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Doors Open Dishes pairs Chicago chefs with special-needs individuals to craft inspired bites

Maggie Hennessy
Written by
Maggie Hennessy

Chicago food writer Nicole Schnitzler has watched her brother Daniel make his favorite meal dozens of times. He fills the same pink Tupperware bowl with frozen corn, peas and carrots from the bag, adds a flurry of Kraft Parmesan cheese, then digs in while it’s still frosty. Daniel, who’s 42, was diagnosed with autism when he was 3.

“All his life, Daniel—like myself— has loved and embraced food, even though in many ways we have really different tastes,” says Schnitzler. “One day, I’m in the kitchen watching him make this, and it dawns on me: I bet a chef could make a dish inspired by this that I’d find really delicious.”

Motivated by the state’s budget impasse, which threatened the main funding source for the residential and training programs Daniel counts on, Schnitzler founded Doors Open Dishes. The organization partners with Chicago chefs to create menu items inspired by the comfort foods of people with disabilities, donating part of the proceeds to an organization that supports the featured individual.

DOD kicks off this month at Cindy’s, inside the Chicago Athletic Association, where executive chef Christian Ragano showcases crispy chicken milanesa with Texas caviar (barbecued beans with still-crunchy corn, fresh peas and carrots), local sweet-corn pudding and smoked ramp vinaigrette, inspired by Daniel.

Cindy's executive chef Christian Ragano, Photograph: Jason Little

“Daniel’s fantastic—so bubbly and very decisive about what he likes to eat,” says Ragano. “He loves fried chicken. And I wanted to do barbecue-style beans for the Texas caviar because he loves Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce.”

You’ll find the dish on Cindy’s lunch menu through September 30. A portion of the sales will help purchase cooking equipment for Gateway to Learning Special Education and Training Center, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides workforce training and life-skills development to adults like Daniel.

Daniel, Photograph: Nicole Schnitzler

Come November, Bill Montagne, chef de cuisine at the Italian seafood spot Nico Osteria, will feature Sardinian seafood flatbread on the menu in honor of 32-year-old Carrissa W., a resident of the Evanston-based Rimland Services collaborative-care center.

“My hope with this is that people get to know these individuals and their communities a bit better,” says Schnitzler. “And that they like the food. I know Daniel did. I didn’t even get to try his dish—I turned around and it was gone.”

For more information, including upcoming parternship announcement, visit

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