” she told us. O’Hagan is originally from Buncrana, Ireland, just like new employee, O’Neill . After sharing all about what it’s like “back home,” O’Neill admitted to favoring Chicago over Ireland.

Jess Geiger with server Lynn O’Neill

Jess Geiger with Server Lynn O’Neill

After spending time talking to O’Neill about Irish culture, she then introduced us to the menu items which consist of a mix of American, English and Irish foods. We learned that some of the most popular dishes at O’Hagan’s are the Fish n’ Chips and the Irish Breakfast. The Irish Breakfast is a rather extensive dish -consisting of rashers (otherwise known as bacon in America), sausages, eggs, black and white pudding, batchelors beans, grilled tomato and fried spuds and toast, which is served during primary hours of operation.

The Irish Breakfast with a Pint of Guinness

“The Burgers…I have to stop myself from ordering one every night!” said O’Neill about her favorite item on the menu. They might be good, but their price is even better: $5.95 for a burger and a plate full of wedged fries. Everyone knows that in this city, you can’t beat that!

With O’Hagan’s putting everyone in high spirits, getting complimentary feedback from customers was an easy task. A family nearby lit up when I asked them why they fancy O’Hagans over any other Irish spot in the city. Regular customer Grainne O’Mailley told me, “I’m an Irish-American and I can always come in here and talk with people who are from Ireland.” Looking at her face, full of Irish pride as she basked in her element at O’Hagan’s, for the first time in my life I began to understand the Irish culture. It wasn’t about the ridiculous South Side Irish Parade antics, or the Irish Car Bombs served at virtually every bar in Chicago. It’s about the people and the love of life and the excitement of sharing it with others. After all these years, I finally started to recognize my Irish heritage.

As we sat in our wooden booth, sipping our pints of Guinness and snacking on Americanized Irish fries and curry, we were also able to soak up some live entertainment from the Irish band “Shindig”. Shindig performed a set filled with fierce Irish brogues, instruments and sound. After toasting our shots of O’Hagans signature Irish liquor, Jameson Irish Whiskey, I glanced around the pub one last time before we closed out our tab and heard Jess say, “I just texted my mom that I have never felt so Irish.” Our thoughts were in sync.

Whether looking for a chill night with good people and great lager or a meal unique to this city that will keep you salivating for Irish grub for days, Johnny O’Hagan’s is where it’s at. Experience St. Patrick’s Day 2010 like none before and follow the rainbow to Chicago’s North Side where the pot of gold resides at Johnny O’Hagan’s.

Check It Out: Johnny O’Hagan’s

3374 North Clark Street

http://www.johnnyohagansirishpub.com/

Sweet Maple Café

Outside Sweet Maple Café

Jessica Geiger

For quite some time after moving to Chicago from a small farm town, I searched for anything that tasted like home.  To my surprise, what I was looking for was just a stone’s throw away from UIC’s campus at Sweet Maple Café. Living on campus as a student at the university, I was so happy to find the comfort of home only a few blocks away.  Owner, Laurene Hynson, has been serving up breakfast and lunch with a home-style country feel at her restaurant since 1999.

Sweet Maple’s décor makes diners feel as though they are in the Hynson family’s kitchen, which makes it easy to forget that they are in one of the largest cities in the country.  Most of the menu is based on family recipes, and the home-style feel is complimented by old family pictures that line the walls.  Not only is the menu and environment family-based, but the hours of business shows the importance placed on family.  Back in 1999 Hynson was parenting two children and wanted to do something that would not affect the time she had to spend with them.  Being opened until 2pm fit the requirements perfectly.

Each table is covered with a red tablecloth and has a small bouquet as a centerpiece. Daily specials are written on a chalkboard on the back wall directly above a window looking into the kitchen. Once seated in one of the high-backed wooden chairs—usually accompanied by a cup of coffee or glass of juice and soft jazz music—patrons are ready for a casual breakfast, brunch, or lunch. Whether diners have a sweet tooth, an urge for meat and potatoes, or are looking for the staple breakfast of eggs and toast, Sweet Maple Café has it.

Holiday French Toast

One of the staples of Sweet Maple Café is the “Holiday French Toast,” one of many popular recipes taken from Laurene Hynson’s mother.  For this dish, two thick pieces of bread are smothered in vanilla custard with a kick of nutmeg before being toasted up and sprinkled with powdered sugar.  Now, it should not go without saying that this stack of goodness is served with a huge helping of grade A butter and a generous portion of pure maple syrup.  After asking patron Ryan Geiger what he thought of this dish he said, “I’ve had a lot of French toast in my day and I’ve gotta’ say, this ranks pretty high.  That nutmeg is what makes it a winner.”

Biscuits

But it’s the sides that are really king at Sweet Maple Café.  The restaurant prides itself in its sweet milk biscuits, muffins, and applesauce—all of which are homemade.  The most popular of their five muffins is their banana chocolate chip. Make sure you are hungry and arrive early if you want to get your hands on one of these filling muffins…they go fast.  Another Southern staple, grits, is also offered as a side if diners want to get the full experience.  One of my personal favorite sides, a generous serving of biscuits and gravy, is plenty for a meal on its own.  This is the dish that got me hooked.  When I eat it, I feel like I should be sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, still in my pajamas.  A restaurant that serves food that can make me feel like I’m somewhere else is definitely a place I will keep returning to.

Smoked Turkey Club

Although Sweet Maple Café is best known for their breakfast dishes, lunch is also available Monday through Thursday after 11:30.  The lunch menu includes an array of soups, salads, and sandwiches, the most popular sandwich being their Smoked Turkey Club.  This monster of a sandwich is topped with bacon, lettuce, tomato, choice of cheese and Sweet Maple’s very own herb mayo.  However, if patrons are looking for a more Southern experience, they can never go wrong with a fried chicken sandwich.  Sweet Maple’s version is served on a choice of onion or wheat bun or bollo, a Spanish bread roll, and either herb or garlic mayo.  All of Sweet Maple’s sandwiches are served with coleslaw, pickle, and potato chips…homemade of course.

No matter what diners decide to indulge in, they are certain to receive more than a generous portion, which is great considering the price.  Nothing exceeds $11, and people can fill up on one of the huge muffins for just under $2.  Some dishes, like one of the many entrée-sized Country Scrambles, are even perfect for sharing.

Sweet Maple Café is a portal out of the city and into a country kitchen.  On any given day, a variety of patrons can be found reading the morning paper, groups of students enjoying a late breakfast, or professors grading papers.  No matter who is sitting in the café, in Sweet Maple Café everyone is family.  This might be part of the reason it has established itself as a neighborhood favorite and a go-to spot for visitors to the city as well.

Sweet Maple Café is open from 7am to 2pm every day.  As their slogan says, “It’s more than just breakfast.”  More than just breakfast is right.

Check It Out:  Sweet Maple Café

1339 West Taylor Street

www.sweetmaplecafe.com