Coworker Corner: Kenneth Banks

Coworker Corner: Kenneth Banks

Food does more than revitalize our bodies; it can boost our morale or put us in a sour mood. Fortunately, at Mercy Home we have the some of the finest chefs in Chicago who provide our coworkers and kids with healthy and filling food options for all types of taste buds.

Not only do our chefs prepare savory meals throughout the week—they cook every meal with love.

You might have seen our new Kitchen Manager and chef extraordinaire, Kenneth Banks, cooking and serving mouthwatering dishes and scrumptious desserts for our coworkers and kids.

“I love being a kitchen manager,” Banks said. “I love accountability and responsibility when it comes to food.”

But it’s more than a one man show. He’s got a fabulous team of talented chefs that play an important role in ensuring the food is prepared and cooked to perfection. Raul Lara, Carmen Aviles, Maria Barragan, Teresa Rodriguez, and three of our kids who are employed in the kitchen make up the team that keeps our young people and coworkers well-fed at the West Loop Campus.

I love accountability and responsibility when it comes to food.

Chicago prides itself as a mecca for foodies and a prime spot for prolific chefs to showcase their skills. And it’s where Banks discovered his God-given culinary gifts. But this discovery didn’t come right away. Banks always had a larger-than-life imagination and loved to build toy cities, communities for his Hot Wheels cars, and houses for his GI Joes.

“As a kid, I always had the biggest imagination out of everyone,” Banks remembered. “Whatever we were doing, I had to be the best.”

Like many kids would often do to pass the time, Banks would make mud pies in his yard. But he didn’t know that one day it would lead to a career as a chef.

Cooking skills run in Banks’s family. His grandma was an award-winning caterer in Chicago. At nine years old, he got his first introduction to cooking from his grandma and mother. While his siblings were playing, Banks was in the kitchen learning the art of cooking.

“[I learned from my grandma that] it was all about cooking with love,” he said.

“You can cook all you want, but if there’s not any love in it, you can see and taste food that doesn’t have love in it. When you have love, it gives a little more detail to the food. It makes it feel like you’re not cooking.”

The following year, Banks’s interest in cooking began to blossom. His family did not have a lot of money and sometimes groceries were scarce. But that didn’t stop Banks from cooking a breakfast feast for his family on Saturday morning.

“I woke up and said, ‘I’m going to cook breakfast for everybody,’” Banks remembered. “My mom thought the house was on fire, and she came, and it was a beautiful spread. Pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, and grits. I think I cooked everything in the kitchen.”

From then on, Banks fell in love with cooking, and he wanted to be the best cook he could be.

When he was in sixth grade, during a home economics class they were tasked to bake a 7UP cake. But Banks already knew how to make one. His teacher was impressed, and from then on, his love for cooking only grew.

By the time he was an adult, Banks worked as chef for St. Leonard’s Ministries in Chicago for over two years. It’s an organization that helped former imprisoned people get back on their feet. Banks played a role in teaching the residents how to cook various meals.

“We taught them how to cook,” Banks said. “It was so rewarding to know that they can cook for themselves instead of buying stuff in a restaurant.”

After working at St. Leonard’s for over two years Banks decided to work in the place where his three siblings had lived—Mercy Home for Boys & Girls.

But just before accepting the job, he was struck by tragedy. His sister was sadly killed. And he was in a car accident. To make matters worse he was battling with the stark reality of his own mortality. In 2019, Banks was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The doctor gave him a fifty percent chance of living. And he had every reason to lose hope in life. But his faith carried him through the storm.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life,” Banks said. “But for me, it’s about trusting God, believing in the word of God. Those things help me to deal with life’s problems.

“I have a motto. All is well.”

And no matter what, Banks still finds time to be grateful for his life and spread hope and joy to all the people he meets. 

I’m a mentor because sometimes people need to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“I’m always happy about life because there were so many times that I could have been gone,” Banks said. “But there is still a purpose for my life.”

Banks receives check-ups every six months to make sure his cancer hasn’t returned. He also tries to live a healthy lifestyle. At his home, he grows fruits and vegetables in his backyard. He’s got an impressive spread of carrots, zucchini, onions, potatoes, berries, and lots more.

Additionally, he is a member of the American Cancer Society and mentors people who have cancer. He’s also a part-time minister.

“I’m a mentor because sometimes people need to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Banks said.

Today, you can see Banks in the West Loop Campus cafeteria, giving everyone a heartfelt smile as they prepare to eat a delicious meal.

“I do not allow [my struggles] to define who I am,” Banks said. “I’m going to always still come to work with a smile on my face because a smile is so much easier than a frown.”

Banks and his team bring many smiles and oohs and ahhs on people’s faces by the delectable meals they make.

Banks loves to put a creative spin on the food and give it extra flavor. But maintaining good health, safety, sanitation, and leading by example are his top priorities.

To add to his qualifications, he’s a certified dietitian and makes sure that our coworkers and kids are getting the proper nutrition and calories.

“We try to do 2,200 calories for the men, 1,800 for the women, and around 2,000 for the kids,” Banks said. “We try to balance out throughout the week. My goal is for them to have 10,000 calories per week.”

Mirela Toncheva has been working at Mercy Home for eight months and loves eating lunch in the cafeteria.

“Since Kenny has started working for Mercy Home, the food has been really delicious,” Toncheva said. “There’s a lot of variety, and I like that there’s a protein, a carb, and a vegetable in every meal. All the meals are nutritious and really good.”

We are grateful for Banks and our kitchen coworkers for their tremendous work and tireless effort to feed our coworkers and kids so we can feel good and perform at our optimal level.

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