James Teague: Inspiring Cook & Chicagoan of the Week
James Teague sits across from me on his lunch break at work downtown. The smell from his chicken breast mocks me as I eat my cold ham and cheese sandwich (domestic goddess in the making here, folks). Teague loves to cook — “doesn’t do it enough” -– and his passion is “empowering others.” So it’s no surprise that he devotes every Monday night to volunteering at Common Threads, an organization aimed at developing kitchen skills among Chicago’s disadvantaged youth.
His work with Common Threads began with a chance encounter six years ago. His former employer had asked him to help set up for the first annual World’s Festival in Chicago. “It was initially a three-hour commitment on my day off. Why not?” he shrugged. Teague ended up helping there all day, and the more he learned about the organization’s mission, the more he was interested.
“The kids don’t just learn how to cook,” he said. “The program gives these kids confidence to try new things.” He fell in love with the program and the students who came in each Monday.
“The kids get really into it. To see them come in every week excited to try a new recipe, to cook more,” he said. “That’s a reward right there.” He beamed as he discussed a top chef competition the kids participated in recently. Each volunteer paired with a student, and they created dishes that were judged by professional chefs from around the city. The contest was a huge success and Teague and his student won in the appetizer category.
The awards didn’t stop in the kitchen, though. Teague’s efforts have gained notice outside the Common Threads community. When author Tammy L. DeVille began work on her 2010 book “Changing the World on a Tuesday,” she looked for people from across the country who made time to volunteer despite busy schedules. Among the forty-eight she chose was Teague.
You can also hear Teague’s voice in the documentary “Paint Your Plate.” The hour-long film, released in November 2010, illuminates the importance of health education among the nation’s youth through the eyes of people like Teague who are working to provide that.
“I was in a book and a movie last year,” he bellowed before taking a bite of his chicken. “I don’t know what you’ve heard about me, but I’m kind of a big deal.” The joke arrogance was followed by a swift insisting that his satisfaction from volunteering comes from witnessing the kids’ growth, and nothing less.
“It’s the empowerment the kids feel. That’s why I enjoy it,” he smiled. “They leave the program with a desire to try new recipes. They go to the grocery store and buy different foods. They experiment with confidence.”
A lot of people don’t volunteer, I ramble, because they are afraid of the commitment or may not feel qualified. His response? “Qualified” is relative. “Find something that inspires you. For me, the power comes from the development of the kids over the class,” he said. “And seeing that, being a part of that, is all the reward I need.”
He’s a Windy City transplant (North Carolina native), and his love for Chicago is rooted in memorable times by Navy Pier and the general diversity the city embraces. When he isn’t volunteering, he works at Hostelling International Chicago as Housekeeping Supervisor.
“The thing I love most about Chicago is the festivals. I love the different neighborhood energies at each festival,” he said. “And all the amazing restaurants.” The city’s restaurants, fittingly, were mentioned from the man who inspires young chefs every week.