by Jennifer Tanaka
Chef and Philanthropist
During the summer of 1993, after heavy rains pummeled the Mississippi River basin, the waterways in southern Illinois spilled over in an epic flood. As the devastation played out into the early fall, the Chicago chef Jackie Shen received a call from Tom Cornille, one of the food suppliers to her Lincoln Park restaurant. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’” Shen recalls today. Flying by the seat of her pants, she arranged a star-studded fundraiser. Catered by 20 chefs at the Thompson Center, the event raised more than $100,000 for downstate flood victims.
This is how Jackie Shen does it: Someone calls for help and she answers. Over the years, Shen has repeatedly answered the call from scores of individuals and charitable organizations. In 2008 alone, she continued her ongoing support of three of her favorite causes: LaRabida Children’s Hospital in Jackson Park, Esperanza Community Services on the West Side, and the city’s animal pound. Ask her why she does it and, uncharacteristically, Shen is stumped. “I’ve never thought about that,” she says. “It’s just the right thing to do.”
Shen came to the United States from Hong Kong in 1971. After getting a degree in hotel management from the University of Houston, she bought a diner in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood. “I was the dishwasher, the waitress, the short-order cook, everything,” she says. After 18 months, Shen sold the diner and apprenticed with Jean Banchet at Le Français. In 1983, when she was 30 years old, Shen opened her own restaurant, a periwinkle-hued, 50-seat place on Lincoln Avenue called Jackie’s.
Today, as the executive chef at the West Loop’s Red Light (a messy divorce and other problems forced the closure of Jackie’s after 13 years), Shen wears lightly her mantle as one of Chicago’s original celebrity chefs. “I don’t try to be creative,” she says. “I just try to be diligent.” On top of her 80-hour workweek, Shen still gives her time freely to the charities that she loves, insisting that her contributions are no big deal.
Ask the opinion of those she helps and you will hear a different story. “She came to us four years ago, totally unsolicited,” says Charles Craft, the director of programs and services at Chicago Animal Care and Control, the city’s shelter for unwanted animals. Shen, a devoted dog and cat owner, wanted to organize a chef-driven gala to help raise money for the shelter, which takes in more than 23,000 animals a year. In its first year, the event raised $35,000; the 2008 version raised $85,000 and attracted 400 people. “I’ve never met a person who has a bigger heart in my life,” says Craft.
Diane Farina White couldn’t agree more. “She’s got incredible passion,” says White, the executive director of Esperanza Community Services, a center for the mentally disabled cofounded by the late Guadalupe Reyes, a former Chicagoan of the Year. “Jackie gives without any expectation, and that’s hard to find.” Two years ago the center honored Shen with an award for her 12 years of service. “She was actually mad at the staff,” White says, remembering that Shen objected to all the fuss—more eager, as always, to move on to her next philanthropic project.