At Toronto’s first annual Mac and Cheese Festival, Chef Aleem Syed keeps his eyes on the prize.
“Honestly, I’m just here to make great food and have fun,” he says. “I didn’t even know there was money until you told me just now.”
Okay, maybe not the $5000 prize for the festival’s best mac and cheese, but not even the bullet that rendered him an L1 paraplegic in 2008 could keep him from his dream of owning his own restaurant.
“If it takes an able-bodied person 30 steps to get to his dream and it takes me 90, I’m still going to get there just as fast as they’re going to get to their dream,” he says.
One of those steps is being the proud owner of the first fully wheelchair accessible food truck in North America and, likely, the world.
Conceived by Kashif Tejani of Curio Design Group and built by Zoran Danilovic and Advanced Motion Industry Inc., The Holy Grill (named for that future restaurant) features a ramp coming out from under the back door and a wider passage, allowing the 33-year-old chef to turn his wheelchair 360 degrees. The truck has lower surfaces for easier access and space for his chair next to the driver’s seat.
Syed sold his Mercedes Benz CL55 AMG to get the truck, but it wasn’t because he couldn’t find work at a standalone restaurant. Classically trained in French cooking from Le Cordon Blue in Ottawa, he has worked at some of the best restaurants in North America, including Toronto’s Canoe Restaurant and BLT Prime in New York City.
At the time of his accident, and following six months in rehab, he worked at Origin North under Chef Claudio Aprile who is now best known as one of three judges on MasterChef Canada. Though some of his friends backed away, the staff at Origin North never treated him any differently. In fact, he found he was a better chef in a wheelchair.
“Right after my accident I had to figure out whether I could cook or not. I put a cutting board on my lap after I met Chef Pascal Ribreau [the renowned paraplegic chef] and I was able to prep faster on my lap than his regular cooks could prep on their feet, so I started catering out of my garage and catering turned into the food truck.”
Accessibility isn’t the only first on the food truck. Syed puts the “Holy” in Holy Grill by making it the only food truck in Toronto with a completely halal menu. He bought the truck to make catering easier and as a proof of concept for his Canadian comfort food with an Indian flare.
See Chef Aleem in action at Mac & Cheese Festival this weekend. Taste some delicious food and meet some wonderful people. The production team behind Chef Aleem Untitled Documentary will also be there along with tons of press. Come Say hello. Follow the Official Production Blog at ChefAleemDocumentary.tumblr.com#food #macandcheese #food #foodtruck #disability #skyblueproductions #blackmagiccinema #blackmagicdesign #rode #adobe #filmmaking #skyblueproductions #goproMusic CreditsArtist: Drake HeadlinesAlbum: Take Care YearLabel: Cash Money Records
Posted by Sky Blue Productions on Friday, June 5, 2015
At the Mac and Cheese Festival, diners enjoyed mac and cheese stuffed samosas and fried mac and cheese balls with a tomato chutney, alongside a more typical braised short rib and mac and cheese poutine.
Though Syed is not running around in the kitchen like he once did, he doesn’t need to. He still does 97 per cent of the prep himself and directs his bipedal brigade to do what’s left with a commanding vocal authority.
Ask them and they’ll tell you nothing gets past him. It’s a symptom of a unique focus and drive that his parents, Jeelani and Naeem, instilled in him at an early age, teaching him everything they knew about cooking when they ran the Taj Banquet Hall during his formative years.
“My parents were hard on me, not just when it came to food, but in life,” he confirms. “Everything I’ve ever done I’ve always took serious, especially if I like it, then I put more seriousness into it.”
Currently that intensity is directed at opening his Holy Grill Restaurant by the end of the year. With the seriousness he says it, it’s clear he will claim his prize and nothing will stand in his way – least of all, his disability.
“In the beginning it was a little shocking like it would be for anyone’s life, but after that it’s like, what are you going to do, sit at home and cry or are you going to make something of yourself?”
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