A conversation with Evelyn Shelton is like multiple master classes rolled into one. “You can do anything you want, at any point,” says Shelton, chef-owner of Evelyn’s Food Love. She means it sincerely and her work is her testimony. In May, Evelyn’s Food Love will celebrate its second anniversary, an achievement many years in the making.
Growing up Shelton knew she would open a restaurant. “I always thought I would open a jazz supper club with a big band where people would have to dress up, and we’d have this really shi shi foo foo menu, and it would be this great time; a big party every night.” Evelyn’s Food Love, while not a jazz supper club, is a cozy spot with a special rhythm of its own.
The restaurant is located on State Street, a major artery that stretches from Lincoln Park on Chicago’s North Side, through the heart of the Loop, and runs 30 miles south of Washington Park where Evelyn’s Food Love lives. Its menu is full of variety, focusing on fresh food made from scratch — it’s the way Shelton has known her entire life. “My parents were both raised on farms, so I knew what really good food should taste like and understood the concept of deep organic farming before there was really a term for it. I’ve always cooked from scratch.”
Shelton elevates comfort food favorites with dishes like wine-braised ox tails and roasted cornish hens while still remaining approachable. “Of course being on the South Side you have to have some chicken wings. It’s a must! You’ll get kicked off the South Side if you don’t have some chicken wings,” Shelton jokes.
Evelyn’s Food Love serves soul food, but only on Sundays — an intentional move by Shelton. “People ask ‘Why only once a week?’ For the same reasons you only do it on Thanksgiving, because it’s a lot of work. You do it once a year and you want me to do it every day?” Shelton elaborates, “Because every Saturday we peel 40 pounds of sweet potatoes and we roast them in the oven on Sunday, and then we mash them or do whatever so you can have fresh sweet potatoes.”
The hospitality veteran left a 20-year long career at Northwestern Hospital to follow her dreams of attending culinary school and enrolled in an accelerated program for students with at least a Bachelor’s degree, Shelton already had a Master’s. “I loved culinary school so much,” Shelton says with a smile. She only missed two days of class including the day when she was en route but got stuck in gridlock — President Obama was home. Culinary school touched Shelton to the core. “I cried when I left. The experience, the sights, the sounds the smells,” she says fondly.
Before becoming a restaurant owner, Shelton knew she wanted to serve more than food. “I wanted to open in an underserved community because when I was a kid everything in our community was black-owned. We didn’t have to go outside of the neighborhood for anything. We recirculated our dollars probably ten times over.”
Shelton is literally invested in her community. She not only owns her restaurant but the building, too. It’s a strategic move Shelton made knowing the risks of restaurant ownership. “I wanted something we could purchase because real estate is an investment. I remember thinking, ‘Okay, if this doesn’t go exactly the way I think then I don’t want to put $200k into somebody else’s place. I can sell and get most of my money back.’” And Shelton’s team reflects the community she serves. “If we don’t get back to opening businesses in our community, and hiring people in our community, and supporting each other in our community, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know when we became afraid to work in our community and hire from our community because certainly there are other ethnicities that are not afraid.”
As Evelyn’s Food love continues to grow, Shelton is embracing new tools such as UberEats for delivery and new opportunities like cooking with cannabis — an area she’s open to exploring. “Canna-butter, canna-buffet [where we] sauté everything in cannabis butter because we already make herb butter and it’s really good. We’ve suffered in our community with marijuana. Going to jail, facing harsh sentences. And now everyone gets to benefit from it. Everybody needs to get a little piece of it.”
A second Evelyn’s Food Love has recently opened in McCormick Place, the largest convention center in America, giving visitors from around the globe the chance to taste what Evelyn’s Food Love is all about.