For most of us – WORK – plays a huge role in our lives. Some of us wake up dreading the day to day, but there’s a few brave souls within society that catapult their ideas or passions into reality. Their work is also their joy. I had the pleasure of interviewing Chef CheSa Rollins. Chef CheSa transitioned from the corporate world to the culinary kitchen when she was pregnant with her daughter and diagnosed with Celiac disease. The only treatment was a strict gluten free diet, which consists of no wheat, rye, or barley.
Back in the day, the self-proclaimed foodie noticed a lack of gluten free options and she loved to eat. What started off as a pessimistic diagnosis, turned into a monumental career change. CheSa started a food truck called CheSa’s Gluten Tootin Free Food. Fast forward to October of 2022 she opened her own 1800-square foot bar & bistro featuring a scratch-made entirely gluten-free menu. Make sure you head to the Chicago Avondale neighborhood and check out CheSa’s Bistro & Bar (3235 West Addison, Chicago, IL). They’re serving up delicious American contemporary cuisine with a Creole twist. Want to know more about the successful entrepreneur that recently triumphed another health scare? Read on below for Chef CheSa’s inspiring story.
Tavi J. One on One Interview with Chef CheSa Rollins
Let’s start off with a little bit of background. Are you a Chicago Native?
Yes. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the Roseland neighborhood.
Do you have any culinary training or are you a self-taught Chef?
I do not have any culinary degrees or certifications. I have a bachelor’s degree in finance, a master’s degree in human resources, and a PhD in business management. I was heavily involved in the corporate sector managing assets and raising funds for non-profits.
What made you transition to the culinary scene?
I switched over to the food service industry when I was pregnant with my daughter. I was having pretty bad reactions to gluten, and I found out I had Celiac disease. I’m always hungry and I’m always looking for food. I found an abandoned food truck in China Town and started my business from there.
That seems like a big jump to start a food truck business. Was there some sort of inspiration behind it?
No, when I was in corporate, I was always saying someone needs to start a gluten free food truck. I kept saying that until it actually materialized with me. I was in China Town searching for some China sets for my home, when I saw this big red food truck. I was like oh my God whose truck is this? I did some research and found out who owned the truck and purchased it from him.
What has been the difference between owning the food truck and the restaurant? What are the pros and cons?
I’ve been in business for about eight or nine years now. Throughout the years people would always ask me, “Where are you located?” or “Do you have a brick and mortar…we would like to have a party wherever you’re located.” So, I was very interested in having a restaurant. At the time though, the food truck was easy. I dictated my schedule, and I loved the flexibility. The cons are you could be competing with a food truck selling the same thing right next to you, so it’s kinda hard and like may the best man win scenario.
On the restaurant side my goal is to be a staple in the community where I’m at. Timeout had listed Avondale as one of the best neighborhoods in the world to live, eat, party, and to have a restaurant. So, I’m thinking this is it for me. Since starting my restaurant in October 2022, the biggest con for me is staffing. Staffing has been a big issue. Especially pre-covid versus post-covid. Now I feel like I’m always in a bargaining situation.
Also, keeping up with advertising and marketing…trying to be different, innovative, and staying ahead of the curve. Gluten free is defnitely a niche market. We have our regulars that dine with us and love us, but with the same token some people who aren’t familiar with a gluten free diet are like….oooooh gluten free, I don’t know about that. Or I’m not going to eat that. I want to get away from marketing that we’re gluten free. I just want people to come and try us because it’s great food, that happens to be gluten free. We’re organic, we’re none GMO, we are very conscious of what we serve to the public.
Congrats on CheSa’s Bistro & Bar one year anniversary! What advice would you give to fellow restaurant owners?
Diversify. I would definitely say diversify. For me I saw a lot of food trucks come and go in my time. If you’re not diversifying your portfolio and having multiple streams of services and offerings to your clientele, they’ll find someone who does. It was very important for me to corner every market I was involved in. From catering, to the food truck, to the brick and mortar, to meal prep, and teaching. I want to be a one stop shop.
What is the most exciting part of being a restaurant owner?
I would say socializing with the customers. Everyone that comes in has a story. They tell me about the trials and tribulations they’ve gone through going gluten free. Me hearing that, understanding, and being able to relate is priceless. Being able to relate to people is the passion that drives me.
What are future goals with CheSa’s Bistro & Bar and what future events can we look forward to?
On November 10th will be doing an event with Clink Fest and Love Cork Screw which is a fundraiser event for the American Wine Association. (Click HERE for tickets)
We’re also starting D’USSÉ Happy Hour which will take place on Fridays from 9 PM – 11 PM.
Also, were having a D’USSÉ inspired brunch over Thanksgiving weekend. We’re closed on Thursday, but will be open for brunch on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
I love the Thanksgiving holiday because of the focus on giving thanks and paying it forward. Is there anyone you look up to and why?
Pinky Cole from Slutty Vegan. I look up to her on how she expanded her business model and how she cornered the market with Vegan options that were for everyone. She really changed the dynamic of how people view Vegan cuisine. For me even though we’re gluten free, I’m hoping to follow in those same footsteps on how people perceive gluten free food.
What are your future goals for CheSa’s Bistro?
To be a supplier at an airport and also to open a second location in another city for CheSa’s. That’s sort of the goal for the next few years.
That sounds great! As your presence increases would you be interested in doing any of the food competition shows?
Yeah that would be super dope. A couple of years ago I did a competition with Bo Jackson. Bo Jackson came out with a line of meat and I competed with Top Chefs. I just so happen to win the people’s choice awards. I love to compete because I’m not bringing the typical cuisine to the table. I would love to compete on Top Chef one day.
What makes the Chicago restaurant community special to you?
Chicago’s restaurant community is so diverse and we have so many different offerings. I’ve traveled all over the world. When you come to Chicago you really taste the difference and the quality of food. People really put there all into what they serve. Chicago really puts in the soul of what we provide to the public when it comes to the restaurant industry. You have pockets of communities and neighborhoods that are filled with people from all over the world. You have these grocery stores that are offering all different types of spices, herbs, meats, and different types of cheeses. I love the diversity we offer.
Chicago is known for our soulful cooking and our resilience through hardships? You recently had a health scare. Did you want to briefly talk about that?
I have been sharing my story because I believe it’s very important for people of color to understand the dynamics that affect us and things that we’re not aware of. In July of this year I had a stroke. I had a blood clot that was in my brain that was caused by birth control. It nearly killed me. I hemorrhaged on both sides of my brain and my whole entire brain was like a cloud. So to recover from that type of serious injury and to be back at almost 100 percent, is nothing but God. I woke up blind and I couldn’t walk. I was determined.
Did your stroke happen while you were at work?
Yes. It was a Sunday and DJ was going at it. I walked over to a store to get some supplies. I started feeling extremely hot and I couldn’t cool down and started feeling delirious. I walked back into the restaurant and I collapsed. I nearly did not make it. It’s a blessing to have recovered and to return to what I love doing.
Last question. Earlier on you mention one of the toughest aspects of owning a restaurant is the staffing. Do you have any current job openings?
Yes. I’m looking for a sous chef, line cooks, and prep cooks.
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