After 30-plus years of baking for family and friends, Lorraine Shanks was starting to think about sharing her coconut-pineapple cake and other creations with paying customers. So it felt like fate when Ben Miller of South Philly Barbacoa came to tour Father Divine’s Library and Museum in Gladwyne, where Shanks spends much of her time. They got to talking and Miller, who, with his wife, chef Cristina Martinez, is one of Philly’s great community-builders, asked Shanks if she wanted to sell her desserts at their acclaimed Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia’s Italian Market. The fledgling collaboration was put on hold when the pandemic hit, but now Shanks is heading back to South Philly Barbacoa next week to kick off a series of guest chef pop-ups. Since the restaurant serves its signature barbacoa tacos on weekends only, its kitchen is a prime spot for chef takeovers during the week.
“When I first met Benjamin, he said, ‘when you’re ready, I’ll help you out in any way. And he’s certainly a man of his word. It’s wonderful when things are divinely done,” says Shanks, who balances baking with her work as a volunteer archivist sorting through tens of thousands of documents of the International Peace Mission Movement, the faith started by civil rights leader Father Divine that five generations of Shanks’s family has followed (the storied Divine Lorraine building on North Broad, which was the first racially integrated hotel in the city, is why many Philadelphians have heard of Father Divine).
“Benjamin and Cristina, they’re like magnets,” Shanks says. “They draw like-minded people to them, like-minded souls.”
Chefs Joy Parham and Gary McCoy, who will serve Southern dishes at their South Philly Barbacoa pop-up, are two of those like-minded people. Throughout the pandemic, the married couple has been volunteering at the People’s Kitchen, a mutual aid organization led by South Philly Barbacoa and the 215 People’s Alliance. It operates out of Miller and Martinez’s former restaurant El Compadre, serving 200 free meals a day made by a rotating lineup of chefs, with help from students at the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program. Philly chef Aziza Young started what became the People’s Kitchen back in April, and brought in Parham and McCoy.
“Aziza started it to give back to people in need, and it turned into a bigger collaborative effort,” says Parham, a former culinary arts high school teacher and Hell’s Kitchen contestant who now runs catering company Urban Country with McCoy. “We were looking for a way to get out of the house, so we starting volunteering, and it shifted into more of a mentoring thing. Working with the students gives you another reason to keep coming back.”
They aren’t the only People’s Kitchen volunteers prepping for a South Philly Barbacoa pop-up. Mani Thillai cooks at the People’s Kitchen weekly, using it as an opportunity to make his south Indian dishes in a city without many restaurants representing that region. The chef honed his skills at culinary school in Tamil Nadu, but says most of his inspiration comes from watching his father cook to feed people experiencing homelessness. He originally met Miller and Martinez at a charity food event.
South Philly native Malik Ali plans to take on a shift at People’s Kitchen too, though he already has his hands full as the event logistics director of Everybody Eats, a series of food drives put together by Ali, Aziza Young, and other local chefs with a mission of leading the community in the fight against hunger. Ali has cooked at South Philly Barbacoa a few times before, selling the soul food he first learned to make while helping out his mother in the kitchen — with 13 siblings in the house, there was a lot of food to prepare.
Cambodian-American chef Sophina Uong, who’s heading to South Philly Barbacoa with her husband, William “Wildcat” Greenwell, has a longer trek: They’re driving up from New Orleans, where they’re in the process of opening Mister Mao. Uong first starting talking to Miller on Instagram.
“I was joking with Ben about coming out in October and things just kind of went from there,” says Uong, who describes her culinary style as “super eclectic, mostly spicy ethnic adventures.” Along with the pop-up, she’ll be volunteering at the People’s Kitchen while in town.
“We miss cooking at charitable events where you get to make new friendships,” Uong says. “We miss everything about hospitality, and we’re super excited to cook in the People’s Kitchen while we are there. Cristina and Ben are rock stars — their mission is incredible.”
Below is the full lineup of South Philly Barbacoa pop-ups. To view menus and details on how to order, follow the chefs on Instagram. To donate to the People’s Kitchen or find out how you can get involved, go here.
The week of October 5: Lorraine Shanks
The week of October 12: Sophina Uong
The week of October 19: Mani Thillai
The week of November 2: Malik Ali