When One Door Opens

Fledgling Chicago organization Doors Open Dishes fills hearts and bellies by connecting local chefs and adults with disabilities to support the group homes and programming they need to thrive.

By Marissa Nelson

April 17, 2019 10:00 AM

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A good meal brings more to the table than just nourishment for our bodies and the satisfaction of our appetite. When shared with others, a meal creates a common ground that brings people together. Nicole Schnitzler, a passionate Chicago-based food writer, knows this well. 

Schnitzler’s 42-year-old brother, Daniel, is autistic. So in 2017, faced with the fact that the budget crisis in Illinois was leading to deep cuts in funding for programming and local homes for adults living with disabilities, she had the bright idea to leverage food’s ability to build relationships in a way that would bring awareness to the need for private funding for Chicago’s disabled community. That’s how Doors Open Dishes, an organization committed to keeping the doors open to the group homes and workshops catering to individuals with special needs, was born.  

“The project was really inspired by my brother Daniel and seeing firsthand, as a family member, how the budget crisis was affecting his workshop and group home situation, and the funding that these programs—vocational/life skills training, camps, experiential learning programs, personalized employment programs, instructors’ and coaches’ salaries—were receiving,” says Schnitzler. “That’s always been the driving force behind it—to create a fun way to engage with the community in Chicago that could also increase awareness of the need for funding for these services our disabled community so desperately needs.”

Personalized lockers courtesy of team members at Keshet’s GADOL program

Here’s how it works: Doors Open Dishes connects food-loving adults living with disabilities and A-list chefs in Chicago for a one-on-one meeting. After spending time getting to know one another, the chef is tasked with creating a dish that’s inspired by the client’s favorite foods. The dish is then added to the menu at the chef’s restaurant for a limited run, and a portion of its proceeds goes back to the client’s local home or special education center. 

“Neither party, the chef or the client, completely knows what to expect when they first meet, and that’s what I love about food. It has a way of breaking down barriers, particularly social barriers, immediately,” says Schnitzler. “It’s a really rewarding experience to watch our clients’ eyes light up when they start talking about their favorite foods with the participating chefs. And so far the experience has been equally rewarding for the chefs involved, too, to be able to use their passion to give back to their community in such a meaningful way.”

To date, Doors Open Dishes has facilitated three partnerships. In September 2018, Daniel Schnitzler and his workshop, Gateway to Learning, a special education and training center located in Lincoln Square, partnered with Executive Chef Christian Ragano of Cindy’s restaurant at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel. Ragano created a chicken Milanese dish with seasonal vegetables served over a corn puree—inspired by Daniel’s love for Birds Eye mixed vegetables sprinkled with parmesan cheese—and offered it at Cindy’s for one month, donating a percentage of the proceeds to Gateway to Learning. Doors Open Dishes’ second partnership, which launched in November, paired a client from Rimland, a collaborative care facility in Evanston for individuals with autism, with chef Bill Montagne (formerly of Nico Osteria), to raise funds for Rimland’s residential living, health and wellness, and developmental training programs. The dish, a seafood flatbread, was served at Nico Osteria for the entire month of November.

And in January, Todd Stein, executive chef and partner at The Bristol, met with Avi Lesser, a client at Keshet, a Chicago-based organization that provides more than 1,000 people with disabilities tailored programming at more than 70 sites in the Chicago area. Lesser loves watching the Food Network and was thrilled to meet with Stein, who appeared on the network’s show Iron Chef America. During the duo’s time together, Stein and Lesser talked about all of his favorite foods: pancakes, pasta, burgers, hot dogs and cheesecake. They also talked about what he doesn’t like (spicy foods). In the end, Stein was inspired by Lesser’s love for pastas prepared with creamy sauces, and created a gnocchi dish with garden spinach, English peas, asparagus and lemon cream. The dish will be available at The Bristol through the end of April, and a portion of the proceeds will benefit Keshet.

Chicago chef Todd Stein (left) and Avi Lesser, a longtime participant in Keshet’s programs and a self-described foodie

“There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm based on a lot of positive experiences he has had with food,” says Stein of Lesser. “A lot of things in my life were communicated through food, and I think that’s the case for a lot of people, and how we bonded. I think that today, sometimes this commonality gets forgotten. It was really enlightening to be reminded that something so simple—bringing people together at a table with a plate of food—can be such a powerful thing.”

While echoing Stein’s sentiments, Schnitzler has high hopes for the future of Doors Open Dishes—its second course, so to speak. “I think that oftentimes the community of adults with disabilities can be overlooked,” she says. “When Doors Open Dishes and Chicago’s top chefs work together, we can create a conversation, and hopefully an awareness—and break bread in support of an entire community.”  


The Bristol chef Todd Stein (far left) joined a special drama class at Keshet’s GADOL program, where team members were practicing for an upcoming performance.