Hadiya Pendleton.

Laura Washington: Grieving father serves food to soothe the soul

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His food is his comfort.

In 2013, Nathaniel Pendleton lost his daughter in a horrific shooting. Young men shot at a group of teens in a Kenwood park. Hadiya Pendleton, 15, was killed. Her murder came a week after she had traveled to Washington to perform at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

Pendleton and his wife, Cleopatra, could have curled up in despair.

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Instead, they have spoken at countless meetings and rallies, lobbied on Capitol Hill, and traveled the nation to push for gun control and anti-violence initiatives.

Pendleton, a native of Chicago’s Southeast Side, has also lost two step brothers and a nephew to gun violence.

Yet, Chicago’s street carnage continues unabated.

So Pendleton has turned to food. On Jan. 29, the third anniversary of Hadiya’s death, he opened his first restaurant, “The New Look-The Next Level,” at 2544 E 83rd Street.

I met him there on a recent morning.

Why a restaurant?

“Well, that was my dream,” he replied. “I’ve always loved cooking. I have been cooking since I was 7 years old.”

Pendleton, 45, attended culinary school to polish his skills. He has worked in some of the city’s best restaurants, he says, and “I have gotten pretty good at what I do.”

So, time for a New Look. Beaming, he showed off the space. The storefront window is decorated with a vintage “Open” sign in pink neon and a martini glass. The furnishings are plush, and vivid paintings adorn the walls.

He wants a safe, celebratory, community place where he can elevate soul food, the comfort food of black folk.

“I just wanted to try to make soul food a fine-dining sort of a cuisine. Like every other nationality has done. You can do to a fine-dining French, you can go to a fine-dining Italian, everywhere, but … you cannot really find a fine-dining soul food place.”

That means white table cloths. That means his creamy macaroni and cheese (Hadiya’s favorite).

And his signature dish, “Soul Tower.” It’s a layer of moist cornbread, stacked in collard greens, mac-and-cheese, savory meatloaf, topped off with a dollop of candied yams, and flavored with a caramelized sugar “sopping sauce.”

The New Look is Pendleton’s way of addressing Chicago’s festering violence through neighborhood opportunity.

“I went to tons of meetings with the city and all of that. And I stopped going,” he said.

“I’d rather take action. I’m grass roots, I’m here, and I do hire from the community.”

All is not peaches and cream. Like most African-American entrepreneurs in challenged neighborhoods, Pendleton must fight negative perceptions about crime, he says.

Some young people don’t want to do what it takes to get a job, Pendleton says. Others lack basic skills.

“You have some kids that don’t know how to read. I had a guy here that was working here, this guy could not count or read. He could not count or read. It just blew me.”

The man had been in prison for 20 years. For murder.

“I did work with him,” Pendleton went on. “But he couldn’t understand the payment dates, he could not understand that, ‘yeah you gotta work, like, 2 to 3 weeks before you get your check.’ He couldn’t understand that. …So he ended up leaving.”

Pendleton will hang in there. For Hadiya. “She is going to come with me, wherever I go. I loved cooking for my family, so I just made a transition. She’s still here.”

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