Before Stephanie Izard and Grant Achatz, Jackie Shen reigned as one of Chicago’s most celebrated chefs. Hailed as the “Queen of Fusion” for her effortless blend of French and Chinese cuisines, Shen was handpicked by Mayor Daley to cook for the president of China when he came to visit Chicago.
A long-time rescuer and animal lover, Shen approached Chicago’s Animal Care and Control (CACC) a decade ago with a novel idea: a yearly, chef-driven gala to raise funds for Friends of Chicago Animal Care and Control (FCACC), a non-profit volunteer group that helps CACC handle the 23,000 animals that come through its doors every year, by supporting adoptions, veterinary care, and foster services.
The gala, known as the Big Night event, was originally held at the CACC but is now hosted annually at the Chicago Cultural Center. Acclaimed chefs from restaurants all over the city come together to share their talents and raise money for homeless animals. In its first year the event raised $35,000. Last year the grand total was $80,000.
Shen has since moved to the other side of the lake, ditching the bright lights of the city for the starry skies of New Buffalo, Michigan. But there is one night a year you are guaranteed to see her back in Chicago––the evening of the FCACC’s Big Night.
We talked with Shen to learn more about why she left the big city, and the animals in her life who helped inspire her to make a difference.
TAILS: Tell us about your pets.
Jackie Shen: I have two cats and a dog. Monet, who I adopted from CACC twelve years ago, is a mix of Black Lab, German Shepherd, and Chow. He’s a very smart guy. I used to have Bubba, a Tabby, also from CACC, who passed away in September of last year. I have two other cats—Mow and Tutu––that I adopted after my co-worker found them a few years ago in the garbage can.
What made you decide to rescue? Did you grow up with pets?
I had no pets when I grew up. When I settled in a job and in a home, I wanted to adopt a dog, and then I just happened to come across Luke—my first Black Lab—through a newspaper article. He was with me for twelve years before he went to doggie heaven.
After Luke passed away, my vet at Blum [Animal Hospital] called and said there was a dog dropped off because the owner couldn’t take care of him, so I adopted him. His name was Iko, and he was ten when I brought him home. I was able to have him for four years before he passed away. Then the house was really empty and quiet, so one day I just got up and said, “Let’s go to CACC,” and I found Monet.
As a chef, you have a crazy hectic schedule. How do you manage that with being a pet parent?
A good, reliable dog walker.
Do your animals sometimes seem sad that you are gone so much?
I think they kind of miss me, especially Monet. I don’t think the cats do as much because they have each other for companions, but Monet misses me because I talk to him and I walk him when I get home and that kind of stuff. When I come home, the first thing they all do is look at me to get their treats. I think they probably miss the treats more than they miss me!
As a chef, do you cook your pets meals from scratch and/or spoil them with good food?
None of my animals eat human food. They get special treats from the pet store, but no human food.
It must be hard for them– I’m sure things are always smelling really good.
I don’t cook at home, so they don’t miss anything.
You don’t like to cook when you are off-duty?
Exactly. I don’t need to come home and cook and wash dishes and pots and pans. When I get home I usually just read a book and look at some recipes for the next day…I don’t do much cooking at all.
You had a lot of success with your culinary career in Chicago. What made you decide to leave Chicago and go to New Buffalo?
I needed a change of scenery. How many places do you hear birds singing all the time? I walk about nine blocks to work every day, and when I go in the morning at 3:30 or 4 a.m. I see the stars, and then at about 5:30 a.m. I see the sun come up. There aren’t that many restaurants in Chicago that have all that luxury—the birds, the sky, the moon, and the stars.