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#SupportSeattleSmallBiz Spotlight: Chef Tarik’s Transformative Community Work

Chef Tarik’s apron reflects his personal and business ethos | Photo courtesy of Quinn Russell Brown

Meet Feed the People owner and founder Chef Tarik Abdullah (aka Cooka T), who has a boundless passion for food and for supporting his community. The lifelong cook is also a youth mentor and culinary educator, well-known pop-up event creator, and community visionary. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s teamed up with other local restaurant owners to form a collective that’s serving people free meals throughout Southeast Seattle . Read more about Chef Tarik’s background and work in this Seattle Refined story or watch him on this KING5 feature.

Before the COVID-19 crisis

Chef Tarik in the kitchen with children.
Cooka T in his element with the kids | Photo and video by Jessica Rycheal

Chef Tarik has been hosting pop ups in Seattle since 2014. Before the virus struck, he was “right in process of unveiling my new junior culinary program.” He notes that “Pop ups work as a classroom; you get inquiries from kids that want to cook. So I wanted to start that.” For more than two decades, he has been working with kids and providing mentoring and opportunities. His deep commitment to youth follows from his father’s example: “I took my father’s footsteps and moved forward.” His plan for the culinary program is on hold, at least for now, because of COVID-19.

Response to the Pandemic

Creative takeout meal Chef T made
One of the creative takeout meals Chef Tarik made recently | Photo courtesy of Tarik Abdullah

Yet Chef Tarik hasn’t let that stop his inspirational work in the community. He explains that about a week after the pandemic started, he partnered up with a group of other local chefs and restaurants — including Kristi Brown (That Brown Girl Cooks), Melissa Miranda (Musang), Cam Hanin (Guerilla Pizza Kitchen), Geo Quibuyen and Chera Amlag (Hood Famous Bakeshop), and Guitar (Sugar Hill)  – to form the kitchen collective. Their goal is to provide “prepared meals and donated food that we give out to the public for those in need – no cost and no questions asked.” You can read more about this inspiring effort in a recent Eater Seattle feature.

Looking out the window of Soulful Dishes
Soulful Dishes has provided space for Chef Tarik’s Feed the People initiative | Photo courtesy of Tarik Abdullah

Each day, Chef Tarik can be found cooking out of Jimaine Miller’s Soulful Dishes kitchen at 1800 E Yesler Way, across the street from Tiny Village, where “they don’t usually get hot food.” He says his choice of locations was partly influenced by the fact that there was “no other representation by community kitchen participants in the CD, and so there was a clear need.” He says “the biggest challenge for me was getting the kitchen and space set up” in order to provide free meals for walk-ups, while Jimaine (aka Def Chef) also provided takeout for traditional customers.

They figured it out so that Chef Tarik now has a warmer set up outside the restaurant “so people can just walk up and get a meal from me.” In addition to serving takeout meals from the restaurant, Jimaine also provides a lunch program for kids. The partnership is working well.

The day-to-day

Photo of Jimaine Miller's kitchen with pots, pans, ovens, and prep surfaces.
Jimaine Miller’s kitchen set up for the day’s work | Photo courtesy of Tarik Abdullah

Chef Tarik starts work at 6 or 7 a.m. and doesn’t leave until about 8 p.m. He opens at 10 a.m. for breakfast then switches to lunch meals at noon. He says he’s cooking and serving 85-100 meals each day, Monday through Friday, from 10-6 “provided we don’t sell out.” He makes up “all the hot food in warmers, scoops, puts a lid on it, and it’s out the door. Nothing is cold. We’re serving anyone who needs food; [all they have to do is] call or walk up to the door.”

Chef Tarik explains that every day is a new culinary adventure. He’s receiving donations for this effort from “restaurants, other chefs, neighbors and locals, food banks,” and a variety of other sources He never knows exactly what he’ll be cooking for the day because it depends on what has arrived. He notes “it’s like ‘Chopped’ – hmm, what are we going to do today? What are we going to do with this? It’s like a dream!”

Plates and bowls of food
A few of the innovative dishes Chef Tarik has served | Photo courtesy of Tarik Abdullah

He loves the variety and the unexpected opportunities to be creative. On Thursday, he had just received a large donation of apples and oranges and was imagining what he might do with them during our interview. “Maybe hand pies,” he mused. The most creative recent thing he remembered making was a “cinnamon croissant bread pudding with strawberry compote, coconut yogurt, and jasmine caramel — with fried plantain chips on top.”

What’s next

Chef T in the kitchen starting work
Each new day provides new opportunities for Chef Tarik | Photo courtesy of Tarik Abdullah

While he’s working longer hours than before the pandemic struck, Chef Tarik notes that the challenges created by the current situation have provided real growth opportunities. He’s morphed from being a “pop up guy to running a restaurant” in the course of a few weeks. Among other options, forming the collective has opened the door to doing more food policy work in the future. He also imagines what else he might do with the skills he’s developing, explaining “I can stick to all this or I can start my program and open up a space. The culinary program for kids is still my dream.”

For now, Chef Tarik will carry on cooking and serving hot food, while also working to ensure that they receive the 600 pounds of weekly food donations they need to continue serving 100 meals a day. Reflecting on a takeaway message he’d like to give the community, he says, “Thank you to every single restaurant and everyone that’s donated: financially and non-financially. I’m glad everyone came together to help each other out. This is a beautiful thing to see so many of us on the same page.”

To donate to his work or to order food, you can reach Chef Tarik through his website or by phone (206) 605-0159.