Chef Ariya Taylor is the newest Chef-In-Residency at Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe. Credit: Provided.

WASHINGTON PARK — For Ariya Taylor, food has always been an adventure. From experimenting with Food Network recipes to creating her own supply of spices, the Auburn Gresham native has always risen to the challenge.

As the new chef-in-residence at Retreat at Currency Exchange Cafe, 305 E. Garfield Blvd., the 27-year-old is taking on a new challenge, one she hopes will let her push the limits of her creativity in a delightfully delicious way.

“Cooking has always been a part of my life growing up. My great-grandmother and my uncle were chefs, so the house was always cooking,” said Taylor, a Perspectives High alumna. “I’m the type to want to do things myself and no one was making food how I liked it, so I decided to do it.”

But the spark for the aspiring illustrator didn’t come until she tried her hand at a Rachael Ray recipe for thai chicken pizza. Aiming for authenticity, the then 13-year-old Taylor and her mother visited Asian supermarkets for the ingredients. While she was unable to find the plum sauce necessary to finish the dish, she was still impressed with the results.

Her mom was, too. And years later, when Taylor was battling depression, it was her mother who helped pull her out of it, albeit in an unconventional way.

“A lot of stuff wasn’t happening. I wanted to go back to school but I didn’t want to go back to Northern Illinois University. I had gotten into SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design] but I couldn’t afford the tuition,” said Taylor. “I did this bootcamp at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. My mom actually called the place, pretended she was me, and I wound up getting an interview. I didn’t even know she’d done it until she told me that I had it.”

Taylor graduated from the bootcamp at the top of her class, which led to an internship at Nico Osteria, a chic Italian eatery in the Gold Coast. The intern soaked up as much as she could while there, exploring every position from the front to the back of the house when she realized she felt most at home in the kitchen, creating.

A stint at The Publican — where she sharpened her line cooking skills — followed. She also began helping a friend of her uncle’s with his restaurant pop-up, Dozzy’s Grill, a former Retreat tenant. Owner Dozzy Ibekwe told Taylor about the program and encouraged her to apply.

“I haven’t had time to process everything because it happened so fast. But I’m happy so far,” said Taylor. “I feel like I’m doing pretty ok.”

Taylor will offer a rotating menu with different themes during her three-month residency, pulling inspiration from a variety of sources. One week may be carnival-themed, another may explore the world of Korean street food. Her evening menu includes popcorn chicken or shrimp ($7-$10), black bean sliders ($8) and nachos ($8) with a choice of beef bulgogi or chicken tinga. 

The dinner menu is vegetarian friendly, with a mushroom Philly (havarti cheese, radicchio and housemade giardiniera; $10) and a grilled chicken sandwich (mixed greens, parmesan butter, toasted bread, romesco mayo; $8).

Taylor realizes she’s in rarified air; the culinary industry has struggled on matters of diversity and inclusion for years, with Black chefs taking the hardest hits. A New York Times story on Black female chefs noted a 2017 report from the National Restaurant Association which showed Black workers were nearly 12 percent of all restaurant employees and only 9.5 percent of all chefs.

For Taylor’s mentor, Ellison Park, creating pathways that allow talented Black chefs to receive the same opportunities as others is important. The former Lula Cafe chef joined Rebuild earlier this year as its culinary director, helping residents with menu curation and business fundamentals.

“It’s so fulfilling. One of the things that burned me out as a chef working in restaurants was that it was very limited, which is limiting what you’re serving to a select population,” Park said. “You have people who go to the fancy culinary schools with their parents paying the cost. And this shows you don’t need all of that to be successful. You just really need to pay attention, have the ability to take notes on tastes and smells. … For me, it’s a learning experience.”

Chef Ariya’s menu will be available at Retreat 11 a.m-3 p.m. daily and 5-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday evenings. Retreat at Currency Exchange Café is open for 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with special extended hours 5-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday evenings.

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