CHICAGO — The official kickoff to the 16th annual Chicago Restaurant Week brought thousands of people to the Chicago Field Museum to indulge in foods prepared by more than 50 vendors.  

Welcoming crowds were met with the aromas of local eateries like Luella’s Southern Kitchen.  

“I’m just happy that we’re all here because we survived. We survived COVID, we’re all here,” said Darnell Reed, owner and chef at Luella’s Southern Kitchen. 

Reed was head chef for Thursday night’s ‘First Bites Bash,’ held for the first time since before the pandemic.  

“We have a lot of people that got together for a good cause and to serve great food,” Reed said.

A portion of the proceeds from the event will support the James Beard Foundation, which helps people further their education. Proceeds will also go to Kitchen Possible, which helps empower more than 100 kids each year in underserved Chicago communities through cooking. 

Katie Lowman is the founder of Kitchen Possible.  

“It’s pretty amazing to see the confidence of kids boost when they make any dish in any class, so [Thursday], to cook in front of 1,600 people is amazing,” Lowman said. “I thought it might intimidate them.”

Showing their fearlessness and talent, three young chefs – including 11-year-old Shalimar Amen – got the opportunity to cook among some of Chicago’s greatest. 

“It was very good. My face was very amazed because it was a lot of people,” she said.  

Shalimar promises that Thursday night was just the start of her culinary career.

“I would love to open a restaurant and play music,” she said.  

The event is just a taste of what’s to come for the next 17 days of Chicago Restaurant Week, with more than 360 participants representing 33 of Chicago’s neighborhoods – dozens of them – women, Black and/or minority-owned businesses. 

“It’s January but it’s also the holiday season. People have been away, so it’s going to be really good to see some returning faces,” Reed said.  

At the family-owned Tortoise Supper Club, they are a part of the weekslong celebration. It’s something, the group says, they’ve been prepping for. 

“Our community is really what kept us going and able to keep our doors open. So really being able to show our appreciation for our guests is what’s important to us,” said Kelli Varnava, the Tortoise Supper Club private dining and specials event manager.

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Organizers say they’re thankful for the support of these businesses and encourage anyone hoping to snag a seat – to go online and make a reservation at EatItUpChicago.com.

Restaurant week begins Friday and runs through Feb. 5.