DUNNING — With holiday music on and decorations lining the walls, employees at Eli’s Cheesecake Company took a break to fill up on desserts made from their coworkers’ family recipes and get their hands on a cookbook recently published by the company.
The Tuesday holiday event, held at Eli’s bakery at 6701 W. Forest Preserve Drive, celebrated the company’s workers and the 40th anniversary edition of the Eli’s Cheesecake Cookbook, published in September with 100 recipes. This year’s edition features eight recipes submitted by employees.
Nearly 200 employees got to taste dishes from Mexico, Puerto Rico, The Congo, Kosovo and United States while learning about their coworkers’ cultures.
Antonio Rivera, who is from Mexico, has worked at Eli’s for 22 years — and his wife and their two kids work there, too. When they were asked to submit a recipe from their family, it was an easy choice, Rivera said.
The family’s recipe is arroz con tres leches, a sweet rice pudding recipe. What makes it special is the three types of milk — most people only use one, Rivera said.
“My wife’s mom used to make it when we were in Mexico,” Rivera said. “Then we would make it for our kids. So when they asked for a family recipe, we knew the perfect one.”
Rivera is the head chef for the cafe at Eli’s and regularly cooks for his coworkers. He said he’s honored to have a family recipe in the cookbook to share his culture with a wider audience.
Maureen Schulman, a co-writer of the cookbook, wanted to find a way to highlight the company’s love for food while showcasing its diversity. She mulled over the idea of asking Eli’s workers for recipes for about three years before putting it into action, she said.
The section of the book is called, “The Stories That Made Us, The Recipes That Shaped Us.”
“We wrote an entirely new chapter as a tribute to our team members from around the world,” Schulman said. “Especially in the holiday season, food unites us, and this is a great example of it. They are sharing their culture; they are sharing their memories of when they grew up.”
The chapter features recipes for Puerto Rican caramel flan, cherry pie with a gluten-free crust, sugary puff puff balls from The Congo, a caramel milk cake from Kosovo and a Mexican no-bake cake with layered fruit, cream and biscuits; among others.
Elias Kasongo, who is from The Congo and has worked at Eli’s for 28 years, submitted his grandmother’s recipe for vitumbua, also known as puff puffs. The sugary, fried delights were treats he grew up on, and now his wife makes them at home every week.
Kasongo said being part of Eli’s cookbook — and getting to share his family recipe with the staff — is a reminder of how much the company embraces diversity and its workforce.
“It reminded me of how beautiful this place is that wherever you come from, you remember when you were younger …,” Kasongo said.
These values of giving back are instilled in Eli’s business model, said company President Marc Schulman, whose father opened the popular family restaurant, Eli’s The Place For Steak, in 1966 and started the Eli’s legacy. His father was also the brains behind some of the company’s signature cheesecakes, which he debuted in the restaurant in 1978.
Growing up in the restaurant industry with his father, Marc Schulman said the two values he was taught were to “treat the other as if you are the other” and “charity will never bust you.” The company often partners with local charities and food banks to give back to the community and created a GED program in partnership with Wright College to integrate students into the food business.
In a time of employee shortages and increased sales partly due to the pandemic, Schulman said it felt extra special to honor his employees with the cookbook and the holiday event. He likened it to “yearbook day” in high school because everyone was eager to get their books signed by the authors and featured chefs.
“We try to honor our people,” Schulman said. “That’s what makes the product special is the dedication, the history and the commitment. … We have a dedicated workforce, and that has allowed us to grow.”
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