Chef Sees Cultural Education as Part of the Job


Frequently, the way to cultural understanding is through our stomachs. Breaking bread with strangers often breaks down barriers -- it’s often harder to hate if you just ate.

Jake Bolender, a Twin Cities native and head chef at Bloomington’s Reality Bites, sees culinary cultural education as “part of our jobs as chefs.” The downtown tapas restaurant and bar offers a daily sprinkling of global fare, and Bolender’s crew will create an international spread for BCAI School of Arts’ Nov. 4 Mix.Fuze.Evolve 2 fundraiser, co-sponsored by Not In Our Town: Bloomington-Normal’s Not In Our Schools.

“From what I’ve experienced, I think we’re lacking in terms of being familiar with different cultures, especially when it comes to food,” Bolender suggests. “I think people are afraid to try new things. They’re afraid of new things, different cultures, whether it be food or introducing themselves to people or going to an Asian grocery store. I think change is scary for a lot of people.”

Mix.Fuze.Evolve will showcase culturally-infused live stage entertainment and music with a dance floor, a “culturally diverse” cash bar with 14 alcoholic and non-alcoholic options, a Coffeehound coffee bar highlighting blends from various cultures, and 12 culinary meals from six different cultures. The event, from 7 to 10 p.m., will include multiple raffles, with profits funding BCAI-supported scholarships.

Tickets are $55 per person 21 or older, or $60 at the door. Tickets are available at Reality Bites, Coffeehound, or Signature India, or online at http://breakingchains116.wixsite.com/mfe2. In conjunction with the event, BCAI is holding a youth event for every age, infant to teenager, from 5:30 to 11 p.m. at Illinois Wesleyan University, free for MFE2 ticketholders. Non-MFE parents also are welcome to register youth at a $25 per-child cost.

The Saturday menu includes akara & rice, ata dindin, tikka masala chicken, garbanzo & potato curry, black beans & rice, tacos, berry pudding, baked pumpkin, hummus, lamb & toasted nuts, ayam goreng, pork & vegetables spring rolls, baklava, fried thai bananas, and tres leches cake. That may seem like a headscratcher to some meat-and-potatoes Midwesterners, but Bolender emphasizes that “just because (dishes) come from a different culture doesn’t mean all people can’t enjoy them.”

BCAI Director Angelique Racki supplied a list of the Indian, African, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous American cuisines to be represented at the fundraiser. “Then, we just started doing our homework, digging in to different dishes from those cultures – some of which we were familiar with, some of which we were not,” Bolender relates. “It was really fun for us to kind of dig into some things we hadn’t cooked before – even recipes we hadn’t tried before. We were really excited about it. We wanted to be authentic. We wanted these dishes to be prepared in the way they’re traditionally prepared.”

His restaurant had offered a few of the dishes on the Nov. 4 menu on weekends, and he suggests some of the “big hits” among the new creations will make it onto his team’s new November menu. Bolender, his sous-chef Amy Deranian, and other crew members have their own cultural specialties, from Asian to traditional French.

“Mom did a lot of cooking growing up,” and Bolender was raised on a sturdy Heartland diet of chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes, kielbasa sausage, mac-and-cheese, and Sunday pot roast. He began bussing tables at 15, and “immediately fell in love with the restaurant industry.” Bolender, now 31, graduated to “the front of the house” and, eight years ago, into the kitchen. His pre-Reality Bites credits included prepping sushi and pizza and learning from nationally respected chefs at the former Station 220 (now Epiphany Farms) and helping launch Bloomington’s Two Blokes And A Bus food truck.

Bolender’s own favorite international dish is “straight-up tacos,” preferably with lengua (tongue), chorizo sausage, or tripa (small intestines). Reality Bite’s MFE2 spread will include a full taco bar featuring a range of toppings and sauces.

Reality Bites’ servers are trained to help diners understand new and potentially daunting dishes. In a few cases, Bolender has made accommodations for the uninitiated: He promotes ayam goreng, a curry-marinated poultry dish, as Indonesian fried chicken.

“Most people like fried chicken,” he smiles. “Most of the times, it’s a matter of stepping outside the boundaries when it comes to food – trying something you haven’t tried before.”

NIOTBN's 20-Year Anniversary Commemorated June 28

Maria Nagel

The Pantagraph

In July 1996, more than 400 people gathered at the old courthouse square in downtown Bloomington to march against racism and to support black churches that had been burned in the South.

Inspired by a PBS documentary that explored how Billings, Mont., responded to a series of hate crimes, the Not In Our Town movement formed in Bloomington in 1995, making it the first city in the country to adopt the NIOT program. 

But it was the 10-block march to Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, one of Bloomington's predominantly black churches, that helped the organization's anti-racism campaign gain a footing in the Twin Cities.

NIOTBN charter member Mike Matejka leads a news conference announcing the organization's 20th anniversary celebration June 28 on the Old Courthouse square in downtown Bloomington. (WJBC)

NIOTBN charter member Mike Matejka leads a news conference announcing the organization's 20th anniversary celebration June 28 on the Old Courthouse square in downtown Bloomington. (WJBC)

March organizers Marc Miller, Charles Halbert and his wife, Willie Holton Halbert, and other NIOT members announced Tuesday that Not In Our Town Bloomington-Normal plans to celebrate its 20th anniversary from 6-9 p.m. June 28 at the downtown square, from where the walkers stepped off in 1996.

A commemorative march is planned.

"We're not going to try and do a long march, but just do something to try and mark the event," said Mike Matejka, a NIOT member and Great Plains Laborers District Council's governmental affairs director. "We'll probably just circle the blocks here (around the square)."

"Come back, those who were there with us 20 years ago," said Barb Adkins, who helped organize the original march when she was serving as Bloomington's community affairs manager. "And those who just moved to this community and those who are here for vacation, come see how a community embraces and respects and celebrates the diversity of its citizens."

The event also plans to focus on youth.

"We want to honor the folks who were part of initiating this, but we want to share continuity, so much of what is going to be on the stage and celebrated that night will be our young people who have been part of Not In Our Schools," said Matejka.

Performances are planned by youth dance groups. McLean County Diversity Project scholars Kristin Koe, 18, and Ethan Clay, 13, both of Bloomington, composed a classical musical piece in connection with a mural other diversity project scholars are painting on a retaining wall across Olive Street from the Bloomington Public Library to honor NIOT.

Since the 1996 march, 10,000 people have signed anti-hate pledge cards in the Twin Cities, said Miller.

"Our purpose is to stand up and say, 'We will not tolerate racism and discrimination in our community,'" said Miller. "If we talk about it, if we make this a public discussion more people are aware and more people won't just sit back and say we can't do anything about it."

"I've been really struck by how many times Not In Our Town has come to speak to issues that we all value right ahead of the curve," said NIOT member and Bloomington Ward 6 Alderman Karen Schmidt.

NIOT sponsored anti-hate initiatives in 2000 to counter East Peorian Matt Hale's white supremacist message, and in 2004 when members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., came to town with anti-gay messages.

When GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump visited Bloomington in March, NIOT held a silent vigil.

"Basically, what we were trying to say is: Let's maintain a civil attitude toward one another," said Matejka. "People can disagree on many different things, but I think one of the gifts of this community, maybe it's our Midwestern values, is mutual respect."

Festival of India: Tradition Through Dance

Below, the Indian Classical Dance troupe, directed by Guru Uma Kallakuri, performs during Sunday's Festival of India on the Illinois State University quad. The annual festival brings together cultural, spiritual, artistic, fashion, and culinary traditions from across the various Indian states. The event is co-sponsored by the McLean County India Association and designed both to unite Indians and Indian-Americans throughout the Bloomington-Normal area and to introduce Indian cultures to Twin Citians.

More highlights from the festival, along with reflections from major festival coordinator, ISU graphic arts instructor, and McLean County India Association President-Elect Archana Shekara tomorrow here at Twin Cities Stories.

Empowerment Institute Sept. 19 at Heartland

Early bird registration is now open for With My Girls Empowerment Institute, a network/education program designed to help women "move your goals and dreams forward" Sept. 19 at Heartland Community College.

The theme is Getting Started: Taking the First Step Today for a Better Tomorrow. The program will include sessions on four issues: Career and Entrepreneurship. Health and Quality of Life. Financial Empowerment. and Overall Self-Awareness and Self-Management

Individual tickets are $20 for students and $45 for non-students. Sponsors include McLean County YWCA, Illinois State University, and Soroptimist International Bloomington-Normal.

For information or to register, visit www.withmygirls.com/empowerment.

'Black Eagle' Keynoter at NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet

Joe Madison, civil rights activist and preeminent African-American radio host known as “The Black Eagle,” is keynote speaker for the Bloomington-Normal Branch of the NAACP's Freedom Fund Banquet, Sept. 19 at Bloomington's DoubleTree Hotel and Convention Center.

The event starts at 7 p.m., preceded by a 6 p.m. social hour.

Takesha Stokes of Bloomington will be presented the Roy Wilkins award for her dedicated service to the NAACP, including serving as first vice president, Freedom Fund Banquet chair, and 2014 State Convention chair.

Another local award recipient will be Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner, who will receive the Merlin Kennedy Community Service award in recognition of his efforts in building a stronger community-police partnership in Bloomington.

Tickets for the Freedom Fund Banquet are $50 for adults, and $25 for youths under 12. For information or to purchase tickets, contact Takesha Stokes 309-242-5827 or Chemberly Cummings at 216-570-0549.

Madison, a radio host on SiriusXM's Urban View channel, served as executive director of the Detroit NAACP at 24. He describes himself as "doggedly progressive," having worked on voter registration efforts and led marches and demonstrations to end the genocide in Darfur.

Last year, Joe Madison received the Freedom Flame Award presented by the Selma, Alabama, Bridge Crossing Jubilee Commission, and was named Outstanding Media Personality at the 104th Annual NAACP Convention. Madison has been selected as one of Talker Magazine’s top 10 talk radio personalities for 10 consecutive years and he is the only African-American to be listed in the “talented tenth.”