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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

The West Side’s Cocoa Chili Restaurant Is An ‘Educational Foodie Experience’ Geared For Social Change

Head Chef Niquenya Collins uses her Afro-Caribbean soul food to bring people to the table and connect West Siders with the resources they need to succeed.

Cocoa Chili's owner and head chef, Niquenya Collins.
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GARFIELD PARK — An Afro-Caribbean soul food restaurant has opened on the West Side and is bringing more than local food options to the table.

At Cocoa Chili, the spicy-sweet flavors on the menu are an entryway for foodies to share conversations about improving their lives and their communities. The restaurant hosts webinars and roundtables to educate eaters about food issues, community resources and personal improvement topics such as wellness, entrepreneurship and personal finance.

“Food is a universal language and a great connector,” said Niquenya Collins, owner and head chef. “I view it as an opportunity to bring more people together and connect them to resources that they need to improve the quality of their lives, while also feeding them delicious meals.”

Collins opened Cocoa Chili at the Hatchery, a food business incubator at 135 N. Kedzie Ave. She’d spent 25 years as a business coach finding resources to support entrepreneurs. Inspired by her multicultural family — with roots from Nigeria to Jamaica to Louisiana — Collins opened the restaurant to build on the work she’d already been doing: connecting people with the opportunities they need to be successful. 

“On the West Side, people are suffering from exclusion. They’re cut off from resources, they’re cut off from access and knowledge about different opportunities that might be available to them,” said Collins, who lives in Humboldt Park.

Cocoa Chili’s menu includes items like Caribbean curry chicken, Jamaican jerk chicken and Senegalese poulet yassa. For many West Siders, these dishes can be a point of connection to their ancestry and “expand their palate and open their minds to new experiences” across the African diaspora, Collins said.

Credit: Provided
A jerk chicken meal at Cocoa Chili.

The restaurant’s Table Talk series similarly uses food as an avenue to introduce people to valuable resources and challenge them to think critically about their own personal development. The talks are “sustainably sourced educational foodie experiences that raise awareness of opportunities to improve the quality of people’s lives,” Collins said.

Collins wants the series to grow into a hub for people to learn about resources like the Farm on Ogden in North Lawndale, which is an affordable place to buy fresh produce that also offers free boxes of food through its VeggieRx program.

Table Talk launched in February alongside the restaurant as a monthly series, but as Cocoa Chili gets its footing, Collins expects to host the event much more frequently. The talks are virtual due to the pandemic, but they will be offered as in-person events when it is safe.

The February Table Talk was a webinar teaching about grocery staples everybody should have in their kitchens that are flexible enough to be used for many meals.

The webinar also addressed food access and waste by discussing “how to use leftovers and how to elevate your leftovers so that you’re not only saving money by reusing foods that you already have, but you’re also changing up what you eat so you’re not being bored with food,” Collins said.

The restaurant has another program that improves food access in the area. The Feeding the Community Initiative allows customers who buy meals from Cocoa Chili to help the restaurant provide free food to anybody that needs it. Donations are used to stock the Love Fridges, which are set up in several neighborhoods and allow anybody to get fresh food at any time.

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Collins is raising money to build the Table Talk series through an IFundWomen campaign. To join the next Table Talk event, go to Cocoa Chili’s website and sign up for its newsletter.

Foodies can also support Cocoa Chili by buying bottles of Collins’ jerk sauce or her signature Cocoa Chili seasoning. The seasoning is the secret behind several of her menu items, including her chili con carne.

“That cocoa is that bold, rich flavor, and it kind of elevates the spice. And then, of course, you have that warm heat,” Collins said. “It has that sweet warmth to it.”

Cocoa Chili is serving meals for delivery and pickup at the Hatchery. To make an order, go to Cocoa Chili’s website.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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