ENGLEWOOD — LaQuandra Fair is almost always thinking about food.
Fair plucks, chops, cooks and plates vegetable-centric meals as the community engagement coordinator at Growing Home, a farm-based training program and organic farm in Englewood. A key component of her job is to give neighbors examples of healthy dishes they can prepare at home, Fair said.
Food “brings people together and strengthens relationships,” Fair said. Now, she hopes to bring more of her food to Chicago neighbors.
Fair recently launched LaFairs Fresh Bites, a farm-to-table catering business founded in Growing Home’s kitchen at 6429 S. Honore St. Using the skills she mastered at Growing Home, Fair offers goods like radish sandwiches, quick-pickled vegetables and salad dressings that families and friends can enjoy at home after a busy day.
Whether she’s catering for her business or cooking for an Englewood market, Fair’s goal is to unite communities and families, she said.
“I try to make things taste well and create a memory for your mouth and stomach at the same time,” Fair said. “I try to make everything I make taste as if my grandmother made it. I try to put love in every bite.”
‘Food Is Supposed To Make You Feel Good’
The rules for guests in Fair’s kitchen are simple: Don’t touch anything.
She sanitizes the space, washes the utensils, cleans the freshly picked garden produce and hand cuts everything “to keep the old, traditional ways because that’s part of the process,” Fair said. She wants people who try her dishes to see the evidence of a homemade meal.
“I can easily throw this in the food processor and let that be it, but that’s not how I want it to be,” Fair said. “I want you to see the imperfections of how I cut everything. I’m a regular person just like you, and if I can stand in the kitchen and do this thing, you can do it, too.”
Every Wednesday, Fair preps new meals for Growing Home’s weekly Thursday Farm Stand.
On a cloudy Wednesday in July, she chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions and peppers for a “spin on pasta salad,” topped with a light homemade dressing.
“I try to let the herbs and the freshness from the vegetables I’m using take over so it’s consistently good and healthy at the same time,” Fair said. “I enjoy the process of getting things straight from the Earth and knowing what I’m giving you to put in your body. Food is supposed to make you feel good.”
There’s an ease and confidence to Fair as she navigates her cooking station, traits she never had in the kitchen before joining Growing Home, she said.
Growing up as a “latchkey kid” and the oldest daughter of four siblings, Fair’s mother made it her responsibility to have dinner cooked and ready by the time she made it home, Fair said.
Fair would call her grandmother to walk her through the meals, she said. Not one for measuring ingredients, Fair’s grandmother would tell her to “season until the ancestors tell you to stop,” she said.
After years of viewing cooking as a “means to survive,” working as a chef was “never a dream,” Fair said.
Fair worked for the military for six years after high school, she said. She came home in 2006 and spent a decade “wandering, lost and searching for a way to make a difference in my community,” Fair said.
It wasn’t until 2016 when her daughter, “the boss,” pointed out a flyer for Growing Home at her daycare that Fair realized that working with food could be a fun possibility.
That year, she signed up for Growing Home’s 12-week workforce development program, Fair said. Fellow Englewood native Tonika Johnson interviewed her for the slot. Johnson was instrumental in helping her realize her talent and boosting her confidence, Fair said.
Fair joined Growing Home in 2017 as a community engagement associate, she said.
“It was the beginning of a newfound support system and relationship,” Fair said. “I had no idea about the support you would receive. If I didn’t find Growing Home, I wouldn’t be where I am now. They inspired me to do my thing.”
‘Food Is My Love Language’
Soon, she was in the kitchen, helping her boss prepare and cook recipes, Fair said. When the cook would turn her back, she’d add extra seasonings to give the dishes flavor, Fair said.
Since 2019, Fair has been a “one-woman show” in the kitchen, blending unlikely flavors and ingredients neighbors might not have tried before to give her sandwiches, soups and salads a kick, she said. She helped launch a Growing Home cooking demo show where neighbors can follow along as she prepares meals.
“Food is my love language,” Fair said. “I just love to prepare the meal for the people I love and watch them get full. When I don’t have the words to express myself, I try to leave it all in the bowl or on the plate. If I see you smiling after you finish, I know I did my job.”
Working at Growing Home allows Fair to see the “direct impact” she’s making in her community, she said. After sampling her dishes, people are more willing to try new foods and incorporate healthier ingredients into their diets, Fair said.
“Being in this position has made me understand and realize it’s not always the biggest, brightest things that build relationships with people,” Fair said. “It can be something as simple as here’s a spoon and here’s a plate.”
Fair is looking for commercial space to house her catering business. For now, the Growing Home kitchen will continue to be her lab for change.
“My hope for the future is that people will make a conscious choice to get back to the table and spend time with family,” Fair said. “Because we’re so busy, cooking is sometimes just not a thing we do anymore. We need to get back to that because that connection is missing. I want people to get back to the table and become family again. Hopefully, my meals lead to that.”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: